Niko Sissamis and Niko’s Steakhouse: three generations of a strong and successful family legacy in Corpus Christi
By: Dayna Worchel
Photos by: William Russell
Niko Sissamis is a modest man. He has tears in his eyes when he remembers the enormous sacrifices his grandfather and family made and the courage they showed when they journeyed from their home on the Greek island of Karpathos to start a new life in America. Grandfather Louis Sissamis came in 1939, before the start of World War II. Dad Paul Sissamis came over at the end of the war.
The successful owner of Niko’s Steakhouse on Saratoga Boulevard for the past 11 years recalls the hard work and determination of his grandfather, “Papa Louie” Sissamis, his dad, Paul, Uncle Bill and Aunt Anastacia Sissamis as they gave up everything to learn a new language and a new business in the hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families. He credits the work ethic of his father, his grandfather, his uncle and his aunt in helping him become the success he is today.
“They are truly the heroes of our family,” he said. He also praises his hardworking restaurant staff for allowing him to juggle fatherhood and church volunteer work with the 70-hour workweeks he puts in at Niko’s Steakhouse.
His steakhouse comes from a strong and successful family legacy in the restaurant business that goes back three generations in Corpus Christi, starting with the Hasty Tasty diner opened at the corner of Leopard Street and Port Avenue by Louis Sissamis and Louis’ brother-in-law. They later opened a second Hasty Tasty location.
The financial success of these restaurants enabled Louis to slowly bring his family over from Karpathos, one by one. Eventually, Louis Sissamis sold out his partnerships in the Hasty Tasty to venture into the steakhouse concept in 1957. He built The Astor Restaurant that year, with his children, Paul, Bill and Anastacia, and it still operates today.
It was Louis Sissamis who first came to the United States shortly before the outbreak of World War II. He came through Ellis Island in New York and left his wife and three children behind in search of a better life. But once the war began, there was no way to communicate with his family because there was no mail or phone service in Karpathos, Niko Sissamis said.
“My dad, Paul, when he was 12, dropped out of school to support the family,” he said. “It was very hard times. They weren’t in tune with the world. They lived in a small village in Karpathos, an island of Greece.”
He recently made a visit back to the house in Karpathos where his dad grew up. “It would bring tears to your eyes. They all lived in what amounts to a 10’ by 10’ room,” Niko Sissamis said.
After Germany conquered Greece during the war, Paul Sissamis had to chop wood for the Germans in Karpathos all day to earn one loaf of bread to bring home afterward as payment. “They would all share it. My father would often not eat so others in the village could,” Niko Sissamis said.
When Paul Sissamis turned 18, he decided the time was right to go to America and look for his father, who was already settled in Corpus Christi. After the war ended, Louis Sissamis started sending money once again to his family to let them know he was alive and well in Corpus Christi.
But the journey to the United States was full of challenges for young Paul Sissamis from the beginning. “When he got to Athens, they wouldn’t let him board the ship because he didn’t have any shoes, nor had he ever owned a pair,” Niko Sissamis said.
So Paul Sissamis, who was too poor to afford to buy shoes, went back to the island and borrowed a pair from a cousin. He boarded the ship and made the trip, where he too landed at Ellis Island, not speaking a word of English. “He walked through the streets of New York until he found someone who spoke Greek, and then he found a job washing dishes at a restaurant there,” Niko Sissamis said. With his first paycheck, Paul cleaned up his borrowed shoes and sent them back to his cousin in Karpathos.
Paul Sissamis worked his way up through the ranks at the New York restaurant from dishwasher to manager. A successful string of family-owned restaurants in Corpus Christi has followed ever since. Niko Sissamis also co-owns The Ol’ Steakhouse Company on Alameda with his cousin. His brother, Bill Sissamis, also owns and operates the very successful and award-winning Silverado Smokehouse.
Niko earned a bachelor’s degree in finance with a minor in accounting from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Earning that degree was a promise he made to his dad, Paul Sissamis, after he expressed an interest in going into the restaurant business as a child.
“My father knew I wanted to be in the restaurant business, and he wasn’t very happy about it,” Niko Sissamis said. “I remember we talked about it. I was getting ready to graduate from high school. He asked me what I was going to pursue after college.”
When he said he wanted to go into the restaurant business, his dad tried to discourage him because of the long hours and very hard work involved. But Niko Sissamis wouldn’t be discouraged. He and his six siblings had grown up working in the restaurant. “And cooking is my passion,” Niko Sissamis said, adding that, “there is no success without stress.”
Balancing a job as a restaurant owner while married and raising sons, ages 3 months and 2 years, is not easy. His wife, Shermane, is taking a break from teaching calculus and pre-calculus at St. John Paul II High School to be home with the boys. “My wife has been very supportive. A lot of the credit goes to her. There is a lot of truth to the saying behind every successful man is a strong woman,” Niko Sissamis says. He also serves as board president of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the same position once held by his father.
Niko Sissamis also credits a long-tenured and hardworking staff for helping him with being successful. He has several managers who have worked with him for more than 20 years. And there are more than 100 people who work with him at Niko’s Steakhouse. “I can juggle a lot, and I am very blessed because of them,” he said. “My staff deserves a lot of the credit.”
The now 45-year-old Niko says he has been blessed to be able to take everything he has learned over the years from his family and chefs who have worked for him from all over the world and apply it in his steakhouse.
“We make everything from scratch, from the salad dressings to the desserts included our sauces and rubs,” he said. “Our steaks have the biggest rapport with our guests. This is due to the quality of meat and our 60-year secret family steak recipe.”
There are always new seasonal specials on the menu. “Our best-selling entrees are the Black & Blue Ribeye and the Seared Ahi Tuna,” he said. He recently added Tropical Chipotle Fish Tacos with grilled Mahi Mahi and homemade mango salsa as a permanent menu item at the request of customers after it had been featured as a special.
There are some plans in the works to remodel his restaurant in 2017 The seating capacity will stay the same, but he said he will rework the dining room to accommodate guests more comfortably and give it a fresher look. “Despite the hard work and the long hours, it’s all been worth it,” he said. “God has blessed me with a beautiful family, wonderful crew and tons of knowledge and wisdom.”
Niko Sissamis said he would probably be utilizing his finance degree working in a bank if he had decided not to go into the restaurant business. “If you want to be successful, then you have to work hard. It’s been nice, but it has not been easy,” he said.
But he insists emphatically that his relatives who made the daring and brave journey across the ocean all those years ago who are the true heroes. “They were humble people who came from very limited means to a country they did not know,” he said.
For more information on Niko’s Steakhouse, visit www.nikossteakhouse.com.