Kevin Riordan: Voorhees' Country Club Diner was a piece of the American Dream

Harry Kokolis celebrates at the Country Club Diner in Voorhees. He and his brothers have closed the diner, which they bought in 1961.
Harry Kokolis celebrates at the Country Club Diner in Voorhees. He and his brothers have closed the diner, which they bought in 1961. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 07, 2011

Were it not for an earthquake and a coup d'etat in Greece, Christos, Spiro, Nick, and Harry Kokolis might never have immigrated to the United States.

And without a "diner for sale" advertisement in this newspaper, the four brothers might not have settled in South Jersey, where they built new lives, livelihoods, and families on the suburban frontier, starting in 1961.

Having spent time with members of this lively and loving clan as they prepared to close their Country Club Diner in Voorhees on Sunday, I'm confident the Kokolis dynasty will continue to flourish.

"We are a fine example of the American Dream," said Harry, at 77 the youngest of the partners. "We have lived the dream in all its fullness."

Hard work and long hours enabled the family to create a quintessentially American institution - a roadside diner - that thrived for a half-century despite ever-changing competition.

Not bad for a bunch of olive growers from Kefalonia who came here, speaking no English, from an island wracked by earthquakes in a nation ravaged by economic and political turmoil.

"We came here for a better life," said Christos, 86. In 1955, he and Spiro arrived in Philadelphia, where their uncle had a restaurant.

They began as dishwashers, learning the business and saving their money. In 1961, they bought what was then Harry's Country Club Diner on Haddonfield-Berlin Road at White Horse Road, in up-and-coming area that was still mostly farms.

Their brothers - Nick came in the late 1960s, Harry in 1975 - eventually joined them. And all four married young women from Greece, raising a total of 12 children and so deeply immersing them in their heritage that all can speak Greek.

The brothers also taught their children the business, the girls working the front of the diner, as hostesses and waitresses, and the boys in the back, washing dishes and chopping vegetables.

"My first job was at 13, breading cutlets," said Nick's son Alex, 32, a Medford resident who is a product manager for a financial services company.

Until the 1980s, the Country Club was open 24/7. The building expanded as the suburbs blossomed and offered not only great cheesecake, but a home away from home for the brothers and their families.

"This was our life," said Spiro's son Gerry, a 43-year-old father of two who lives in Berlin Borough. "The cousins worked here through grade school and high school and even college."

(I'm the oldest of six, and I love my brothers and sisters. But the notion of living and working with my entire Irish Catholic family is, well, unimaginable. The occasional meal together is complicated enough.)

"The diner put us all through school," said another of Spiro's sons, Gus, a 41-year-old Voorhees resident and father of three who is a mechanical engineer.

Among the cousins, only Nick's son, also named Gerry, worked professionally at the Country Club until the end. He was the chef.

"It's the only job I've ever had," said the 42-year-old Cherry Hill resident and father of two. "I have family connections in the diner business and the Greek community, so I'll find something.

"A lot of diner families, after so many years in the business, bicker and fight and don't talk," he said. "But this family? Nothing like that."

The diner business has become tougher as chain restaurants have proliferated.

"People want franchise food loaded with sodium," Gerry said. "And you can't compete with a place that has a liquor license and big-screen TVs and deep corporate pockets."

Through a "mutual decision," the brothers - three of whom live on the same Cherry Hill block - decided to close the business, Harry said, adding that plans for the property were in the works.

"There's going to be a huge void, driving by and knowing that the diner is no longer here," Gus said. "It was here before me."

"It was here before all of us," his cousin Stamo said.

But their fathers have put in enough time, said their cousin Christine Bailey, a clinical research scientist from Blue Bell.

"It will be sad for me losing the place," said Bailey, Christos' daughter. "But I'm happy to finally see my dad retired - 86 years old, and he's finally retiring."


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.

 

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