The Karas family offers a fresh start for Sunrise Cafe and
brings in new customers
– while keeping the old ones
Gilroy – Charles Jackson has been coming to the Sunrise Cafe for the past 15 years. He eats twice a month at the Monterey Road restaurant. His daughter used to be a waitress years ago when Young Kim was the owner. But for a period of time after she left, he stopped going altogether.
“The place really deteriorated,” he said. “I don’t know who owned the place, but it got real bad. But then I saw the sign change and I figured new ownership.”
Now, when you walk into Sunrise Cafe on a weekend morning you will likely see owners John and Sinie Karas sitting in a booth chatting with some of the regulars, and their daughter, Maria, selling candy from behind the counter. The smell of Karas’s famous five-egg omelets and bacon wafts through the air.
The Karas’s knew little of the restaurant’s history and never met the previous owners.
They couldn’t have.
Kyung Kim was in jail awaiting trial for allegedly paying the husband of a waitress at Gavilan Restaurant to kill her husband, Young Kim, Nov. 13, 1998. Their marriage was laced with infidelities and violence – the result of an arranged marriage gone bitter. Kim’s body has never been found.
In June 2004, Kyung Kim was acquitted of murder despite a conviction of the man police believed she hired to kill her husband.
The Gavilan Restaurant was financially run into the ground after Kim’s disappearance and offered up for sale, which is how the Karas’s purchased the place.
The couple has owned the restaurant since July 22, 2002. Some of the regulars are of the same crowd who first ate at the site when it opened as Sambo’s in 1966.
“After three years, we know everyone,” Sinie said with a thick Greek accent.
The couple moved to Gilroy from San Jose for a change of pace to raise their young daughter. They had nine years of experience owning and operating an upscale continental restaurant in San Jose called the Rose Garden and decided they wanted to try something smaller. A broker contacted them about a restaurant for sale in Gilroy called The Little House, formerly Gavilan Restaurant.
Now, on a weekly basis, customers come in and do not realize it has changed hands since the Kims owned it, Karas said.
When the Karas’s took over, they breathed new life into the space and redid everything. Maria renamed the restaurant The Sunrise Cafe. The menu was changed, the carpets stripped, the bathrooms renovated, the walls painted.
John Karas has been in the restaurant business for almost 40 years; as a chef at the Pinehurst Inn in San Francisco and The Flame in San Jose.
“I’m trying to pass what I have learned down to our restaurant,” he said.
The ingredients are all fresh. The soups and meat sauces Karas makes every morning to taste. The olive oil used in the dishes comes straight from Karas’s olive orchards in Kalamata, Greece.
The atmosphere of the restaurant has been altered as well as the interior color scheme.
“If both my wife and my daughter are not at the restaurant, it changes the character quite a bit,” Karas said.
Karas courted Sinie from across the Atlantic after knowing her two weeks. He called her three times a day before finally sending a cousin to Greece with an engagement ring for her.
Every morning, Sinie wakes up at 4:30am to help her husband dress for work. After he was diagnosed with a disease that causes paralysis in parts of his body, Sinie must help John put his shoes on and makes his coffee so he can be out the door by five.
He stands at the register, methodically counting change with one hand, the other – paralyzed from the disease – rests close to his side.
Karas works long hours at the restaurant, coming home after 9pm regularly. But they are happy. And Maria is happy.
From day one, the 13-year-old has been involved, whether working at the cash register, waiting tables or running the candy store – Maria knows firsthand that the business is hard work – and enjoyable work.
“They welcome me like family,” Maria said.
The Karas’s are on a first name basis with most customers.
Ben Swindler, 64, has been a patron for the past 36 years. He comes almost everyday – sometimes twice – once in the morning and once after work.
“There’s a lot of people that come in here that have been coming here for a lot of years,” he said.
He’s witnessed the changes. He knows the story of the 1998 disappearance of Young and it didn’t deter him from coming back.
“They’re good people,” he said of the Karas’s. “They give good food and a lot of it.”
Just the other day a customer returned with a copy of a 1971 school newspaper after learning he attended Karas’ rival high school. A photograph of Karas playing soccer was in the issue.
“We need the restaurant. We need the people,” Sinie said. “We have very good customers. They care, I think, for us – and we care for them.”
Much of the English Sinie has acquired since moving from Greece 15 years ago has been through the customers. She listens to conversations, often stopping her daughter to ask, “What does that mean?”
And it’s the conversations that keep Karas looking forward to each day when he flips the lights on when it’s still dark outside.
“Every single day you learn and discover news. I talk a lot with the people, especially at the counter. It’s a learning process,” Karas said. “Every time I see the sun come up, I think, it’s going to be a wonderful day.”
Statistics indicate the restaurant business is a risky one. Nearly 80 percent of restaurants fold in their first year, and 50 percent in their second year.
But Sunrise Cafe, in its third year, has been steadily growing every day by word of mouth.
“This is our family,” Karas said gesturing to the dining room of the restaurant. “If you offer a clean plate and a good meal – (customers) will find you. If you build it – they will come. This restaurant is like our little field of dreams.”