Living History

True Grit
Tom Klemis continues running family diner that is a Tech institution

In October 1993, when the wrecking ball demolished the old Junior's Grill at the corner of Techwood Drive and North Avenue, owner Tom Klemis thought that was the end of what had become a Georgia Tech institution. What Klemis didn't count on was how important the little grill had become to Tech students and alumni.

This year marks the Klemis family's 45th year of running Junior's and the 55th year the grill has been a part of the Tech community. The restaurant was opened in 1948 by Wilbur Gold Jr. in a strip of businesses on Techwood Drive that included a laundry, barbershop and the Techwood Theater.

Brothers-in-law James Klemis and John Chaknis bought the grill in 1958 after the Board of Regents put an option on the property for future development of a parking lot. Gold was given the option of a year-to-year lease, but he chose instead to sell and the two Greek-American brothers jumped at the chance to run their own college restaurant.

As it turned out, the family was able to run the restaurant in its original location until 1967, when the option on the building was finally exercised. They had to move, but they didn't go far.

"By 1967, people weren't getting haircuts nearly as often, so the barbershop space was available and we moved there," James' son, Tom Klemis said. ‘The only problem was that space was 800 square feet and the old Junior's was 3,000 square feet, so we went from having 60 stools to 28. It was a hole-in-the-wall, but we still served 800 students a day."

By this time, the driving force at the restaurant was Klemis' mother, Lula. His father died of a heart attack in 1964 at age 44 and Lula Klemis, or "Mom" as she came to be known to countless students, stepped in to keep both the grill and her family going strong.

True to his father's wishes, Klemis enrolled at Georgia Tech in electrical engineering in 1970. He spent two years at Tech before a growing family forced him to drop out in favor of the working world.

In 1987, Junior's expanded into what had been the Engineer's Bookstore next door. But talk of the Olympics possibly coming to Atlanta had already begun. The Georgia Tech Foundation purchased the property that housed Junior's and allowed the restaurant a five-year lease.

On Sept. 18, 1990, Klemis was sure Junior's demise was near.

"We were in the grill and the television was on for the announcement of where the 1996 Olympics would be," Klemis said. "Everyone was so excited, but it was the saddest day of my life because I thought that was the end of Junior's."

At the end of its lease in 1992, Junior's was allowed to remain open on a month-to-month agreement because plans for the property weren't yet settled. Finally, in October 1993, Junior's doors closed for the last time and soon after the wrecking ball took the building down.

Meanwhile, without Klemis' knowledge, petitions to save Junior's were being circulated among students, alumni and staff.

"I attended a feasibility meeting and I thought it would only be a couple of folks," Klemis said. "I walked in and I was shocked. There were all these folks around and everyone in the room was a Junior's customer. Greg Wright (Arch 74) was the architect. He used to have eggs over light with bacon, and Jeff Coble (IE 91), who always used to have a ham and cheese omelet, was the project manager."

In November 1993, work began renovating the space under the Tech Tower that once was The Robbery and had become a community activities room.

In February 1994, Junior's reopened in its new home, where it continues to serve the Tech community.

At Junior's 50th anniversary celebration in 1998, a student who had salvaged the original Junior's Grill sign presented it back to the owners and it hangs on the wall near the French Building entrance to the grill.

"Junior's raised me, it provided for our family. I went to Georgia Tech, my son went to Georgia Tech (James Klemis, Biol 93) and my intention is to keep serving the Tech community and to be open to what the students need," Klemis said. "It is not the same campus today that it used to be, but we strive to hold and maintain that family culture here."

©2003 Georgia Tech Alumni Association