Grand Blanc Township Retirement? Not for this restaurateur 81-year-old loves food and is full of energy

By Sarah Schuch

The Flint Journal

GRAND BLANC TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- Born and raised in Greece, Gus Chinonis came to the Flint area at the age of 17 with only the clothes on his back, an old pair of shoes, no money and no skill for the English language.

Now at age 81, Chinonis has a lot to show for his life and he doesn't plan on stopping any time soon.

Chinonis, who started the Yaya's Flame Broiled Chicken chain in the 1980's with his brother, John, retired in June after selling the business, but he didn't stop working for long. Chinonis and his son, Denny, opened up Sweet Basil, a take-out restaurant, in April in Grand Blanc Township.

"I've always loved food. I've always had a restaurant," Chinonis said. "I'm 81 years old, full of energy and I hate to waste my talent and my knowledge sitting home and watching TV."

Sweet Basil opened April 6 and offers pizza, including eight gourmet pizzas, pasta and salad to go.

What makes his restaurant stand out is that everything is fresh and homemade, Gus Chinonis said. His marinara sauce alone includes 16 ingredients and is made fresh every day, along with the dough.

"We do it all from scratch," he said. "I've been cooking all my life. . As long as I see my customers enjoying my produce I will never get tired."

The eight gourmet pizzas include a little bit of everything, the owners said.

The Sweet Basil pizza includes a red sauce base, feta cheese, mozzarella, provolone, fresh basil, sun dried tomatoes, kalamata olives and sweet peppers. The Greek pizza includes fresh sweet basil pesto with mozzarella, provolone and feta cheese, julienne red onion, green peppers, kalamata olives, fresh baby spinach, artichoke hearts and banana peppers.

The menu also includes six different kinds of salads, along with pastas, sandwiches and bread sticks.

But it's not only about the food, said Denny Chinonis. It's about family.

The smallest pizza size, constantini, is named after his son, Constantine, and the Bella sandwich is named after his daughter, Gabriella.

And it's about being able to continue to work with his father, Denny Chinonis said.

"It was hard when he retired. (I said) 'Let's start something.' How many people get the opportunity to work with their family?" he said. "And at his age, I want to spend as much time as I can with him. It's such a cool, awesome opportunity. I learned from the best."

When Gus Chinonis retired he said he became depressed so the new venture with his son was just what he needed.

"My retirement was cut short," he said. "After we opened the place I started smiling again."

Gus Chinonis first came to the Flint area in 1950. He worked in real estate for a while, and then moved to Florida to try his hand at it there. In 1986, he and his brother started the first Yaya's, which eventually grew into a franchise.

He moved back to the Flint area in 1988, where he opened more of the restaurants. Throughout all of his time in Genesee County, Gus Chinonis has owned multiple restaurants, including Sunrise Restaurant on Fenton Road, which he sold five years ago, and West Pointe Restaurant in Swartz Creek, which has since closed.

But his biggest success was Yaya's, which at one point had 42 restaurants in Florida, Michigan, Georgia and Ohio, Gus Chinonis said.

The father/son duo hopes one day to see Sweet Basil expand like Yaya's did.

"I have had a tremendous response for the first two weeks," Gus Chinonis said.

Published: Tue, May 29, 2012