Michael Berkhofer (left) with Themistocles “Lakis” Vlahoulis at Il Panino Café and Grill.
In January, Il Panino Cafe and Grill in Jamaica Plain was on the brink of failure. Now, thanks to the help of a few Northeastern University students and the owner’s childhood friend, the neighborhood restaurant is on its way to rebounding.
“When I talk about what they did for me, I am in tears. They saved me from possible bankruptcy,” said Themistocles “Lakis” Vlahoulis, owner of Il Panino Cafe and Grill on Centre Street. “The growth from January to today has been phenomenal. We have tripled our business.”
Last spring, Northeastern University student Michael Berkhofer joined the Il Panino team as a consultant – a project for his class, Small Business Management and Growth.
Over the course of the semester, Berkhofer was part of a team of students who consulted with Il Panino and created a website for the restaurant. For Berkhofer, who found himself drawn to Vlahoulis’ business struggles, the work went beyond getting a grade.
“It’s not just a project where you write the paper and submit it,” he said. “You get to see the fruits of your labor. You get to see what works and what doesn’t. The grade takes care of itself,” said the senior finance and entrepreneurship major.
Berkhofer’s professor at Northeastern, Kimberly Eddleston, said Berkhofer and his classmates “took it above and beyond. These students who did not know how to create a website went out and learned for Lakis [Vlahoulis].”
While the three other students involved in the class project have drifted away, Berkhofer has continued to volunteer his time to help Vlahoulis. He is working with Vlahoulis on ways to make the restaurant a larger part of the community.
“He [Vlahoulis] was so inviting and welcoming, I could not just walk away once the project was over,” said Berkhofer. “I truly care about his wellbeing. He is a mentor, a friend.”
Berkhofer was not the first Northeastern student to take an interest in Vlahoulis and his business. Prior to Eddleston’s class, Vlahoulis had enlisted the help of Northeastern’s cooperative education, or “co-op” program, which provides students with full-time employment opportunities in their field of choice.
For a semester, Daniel Lee, a senior business major at Northeastern University, held a co-op position at Vlahouli’s restaurant. At the time, Vlahoulis was dealing with a family medical situation and allowed Lee to make major decisions ranging from financial to staff choices within the restaurant.
“I was put in a position that I wasn’t prepared for,” said Lee. “But I was given enough support and knowledge to do these things. I definitely think that everything was in my area of capabilities…It was tough, but not too tough.”
Even though Lee’s time as a co-op at the restaurant has ended, he still keeps in touch with Vlahoulis and is considering returning to Il Panino Café and Grill in the future.
“Daniel was the key,” Vlahoulis said. “He ran the show and is so honest. I consider him a son.”
In January, Vlahoulis was considering cutting his losses and closing shop. His restaurant, previously called Gail’s Cafe and Grill was, in his words, “not what people wanted.” A conversation with his childhood friend, Frank DePasquale, helped to change the odds. DePasquale, who owns several restaurants in Boston’s North End, gave his friend the name Il Panino, as well as some recipes and chefs.
“Frank said to me, ‘I am giving you all this -- just maintain the good name I have worked so hard for the last 25 years to create,’” Vlahoulis recounted.
So, in 2014, Gail’s Cafe and Grill became Il Panino. With the old Greek-inspired concept gone, Vlahoulis took DePasquale’s Italian recipes and changed the direction of the restaurant.
“The neighborhood was thirsty for something like this-- real Italian pizza,” said Vlahoulis.
With the help of “good people” like Berkhofer, Lee, and DePasquale, Vlahoulis said, he wants to make Il Panino Cafe and Grill a true part of the neighborhood. “This place is not just about pizza -- it’s about the community,” he said.
As for Berkhofer, he wants to see Il Panino’s continue to flourish. “I don’t know what it can become, but if we continue to expand the relationship with Northeastern, the possibilities are endless,” he said.
This semester, a new group of students from Eddleston’s class will continue to work with the restaurant.
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration with The Boston Globe.