A family affair
Jerry and John Dellas walk around Varsity Pizza with confident smiles. They chat with the employees and greet the customers as they enter the South Crouse Avenue pizzeria. All the while, they bring a bit of truth to the old clich: they’re walking around like they own the place.
The Dellases are the owners of Varsity, as well as the next-door Faegan’s Cafe and Pub, two businesses that have now been in the Dellas family for three generations. Their grandfather, Jerry Dellas, was an immigrant from Greece who came to the United States in 1923.
‘How he ended up here in Syracuse, we have no idea,’ said John Dellas. ‘He wound up selling popcorn and candy to the students across the street (from Varsity’s current location).’
When Jerry Dellas arrived in Syracuse, the university was still small and developing. The Hall of Languages and Crouse College were some of the few buildings around then that remain on campus today.
‘The area around Varsity and all of Marshall Street used to be houses,’ Jerry Dellas said. ‘(My grandfather) eventually made enough money to buy one of the houses, which was above where Varsity is today.’
Dellas transformed the house into a restaurant, Varsity. The Dellases carry with them a black and white picture of the old Varsity, with ‘Closed on Sundays’ and ‘Lemonade!’ signs. The same, familiar script ‘Varsity’ marquee that is used today appears on the top of the building.
‘Basically, what you see is what’s been here since 1926,’ said John Dellas, who graduated from Syracuse in 1977. ‘The only thing that’s different is all of the houses are gone. It’s just businesses now.’
After founding Varsity, Jerry Dellas, the grandfather, noticed that as the university grew, so did his business. All four of his sons, Speros (John’s father), Ted (Jerry’s father), John and Nick ran the pizza shop with their dad, and lived in the area their entire lives.
Ted Dellas served in World War II, and returned home shortly before his father’s death in 1952. That’s when the business made its first generation-to-generation ownership transfer.
As business continued to flourish, Ted, John and Jerry decided their original career paths were not what they wanted to do.
‘John was thinking about law school and I was looking into dental school,’ Jerry Dellas said. ‘We had always talked about owning a restaurant like my dad, then one day John called me and we just decided to open a restaurant behind Varsity.’
That restaurant is Faegan’s, a pub that at the time was unlike any restaurant or bar in the Syracuse area. The Dellases opened Faegan’s in 1978. Its only true competitor was The Orange, a bar that was located across the street, which the Dellases bought a year and a half after Faegan’s opened.
The Dellases still own the building where The Orange used to be, and it is now home to Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar and the Crouse Federal Credit Union.
Varsity made its second generational transfer in 2001, when Ted Dellas handed the reins of the business over to John and Jerry.
‘The third generation usually messes up businesses like this,’ John Dellas said. ‘We were very apprehensive to take this place over because I didn’t want to be the one to do that.’
John and Jerry’s taking over of the family business coincided with the renovation of the streetscapes around the Marshall Street area.
‘The streets were absolutely rundown,’ said Jerry Dellas. ‘Everything was a mess. Once they redid the streets, things picked up.’
Although business at Varsity was still good, the Dellases noticed one thing was missing: students. Although the university was located just up the hill, and the restaurant was in the middle of the cultural center of Marshall Street, barely any students were coming to eat.
Eager to not be that third-generation mess up, John and Jerry hired three SU students to come up with a survey addressing what Varsity needed to do to attract students.
‘They went out to the Quad and just handed out these surveys,’ John said. ‘They brought them back to us and we sat down and read each one, and took all of the suggestions to heart.’
The Dellases said the main thing keeping students from coming to Varsity was its antiquity and old-fashioned appeal.
How did they fix that?
‘This was a place that was old and out of date,’ Jerry said. ‘It was dingy. We weren’t meshing with what the students like. We brought in Nantucket Nectars, we changed some of the design. We updated the surroundings of the restaurant and its marketing to make it more appealing to the college kids.’
John and Jerry said many students now come to Varsity, saying the restaurant’s good service and good food can be just like that always-longed-for meal at home.
‘What I love about our restaurant is that a professor can bring a whole class down here to eat,’ John Dellas said. ‘That, or you can be alone, and just come in and sit down and grab a piece of pizza.’
Business is continuing to grow for the Dellases, and they are constantly looking for ways to improve their restaurants.
‘I think we’re always changing things, in that we’re always improving the surroundings,’ Jerry Dellas said. ‘This area has grown so much in the last five years, and I think it will continue.’
But will John and Jerry continue to be the owners, or will they continue the family tradition of passing the business down to the next generation?
John’s son Dean and Jerry’s son Tim are both senior economics majors at SU. For years, Tim has worked at Varsity and Dean has worked at Faegan’s, carrying on the Dellas family name.
‘It’s completely up to (Dean and Tim) what they want to do with their future,’ John Dellas said. ‘But who knows? They might be the next generation to own this place.’
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