All in The Family
Writer captures Greek immigrant experience in debut novel
By Jessica Laskey
“There’s a restaurant in every family tree,” writer Nancy Econome says. “I wanted to bring out those stories.”
Econome has done just that with her debut novel, “The Classic Grill: A Tale of Greek Gods and Immigrant Heroes,” which chronicles the family struggles of a successful Greek-owned restaurant in Vallejo in 1942. The book is loosely based on Econome’s grandparents’ restaurant of the same name.
Econome says, “As a kid, my older sister Janet and I would hang out with our Greek-speaking grandparents and they would tell us stories of The Classic Grill,” a restaurant they opened after immigrating from Greece in the 1920s with locations in Vallejo, Napa and Santa Rosa, where Econome now lives. “I was struck by the stories of their hard work—they made everything by hand, even the condiments, peeled every potato, shelled every pea—and the importance the restaurant has always had in Greek-American culture.”
The story is based on Greek immigrant Achilles Pappayannis who owns a successful diner during World War II and is determined to bring his older son Demo (who he suspects might be gay) into the family business, overlooking his younger son George, leading to family turmoil amidst fierce anti-immigrant discrimination. Though the novel is fictionalized, Econome has drawn on stories from her own family, as well as extensive research into the time period. She even enlisted the help of Jim Kern at the Vallejo Naval & Historical Museum, historian Brendan Riley, and Henry Kaku, an expert in Japan internment camp history, to make sure she nailed the details.
“You can really get lost in the research,” says Econome, who grew up in South Land Park working at her parents’ store, Land Park Pharmacy (now Parkside Pharmacy). After attending CK McClatchy High School and UC Davis—where she was a reporter on the Cal Aggie and Davis Enterprise newspapers—Econome worked for Sacramento Magazine and as a technical writer at Aerojet prior to attending film school in San Francisco. She ran a video business for a couple years before becoming the head of creative services for Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa, where she worked until retiring in 2016.
To keep her creative juices flowing, Econome would often work on screenplays on the side—one of which she started in 2008 about The Classic Grill. When she found herself with more time to devote to personal projects in retirement, Econome decided to turn the story into a long-form novel at the behest of her mother, Georgia. After three years of writing, editing and reshaping, Econome self-published the book—and almost immediately received an Honorable Mention from the Maurice Prize in Fiction 2020, sponsored by the College of Letters and Sciences at UC Davis (spearheaded by New York Times bestselling author John Lescroart).
Members of the Greek community have also weighed in, praising Econome’s ability to capture the nuances of working in a family business and life as an immigrant.
“It’s so rewarding when what you’ve written resonates with someone’s background and they rush to tell you their own story,” says Econome, who’s considering writing a sequel. “Any Greek business is a family effort—just like this book. My mom read it first as my ‘heart meter’ and my sister Janet, an excellent editor, critiqued it. They hung with me the whole time.”
For more information on “The Classic Grill,” visit nancyeconome.com.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.