Mike Morfessis; Lucky Sailor Built Restaurants
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2004; Page B06
Telemachos John "Mike" Morfessis, 88, who as a young Greek sailor survived calamity on the high seas and who became a prominent restaurant designer and builder after immigrating to the Washington area in 1943, died at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda on July 4. The Bethesda resident had renal failure and pneumonia.
During his career, Mr. Morfessis designed, built or equipped more than 1,200 restaurants in the Washington area. Among them were Morrocco's, Skorpios, Belmont, La Panneteria, Athenian Plaka, Classic III Restaurant, Peter Connell's and Jerry's Hampton Inn. He also owned and operated several local restaurants, including Judges Inn on Wisconsin Avenue and Olympic Inn on 20th Street between L and M.
A native of Ithaca, Greece, Mr. Morfessis left home at 13 to help support his parents and 12 siblings. He became a carpenter, working on ships that took him around the world. With no formal education beyond elementary school, he became fluent in five languages and taught himself drafting.
As a merchant sailor in the 1930s and '40s, Mr. Morfessis survived three shipwrecks caused by torpedo attacks, eventually making his way to a new life in America.
The first time a torpedo sank a ship he was on was in 1936, near Valencia, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War. Local people rescued the 20-year-old sailor, and he stayed in Spain for three months until he could get on another merchant ship.
In 1942, Mr. Morfessis was on a ship bound for England with a cargo of cotton when a torpedo from a German U-boat set the vessel afire. With the help of another sailor, he lowered 16 people into lifeboats before jumping into the sea himself. He was rescued the next day.
Later that year, another German torpedo sank Mr. Morfessis's ship off Gibraltar. Almost left for dead, he was rescued by a Portuguese passenger ship. He lived in Lisbon for 18 months, working odd jobs and adding Portuguese to his collection of languages.
In 1943, a Greek captain who had docked in Lisbon persuaded Mr. Morfessis to join the crew. He signed on but was resolved not to tempt fate a fourth time: He jumped ship in New York City. He went to live with a brother who had immigrated to the Washington area some years earlier.
He became a naturalized citizen in 1946. He also became "Mike."
Shortly after arriving in Washington, Mr. Morfessis began a small commercial remodeling business, Mike's Manufacturing Co., and within a few years it had grown substantially. He established Morfessis Restaurant Equipment Co. as well as Mike J. Morfessis and Sons Inc., businesses that made him the leading designer and builder of restaurants and hotel and country club dining rooms and kitchens in the area.
In 1959, he also began developing an early fast-food chain, Bird and Burger. Most of the Bird and Burgers closed within about a decade.
In the 1950s and '60s, Mr. Morfessis began working with minority-owned businesses. He financed many minority entrepreneurs, and in the mid-1960s he moved his offices and distribution facilities to Anacostia at a time when other businesses were leaving that area.
Continuing to grow his business until his retirement in 1995, Mr. Morfessis developed one of Washington's first discos, Ventuno 21, and designed and built eating establishments in the Willard InterContinental Hotel.
He was a longtime supporter of relief efforts in Greece and other nations and was an active member of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, serving as president of Peter N. Derzis Chapter 438 in Arlington. He was also active with the Republican National Committee and a fundraiser in presidential elections in the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Morfessis served on the President's Council of the American Management Association.
His marriage to the former Calliope "Katina" Tsoulias of Edgewater ended in divorce.
Survivors includes his wife, Asimenia Tatsi Morfessis of Walkersville, whom he married in 1980; four children from his first marriage, Peterjohn Morfessis of Kensington, Ioyanna Morfessis of Scottsdale, Ariz., Dimitrios "Jim" Morfessis of Reston and Chrisanthe Morfessis of Baltimore; five children from his second marriage, Nikolaos Morfessis of Cascade, Md., and Angeliki "Gigi" Morfessis, Konstantina "Tina" Morfessis, Telemachos Morfessis Jr. and Ourania Morfessis, all of Walkersville; and five grandchildren.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company