FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – No money. No English. Just a dream.
When 18-year-old George Rongos arrived in Fort Wayne from a small village in Greece in 1954, perhaps only he knew that one day his influence would be imprinted all over town.
Through decades of hard work, building a business and raising five children to be entrepreneurs, George’s footprint is now felt from George’s International Market to Zianos, Salsa Grille, Zing and Global Medical Industries.
Success he found with his wife, Eleni, always by his side, working just as hard.
“It’s amazing. I don’t know how we did it. We worked hard,” Eleni said.
George worked at Slater Steel on Taylor Street for years. It was across from a small grocery store owned by a guy named Joe.
“He loved to shop there,” Eleni said. “And he’d tell Joe that it would be his one day. Even though I heard it all the time, I didn’t think it would be.”
That day came in 1985. Joe passed away and his wife decided it was time to sell the store. George was ready to become a grocer.
“There was no international store in town then. That was his dream. To have a store for international people,” Eleni said. “At first what I buy for my own groceries is what I buy for the store. Olive oil. Italian and Middle Eastern. European.”
But, their customers came looking for things they didn’t stock. George and Eleni were eager to learn what they needed to get.
“The Hispanic people would bring me cans and peppers and they give us everything they want. We started with tortillas and then canned goods,” Eleni said.
The couple would travel to Chicago, sometimes several times a week, to stock the grocery store. As their children got older, they’d come along to learn the ropes.
“Dad wanted to support other immigrants who are also business owners. So, when we would go to these places in Chicago, they loved our dad. They couldn’t wait until George came and bought from them,” Chris Rongos, the fourth Rongos child said. “Dad had a passion for people and everyone respected him.”
George had a knack for connecting with people.
“Just watching him create relationships and bonds that we still have to this day. I mean, we still buy from a lot of the same places,” Jerry Rongos, the fifth child, said. “He had a smile that just lit up a room.”
George left a lasting impression on people he met.
“They’d say they met George once and it touched their hearts. His smile. His talking. That’s who George was,” Eleni said.
George built his business with passion and hard work. He didn’t speak English when he came to the United States. Not only was he learning a new language in a new country, he also couldn’t read or write in his own native Greek.
“His passion was to teach all of his kids work ethic and to never give up. To always succeed,” Chris said.
In the 1990s, the grocery store moved to a larger building at the corner of Taylor and Broadway, which is where it still is today. Chris and Jerry own it now and a few years ago rebranded the logos to honor their dad.
“My aunt and uncle came to the store and he looks up at the sign and says, ‘Hey, that’s me!’ and that’s a smile I don’t think any of us will ever forget,” Rulie Mangos said.
Rulie’s father was Eleni’s brother. He officially joined the family business nearly 12 years ago.
George and Eleni have five children: Judy, Mike, Jimmy, Chris and Jerry. Those families grew to give them 12 grandchildren and 3 great-grandkids.
George’s footprint in Fort Wayne reaches beyond the grocery store through his children’s businesses. Salsa Grille, fast casual Mexican food, opened 11 years ago and will expand to Auburn, opening its fifth location, in a few weeks. All of Salsa Grille’s ingredients are sourced through George’s International Market, and the grocery store also sells Salsa Grille’s salsas.
Zing, a new fast casual Asian fusion restaurant, just opened a few months ago in southwest Fort Wayne adjacent to the Salsa Grille at Coventry. Mike also works with his brothers in the family businesses.
“I see a lot of younger kids that come into the store and I want to inspire my kids. I want them to look at their grandfather and realize that you can accomplish anything you want to do with the right attitude and the right passion and love. Just believe in yourself,” Jerry said.
While family was everything to George, practically all of Fort Wayne became his family. He invited most everyone to his home for fellowship over Greek coffee and Eleni’s famous baklava.
George also loved music.
“There would always be music playing in the house,” Chris said. “One day he goes, ‘You know what? I’m gonna start a band.’ I’m like, ‘What? We don’t know how to play any music!’ and he’s like, ‘Well, you’re going to learn.’ We used to play in the church basement when the Greek Church was on South Anthony. And we would play every New Year’s Eve. By the time the dance was over, everybody that was at the dance ended up in our house at one, two o’clock in the morning.”
George never forgot his Greek roots, but embraced his chosen home. Classic Grecian statues, along with Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, greet guests in the grocery store.
“He loved America,” Chris said.
October 16, 2022 George died after battling dementia. He was 87.
But he left a lasting legacy through business, family and life lessons.
“People loved him and he left his community a better place than he found it,” Rulie said.