OWOSSO — As longtime Roma’s Back Door owner John Orin passes the torch to new owners Eric Lab and Martin Misjak, the restaurant is celebrating 50 years in Owosso.
All day Thursday, Roma’s is offering half-off pizza and bread to dine-in customers and 25 percent off for carry-out orders. From 6 to 9 p.m., Dale Wicks will play guitar and sing, and seven Founders Brewing specialty beers will be on tap.
Orin, who with wife Janice purchased Roma’s 20 years ago, in September 1998, explained during a chat at the restaurant Monday the secret to a half century of success.
“Here’s the secret sauce: The customers are the reason why we’re still here,” Orin said. “Treat them the way you want to be treated. You know something? It worked. It’s a privilege that people choose to spend their money here.”
Orin said at age 68 he’s ready to retire and devote more time to traveling with his wife. He sold his Roma’s restaurant in Flint in 2012. But it’s not easy for Orin, a restaurant worker since 1964 and restaurant owner since 1972, to let go.
“I love people and I love to make them happy, and one way to make them happy is feed them,” Orin said. “It’s the most personal thing you can do except sleep with them. But I want to travel, I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor. And this is a young man’s game.”
Fortunately, he didn’t have to look far for his replacements. Lab, 35, has worked at Roma’s 20-plus years, starting out as a diswasher and working his way up to general manager. Misjak, 29, has been a Roma’s employee for about a decade, getting promoted from dishwasher to cook.
The pair, lifelong Shiawassee County residents, have been running Roma’s since July and closed on the purchase Oct. 1.
“I worked with them for a long time,” Orin said. “Martin knows how to put things together and make things work, and brings harmony to the kitchen. Eric is more detail-oriented, and more of a people person.
He continued: “They are implementing a few upgrades — for example, they’re switching from paper to cloth napkins — but from the food to the atmosphere to the quality of the service, Roma’s is basically going to stay the same.”
That includes the restaurant’s longstanding commitment to lending out its patio for fundraisers for any local cause, Lab said.
“Roma’s has worked for this long, so we’re not going to make any tremendous changes,” Lab said. “We will continue on as an integral part of the community.”
“It’s going to stay the same great place,” Martin said.
Robert and Anna Paliano opened Roma’s in 1968, eventually trying to sell it a few times but always having to take it back. In about 1993, their daughter and son-in-law, Matt and Rita Palidino, moved to Owosso from California in order to save their parents’ business.
Noting his Flint restaurant and the one in Owosso shared the same name, Orin decided to purchase the local business from the Palidinos. Janice Orin, wanting to spend more time with her husband, quit a corporate position to join him in the new business. She kept the books, and in the early days ran deliveries and bused tables. In 2000, the couple moved from Fenton to a house they built in Caledonia Township, where they still live.
Over the years, the Orins have built up the clientele, purchased new equipment and made other investments in the Owosso Roma’s, including a major renovation to the bar and patio six years ago.
“We were outsiders when we first got here. We worked at becoming part of the community,” John Orin, a former Caledonia Township supervisor, said. “Now, it’s no longer an investment, this is our home. The community has been supportive, they’ve been loyal, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.”
What keeps drawing patrons back to Roma’s are such food specialties as Chicago-style pizza, lasagna and made-to-order pastas. Warming the atmosphere are the restaurant’s longtime employees, including Lab, Misjak, Teresa Blount, a server since 1980, and Brent Albring, a server who started out as bus boy and dishwasher 15 years ago.
“I like the feeling here,” said Elaine Greenway, a lunch customer at Roma’s Monday, “and the wait staff has been here forever, and I love them.
“The buffet is the best in Owosso,” she continued, adding she particularly enjoys the bread puffs and cannelloni with baked meatballs.
Martin, a Lennon resident, and Lab, who lives in Owosso, said restaurant ownership is going great so far, partly thanks to all they have learned from Orin.
“John has a can-do attitude, and a positive vibe he gives off,” Martin said.
“He’s taught me everything,” Lab said. “He’s like a second father to me. And his sense of humor, it’s always been extremely contagious here. Nobody hides anything from him, that’s for sure.”
Orin was born in Flint, graduating from Beecher High School. While still a teenager, Orin became a dishwasher at Roma’s on North Saginaw Street in Flint, working his way up to cook and then manager. He started to purchase the restaurant at the tender age of 22.
He’s been in the restaurant business ever since. Until now.
“I’m going through a really rough patch now, missing it,” Orin said. “But I can’t be a mother hen. These guys have to have their own space.
“I trust them to carry this on.”