Gee Whiz Owner Peter Panayiotou Dies, Days After Former Partner

Peter Panayiotou in his restaurant Gee Whiz, a Tribeca institution that opened on Greenwich Street in 1989. Photo courtesy of the Panayiotou family

Apr. 10, 2020

Peter Panayiotou, co-founder and owner of the restaurant Gee Whiz, a Tribeca institution, died on April 5. The family gave the cause as complications of severe pneumonia, which led to heart and kidney failure. 

Panayiotou’s death, at age 65 in Mt. Sinai Hospital in Queens, came just nine days after his long-time former Gee Whiz partner, Andy Koutsoudakis, succumbed to COVID-19. The two Greek natives opened Gee Whiz in 1989 and remained partners there until Koutsoudakis opened Tribeca’s Kitchen some 25 years later.

“It was shocking to us that both Andy and him passed away,” said John Scott, a longtime Tribeca resident and president of the Independence Plaza Senior Center. “It was unbelievable.”

Panayiotous daughter, Margaret Panayiotou, told the Trib that her father entered the hospital’s intensive care unit on March 26. 

Panayiotou received a successful double lung transplant seven years ago, after contracting scleroderma, a disease his daughter said was attributed to 9/11 dust. Gee Whiz, at Warren and Greenwich Streets, is four blocks north of the World Trade Center.

“Gee Whiz and the Tribeca community was his second home,” Margaret said. “He was there more at Gee Whiz than he was at home, and he always just wanted to keep all the community members happy and to provide for them.”

People in the community remember Panayiotou for his friendliness and generosity. “Peter spent a lot of time taking care of the customers. Greeting them and being a part of their lives,” recalled Elliot Fink, a Gee Whiz regular who had known  Panayiotou and Koutsoudakis since their days as restaurant managers in Chelsea. 

“Everybody was welcome,” he added. “Even if they didn’t buy anything.” 

Peter was special to the seniors. We would cater all our functions with Peter and he always gave us a discount,” said John Scott, who noted that Panayiotou also gave donations to the center. “He was a friendly person who greeted everybody. We’ve known him for 30 years. He was family to us.”

After the death of Koutsoudakis, Anna Switzer, former principal of P.S. 234, across the street from Gee Whiz, sent the Trib a remembrance that applies to Panayiotou as well. “In 1987 the brand new PS 234 school building opened, flooded with kids. The new staff had one universal complaint. There was no place to grab a lunch. No place to take a coffee break. Tribeca at that time was a place where you could park your car anywhere, but forget getting a simple meal. I don’t remember when it was, but suddenly, shortly, there it was—Gee Whiz, the answer to our prayers.  A wonderful Greek diner.”

“Over the years,” she added, noting that Gee Whiz helped the school in numerous ways, “Andy and Pete were the best neighbors anyone could ask for.”

“If there’s one thing I would like everyone to know about my dad,” Margaret said, “is that he would give the shirt off his back to help someone in need without caring about himself.”

Panayiotou came to the U.S. from Cyprus at 18 “with nothing,” his daughter said, and graduated from Queens College. He met his future wife, Bibi Yasin, while working as a counterman at an Astoria eatery, and got acquainted with Koutsoudakis in the 1980s while the two worked at the now defunct Chelsea Gallery restaurant.

Margaret said that after her father entered the hospital “he was aware and worried about Andy, as he knew Andy was in the ER.” He was in intensive care when his former partner died on March 27, and was not given the news, she said.

Two of Panayiotou’s five children, Chris and Anthony, have been working at Gee Whiz and now all five, which also includes Christine Panayiotou and Kelly Panayiotou, will be involved, Margaret said. “Gee Whiz will be a family affair, and we’re going to make sure that my dad’s legacy, and what he worked so hard for, stays there.“

Along with his children and wife Bibi Yasin, Panayiotou is survived by two grandchildren, and a sister and four brothers in Cyprus.

The family asks that donations in his name be made to the fundraising campaign for hospital workers established by the family of Andy Koutsoudakis, or to any other charity that supplies personal protective equipment to nurses and doctors.

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'Peter welcomed us like we were long lost relatives'

I feel more stunned now after reading this article than I was before when writing my own post. Because seeing his smile again in the photo, reminds me of all the times, years ago, when we would bring our kids after every special event, to Gee Whiz. When our community didn't have much to offer, I would proudly bring my parents to Gee Whiz—a REAL DINER! And they loved it. Washington Market (the original name of our community before Tribeca) was still kind of a wasteland—not much for all of us adventurers down here to bring our families to. But Peter would always welcome us like we were long, lost relatives—and would be happy to watch the kids grow up from weekend to weekend. I always felt I was home when there. Peter and Andy made sure that the waiters were always so cooperative and cordial. Those days are forever etched in my memory. Who didn't go to Gee Whiz? Sometimes when you would go in, you knew almost every person at every table; in every booth! It was an amazing sensation! …Andy and Peter—how strange and mystical —within days of each other. May they find peace and tranquility and know, somehow, that they were greatly loved all these many years in Lower Manhattan. Our hearts are heavy.

Thank you so much Carl, for always keeping us up to date and writing such thorough and informative articles and obits. For preserving the history. Much appreciated. —Diane Lapson (posted to Facebook) 

'He did a lot for the neighborhood and we're less without him'

I am so sad to hear Mr. Panayiotou has passed. He always decorated the restaurant to the nines every holiday. HALLOWEEN was my favorite. He and his staff always wore costumes the week of Halloween. I remember he made it “mandatory“ for workers to have some form of costume, even just ears. He wanted the spirit of the holidays to spread throughout the restaurant, to the customers and to the staff. He wanted them to have fun even at work.

Even when the Pope came to NYC he had a life-size cut-out of the Pope for customers and neighborhood kids to take pictures. It was fun!!

He treated his work staff as family and always looked out for them. I remember one winter it snowed so bad that the mta shut down. He started to arrange hotel rooms for the staff so they had somewhere to be safe at night. He made sure they were safe and their families were okay.

He was a great man. He gave warm soup to the homeless in the evening when they passed by. He did a lot for the community and we are less without him. I am glad to hear his family will try to keep it going strong for him. That’s very sweet and we are lucky. — Kelsie P.

'So sad to lose both Andy and Peter'

I'm so sad to lose both Andy and Peter from Gee Whiz. I remember when Peter was getting ready to open the restaurant in 1987, and my building Greenwich Court was new. I looked forward to ending my workday with a meal with my ‘family.’ The restaurant delighted in decorating for each holiday, and even though it was for Tribeca’s young families, it rekindled in us (older patrons) the spirit of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Halloween... I was content to grow old with Peter and his staff and his patrons. When I got to the end of your article Tears fell knowing Gee Whiz will carry on for us. 

With love and respect,
Janet Ficarra