One of Asbury Park’s most beloved boardwalk businessmen died Nov. 29.
George J. Panas, the long-time owner of the iconic Howard Johnson’s restaurant on the Asbury Park boardwalk, was 88.
After he immigrated to the United States in 1956, he and his family opened and operated the Howard Johnson’s 50 years until his retirement in 2006.
Wonder Bar manager Debbie Delisa said she first met Panas when she and Lance Larson were working on getting the Wonder Bar, which is right across the street, open in 2002.
“He sold us some of his extra restaurant furniture really cheap. He was more than generous. He would come over every day to see if we needed anything. He talked a lot with my father and he was very kind to him when he was sick,” she said.
And Delisa said Panas was the only business open on the boardwalk back then.
“Asbury Park had crime and was kind of rundown but he would open every day, in rain or snow, and sometimes he only had two customers a day,” she said.
And Don Stine, who was born and raised in Asbury Park, agrees that Panas was there during both the good and bad days.
“Mr. Panas never gave up on Asbury Park. He held in there until the very end, even through the really bad times. I believe he was one of the only Howard Johnson franchises left in the country,” he said.
Working for Panas in the HoJos on the boardwalk was Stine’s first job. He was a busboy and his sister, Connie, was the hostess there during the summers.
“My sister and Mr. Panas were very close. Connie later died and when I saw Mr. Panas and told him about it, I could see that he was visibly shaken; he cared about her that much,” he said.
Stine said he remembers badly cutting his pinkie finger there when trying to catch a large gallon-jar of marmalade from falling to the floor.
“The jar broke. I cut my finger and had to go to the hospital. I still can’t bend the end of my left-hand pinkie finger to his day. And Mr. Panas was very good during the whole thing. He was a very nice, caring man,” he said.
Former Asbury Park Beach Manager Joe Pallotto said he knew Panas quite well over the years and that Panas was well-respected by his peers, “without a doubt.”
“He was just a good guy and always treated us good,” he said.
Pallotto, who is president of the Asbury Park Fishing Club, said club members used to fish on the beach in front of the Howard Johnsons and that Panas used to come down and collect the fish.
“He would bring the fish back to the restaurant, cook them, sell them, or do what he could do with them. He was always very good to people,” he said.
Born in 1930 in Thana, Tripoli Greece, Panas served in the Greek Army as an officer and later pursued a teaching career. He was a devoted member of the St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Ocean Township and served on the parish council for 27 consecutive years.