By Susie Ling
Once upon a time, a young man named Demetrios “Jim” Bakolas dreamed of opportunity in America. In 1938, Demetrios was the youngest of four born to a doctor and his wife. Demetrios was born in Karpenisi, an area in Central Greece rich in historic tradition and natural alpine beauty. But in the 1940s, Greece was devastated by Italian fascists, Nazi plunder, and then the Greek Civil War between communists and non-communist factions. Demetrios’ father was killed when he was just a toddler.
In 1963, Demetrios married a beautiful woman, Dina. Her family warned her that they thought Demetrios had little prospect. Well, he proved them wrong. He brought Dina, three months pregnant, on a boat to New York – with about five dollars in his pocket. They made their way by train to Los Angeles where he had some family. He started dishwashing. His daughter, Niki, said, “First he walked miles to work. Then he saved enough to buy a bike to go to work. Then he bought a car. He was a hard worker.”
By 1971, Demetrios – now, Jim – had three children. Although their mother spoke Greek to them, he insisted on speaking English to these American-born. Niki said, “Dad loves being in America. He always says that this country has given him so much.” Still, the children attended Greek Orthodox Church and visited Greece during summers. Not only do they speak Greek, Jim and Dina’s six grandchildren are bilingual.
In 1971, Jim opened his “hole in the wall” that served a wide range of American fast-food in Bell Gardens. By 1974, he opened a second branch of J.B. Burgers at 627 S. Myrtle. With time, J.B. Burgers has added a lot of Mexican-American menu selections.
Since her father retired near 2005, Niki Bakalos manages the Myrtle location. She said, “I don’t really know about the early days of J.B. Burgers because I’ve been coming here since before I could walk. My sister takes care of the Bell Gardens location now.” She also said, “I love Monrovia; it is sweet. You see customers who know and greet each other. It is a close-knit community.”
J.B. Burgers definitely still has Jim’s ethics stamped all over. They work efficiently every single day, opening at six in the morning and closing at 10 p.m. They have about ten employees in two shifts. Whatever time you go by, there is somebody getting zucchini sticks at the window, or meeting up with friends over the hamburger special. The restaurant always has happy families, workers in uniform, teens, and some tired souls just getting off the 210 Freeway.
Niki said, “My father tells a story that when he was working at another restaurant, they made their workers’ pay for the food they ate. And there were restrictions of what they were allowed to eat from the kitchen. My dad didn’t know the rules. That owner came by and threw his plate of food away. Because of that, we always allow our employees to eat whatever they want. We take care of our workers.”
Erica Garcia has been working at J.B. Burgers for 27 years. She emigrated from Guadalajara in 1988. “I came to America to make money,” she said. It is very obvious when Erica’s cooking, as her red Shelby GT 500 is parked off Olive Avenue. Erica said, “Jim helped me buy my dream car. I’m in love with that car. Jim is like a dad to me.”
Everyone now knows 627 S. Myrtle as the site of J.B. Burgers. But historically, 627 S. Myrtle was first the address of James John Renaker’s furniture store/mortuary business until 1916. J. J. Renaker (1856-1903) came to Monrovia near 1887 from Kentucky with his family. He ran the business with his older son, Charles Taylor Renaker (1884-1937). C. T. or Taylor was very community-minded and a member of Monrovia Baptist, Kiwanis, and Masons. In fact, he was chairperson of Monrovia Day during its 50th anniversary. J.J. had a second son born in Monrovia in 1891: Leslie Renaker. Leslie opened a mortuary business, Renaker-Klockgether, in Buena Park in 1940. Leslie’s son, John James Renaker (1915-2014), was also born in Monrovia. John would marry Maxine Hagen (1913-2003) and establish Hagen-Renaker Potteries in 1945 in Monrovia. Hagen-Renaker’s small ceramic figurines are highly collectible.