Jim Nicklow cared about every employee in his many restaurants. When a Bolivian-born cook was facing deportation, Nicklow convinced a regular customer to marry the man, allowing him to stay in the U.S.

“He just had a really big heart,” said his son Christian Nicklow. “He was definitely a caring, loving father and friend.”

Nicklow and his brothers Bill and Tony built a Twin Cities restaurant empire, opening a dozen Greek-American restaurants over 40 years. His all-in-the-family attitude beckoned repeat customers and employees to the table.

Jim Nicklow, of Fridley, died of cancer on April 24 in Minneapolis. He was 76.

As a teenager, Nicklow came to the U.S. from Greece speaking no English. In Minnesota, he reunited with his uncle and older brother Bill. Bill had been the first to emigrate after Nazis burned the family’s town and killed their father.

Nicklow attended Minneapolis Washburn High School by day and worked after-hours at restaurants. After graduation, he moved to Seattle, married, started a family and worked as a hairdresser.

He “didn’t really advertise” those years doing hair, said daughter Nicole Nicklow, but he sometimes snipped his own kids’ hair and later gave a grandson his first trim.

He returned to Minneapolis, where his family already owned several steakhouses. Together, the three brothers opened the Shorewood Inn, Nicklow’s Restaurant, Nicklow’s Cafe and Bar and Santorini.

A tireless worker, Nicklow spent six days a week surrounded by food and customers. He warmly welcomed guests to his restaurants, remembering their names and telling them a quick one-liner to make them laugh.

“He was really a legend, a character. He was loved by his customers,” Tony Nicklow said.

Greek food was a new cuisine for ’70s and ’80s-era diners in the Twin Cities suburbs, according to food writer Pat Lindquist, who managed the restaurants’ public relations.

She recalled tasting gyros and fried cheese, called flaming saganaki, for the first time and observing pig roasts and belly dancers at the Nicklow restaurants. Food — sometimes a free appetizer patrons hadn’t even ordered — was delivered to tables with an enthusiastic “Opa!”

In the month before the Shorewood Inn closed, Nicklow opened the place to anyone who wanted to stop by, whipping up complimentary Greek food and drinks for guests.

“He would have given you the shirt off his back, even if you didn’t need it,” Christian Nicklow said. For 25 years, the brothers held golf tournaments to benefit the Children’s Miracle Network, raising $500,000 for Gillette Children’s Hospital.

Nicklow had six children and loved fatherhood. A strict dad, he required eldest daughter Nicole to live at home while attending the University of St. Thomas.

His kids all moonlighted as employees at the family restaurants, where Jim cut them no slack. Their father’s high standards instilled a strong work ethic in the siblings.

In recent years Nicklow enjoyed hanging out with his grandchildren, who had occasional sleepovers with their papou. He made breakfast and the gang watched movies, Nicole Nicklow said. The kids loved his thick accent and would ask him to teach them Greek swear words, she said.

Nicklow was a proud Greek, well-known at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis. But he was also a proud American, family members said.

Nicklow is survived by his siblings, Tony and Efthymia, his children, Nicole, Christian, Dimitri, Alexei and Leigh-Demetra, and three grandchildren. Services have been held.