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Politics

Closing Time Looms for New York’s Greek-American Diners

May 31, 2019

Greek-American diners have been the favored place for the hungry and settings for film-noir stories like The Postman Always Rings Twice, staples of stories from authors like Harry Mark Petrakis right up to the TV series Seinfeld, but they may find themselves Out of the Past.

At least in New York, where they have been a hangout for good, fast, cheap food for those on the run or with nowhere to go, people who want to dig into breakfast anytime or sit like a stone figure from Hopper’s Nighthawks, brooding away the night in Greenwich Village.

The New York Times’ Stefanos Chen, writing about New York’s Vanishing Diners, moaned the plight that many face, the real estate on which they sit too valuable for ham-and-eggers now although one, Louis Gritsipis, in Hell’s Kitchen said he’ll never sell.

“I’ll never retire,” Gritsipis, 79, said. “If you retire, you’re dead.” He said, “This is my palace,” and the untold customers of the diners created by Greeks and Greek-Americans mostly felt the same.

It may not be up to him though because the establishments are being squeezed by rising expenses, changing tastes to fast-and-casual trendy faux cafes and developers who want to build up on the valuable lots.

Gritsipis’s diner is near the new Billionaire’s Row of Hudson Yards, an area that used to be down-and-out but now is up-and-in. His building is surrounded by glassy high-rises occupied by transient renters and owners, few of whom order gyro platters, Chen noted.

To get them out if they must, the owners of lots are driving up rents as high as the skyliners they would to put there, leaving the diner owners no choice in some cases, even if it’s their palace they’d have to let go of, sometimes after generations of short-order dishes.

OUT AND UP

Gritsipis’ diner is in a four-story building but many are single-story jobs with the air rights above too tempting for developers with land scarce and expensive and people willing to pay to reach the sky more than reaching for a cup of coffee or French Fries or apple pie.

Since 2014, 15 diners, many in stand-alone buildings, have been sold in New York, according to an analysis by Ariel Property Advisors, a commercial real estate brokerage, the paper said, in Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Staten Island but not Manhattan – yet.

That doesn’t include diners whose owners lost their leases. Riley Arthur, a photographer who has visited nearly every diner in the five boroughs, estimated that there are 419 left in New York City and she said in the last three years that 39 have closed.

It wasn’t because the customers weren’t coming – they still were, some with cultish followings and hankerings for the kind of food you can’t get at McDonald’s or Wendy’s, but real grub that’s comforting.

“It’s just the other factors” – like rising rents and shrinking profit margins – that “are insurmountable,” she told the paper. “You just can’t make up that difference selling eggs,” she added.

Richard J.S. Gutman, the author of four books on diners, said the golden age for diners was the 1920’s, and then after World War II, driven mainly by Greek immigrants although in recent years those from Latin America, South Asia, and the Middle East have joined in.

Gutman said real diners are classic, such as factory-made “lunch cars,” often with stainless-steel finishes and neon signs, that New Yorkers used to see on street corners. He said there had been as many as 300 but only about 80 are left, products of another age.

Chen wrote that among those closing recently were the 38th Street Diner in Midtown (to make way for a hotel); the Market Diner in Hell’s Kitchen (replaced by a new rental building); the Crown Diner in the Bronx (bought by J.P. Morgan Chase); the original Georgia Diner in Queens (to make room for a mixed-use apartment building); and Kane’s Diner in Queens (bought by a residential developer).

CLOCK WATCH

Time is running out for others like customers staring at the clock over the counter and watching it dwindle away. The Neptune Diner in Astoria, Queens, which sits on a 100-by-90-foot lot, was sold in October for $10.35 million.

Noted for its Mediterranean tile roof and neon sign, the footprint is enough to build a 44,000-square foot six-story apartment building with commercial space on the ground floor, Michael A. Tortorici, an Executive Vice President at Ariel Property Advisors said.

Nick Tsoromokos, a partner at the law firm Tsoromokos & Papadopoulos, who represented the buyers, said the diner’s lease will expire at the end of August, but might be extended on a monthly basis. A manager at the diner said they expect to stay in business for four more years, but Tsoromokos said that was unlikely.

“The diner is a 747,” Paul Fetscher, an agent with Coldwell Banker Commercial NRT, who specializes in restaurant sales said in the Times’ feature. “It needs tremendous velocity to continue to make money,” he added, noting that many are open 24 hours a day.

Bill Tsibidis, 42, an owner of the Crosstown Diner in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, said he finally convinced his father, who’s from Sparta, to add deliveries to increase sales, and they now make up 40 percent of the diner’s business.

He also added other types of food, including Puerto Rican to the usual Greek-American offerings and put the diner on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to supplement walk-in customers too.

“You either change or you’re dead,” Tsibidis said, noting that one of their competitors, the Pelham Bay Diner, sold in January after 37 years in business. Wharton Properties, a commercial developer, paid $10.25 million for the diner and its parking lot.

Other places are doing the same or fending off offers while worrying they too, might face the fate of diners that couldn’t compete with the need for development in an era when they sky’s the limit for profits that can’t be made with “cheeseborger, cheeseborger, cheeseborger” like the old Saturday Live skit having fun with Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern, recast as the Olympia Diner right down to the stereotyped wait staff.

Gritsipis bought his building for $150,000 in 1980 and still lives upstairs in a two-bedroom apartment with his wife, Raquel and their 16-year-old son, open seven days a week except for his annual vacation to Kandila, in the Aetolia-Acarnania region of Greece.

“This is my house and place for 55 years – the hell with the money,” he said, adding that he regularly gets offers from developers, some from as far away as Kazakhstan. He said he once turned won an offer of $10 million because the buyer wouldn’t pay the tax.

“So I tell them, ‘Look, you don’t want to do it? O.K., let me go to the bathroom and I’ll be back,’” he said. “And still they are waiting for me.”

If he has his way, he said it will be turned over to his son, who wants to go to business school and now attends Saint Demetrios Greek-American School in Astoria.

His mother said, “I tell him, ‘This is going to be yours one day. And he says, ‘What am I going to do? Can I be strong like my father? Can I resist?’” No Coke. Pepsi.

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