BILLY KOULMENTAS - INTERVIEW
BILLY KOULMENTAS INTERVIEW
[Interviewed by Mary Ann DiNapoli & Esther Regelson]
Billy Koulmentas (BK): Okay. My name’s William D. Koulmentas (Spells it) – Bill, or, aka George. Everybody calls me George too. [Laughs] Yeah. I’m 47, turning 48.
Mary Ann DiNapoli (MDN): and your profession is restauranteur?
MDN: Okay. Who are your parents and where were they born?
BK: My parents are Helen and George Koulmentas. They were both born in Greece. They came here when they were in their early years…They were both very young – six and I think, ten. They met in a Greek church in Washington Heights, through the Greek community and so forth. And that’s it
MDN: Was their family name changed in any way upon arrival in America?
BK: Yeah it was. It was originally “Kouloumentas.” (spells it)
MDN: And you spell your name now Koulmentas?
BK: Correct, yeah. That was courtesy of the marines. They always had to shorten it up, yeah, like that, during Vietnam.
MDN: So it was your grandparents who came with the children.
BK: Correct. It was to escape the second world war in Greece. So I’m thinking about ’43, ’44, give or take. I’m not sure.
MDN: Billy did they know anyone when they came here?
BK: They did. My grandfather on my father’s side did not, but my grandfather had family in Atlanta that sponsored them to come over. And he actually was another restauranteur as well in UA Hotdogs up in Macon, Georgia, around that area, but they didn’t like Atlanta and they came back to New York. I think it was Flatbush but I’m not even sure. But then they moved to Washington Heights. That’s where my parents met in the church.
MDN: So your parents as children first settled in Georgia?
BK: My mom’s side. My dad’s side was always New York. They first came, it was Brooklyn. And then they went to Washington Heights.
MDN: And did they maintain contacts with relatives in Greece?
BK:. Of course. Still today.
ER: And when did your grandfather start the restaurant business?
BK: Well they both started as dishwashers. So when he opened his first store in Brooklyn? Oh, I don’t remember. I don’t know.
ER: And that was before your time?
BK: Yeah. Way before my time.
What happened was, my grandfather was always in the restaurant business, and he had a place in Brooklyn. But he put my father first to go on his own. And my dad was a waiter in the Waldorf-Astoria for quite a long time, and he did very well there. He actually served almost every president and even Frank Sinatra. That was one of the guys that he’d be asked for. Anyway, long story short, as we got older, me and my sister, he wanted to give us more than he could. So he decided to go with two friends of his and open his first restaurant, which was George’s. He didn’t open it originally, he bought it from another family, and he happened to be called George as well, so it kind of fit. And then he opened two more stores.
One was in Forest Hills, and the other one was in Jersey on route 4. The partnership broke up. There was 3 of them altogether. They broke up and my dad kept George’s for himself.
MDN: Did members of your family ever live down here?
BK: I lived down here for a while, in 20 Pine Street. Until approximately 4 years ago I left. And the reason was because my kids. You know, I kinda felt bad they were playing ball in Chase Plaza (laugh) for getting the backyard and the freedom with the bikes and so forth. Yeah.
MDN: One time we were at a meeting and you mentioned the man with the handlebar mustache. I think he was Greek. Can you tell us about him?
BK: Oh yeah! Nick! It was two brothers that had started George’s and they had another place as well which is not that far away. It’s the store right next to it, which I think is Charlie’s now, and Steve’s Pizza? Cedar Street. So now these two brothers, one had that store and one had this store. They were Greek, they barely spoke English, but they worked hard. And that shows you how I see how it’s changing a little bit. Because, like, my grandfather, he was a mayor in his town in Greece, and my other grandfather, he had a lot of land. And they both left prominent lives to come to this country and they went straight to work as dishwashers and clerks. There was no handouts, they just did what they had to to take care of their family. And my grandfather, who was the mayor, he took such pride in himself going to work as a dishwasher. He would wear a suit. And then even to this day, at Smith & Wollensky, they promoted him to the guy in charge of the coats. Well, he passed away and again in his honor they put his name “Gus’s Corner” in the restaurant above the coats.
ER: Who is that?
BK: My dad’s father.
BK: Gus Priovolos. (spells it)…
MDN: And he was mayor of what town?
BK: “Gatbenici” (Sound like ?). It was called a small village – Mikro Chorio (? Sounds like)
It’s from the mountains, and my dad’s from Kalamata, which is the southern part. So it was very unique that from both sides of the family I had both experiences where I had the mountains of Greece and then I also had the beaches of Greece. Cause Kalamata is like, I would compare it to Florida. It’s on the mainland of the country, and it was like the southern part.
MDN: Do you know if your father ever experienced prejudice in the area here?
BK: No. Well, my father, he was very Americanized. He came here when he was about 6, 7 years old. He was a marine in the military during Vietnam. But maybe my grandparents, but they never spoke about it. I’ll be honest.
MDN: When your father bought the restaurant was it still sort of a multi-ethnic neighborhood down here? Was it mostly commercial at that point?
BK: Mostly commercial. I remember the whole dynamics. It was like, on the weekends we would close at 3 o’clock. It was all the blue coats from the exchanges and the banks and so forth.
ER: So, what year was it that he opened, that he took it over?
BK: He bought it ’81…’80, ‘81. I think it was ’81.
I was, 11 years old? approximately. But I was working with him when I was 7 Cause he always wanted to have that work ethic, that nothing’s for free.
ER: And he served in Vietnam before all this…?
BK: He was very fortunate. He was drafted into the Marines, but he was very good as a typist, so he was stationed in California. The general would not let him go. So every time his orders came to go to Vietnam, they were denied. So he did his tour in the United States. So he was very fortunate in that.
MDN: Do you have any idea of why it was that your ancestors went into being dishwashers? Was it because those jobs were easy to get…?
BK: That’s exactly what it was. They didn’t have the language. They couldn’t speak English very well. And that’s what they did. That’s why, you know, a lot of Greeks have restaurants. Cause when they first came over here who owned the restaurants at the time were the Jews. And the Greeks were basically the workers, the majority, in the restaurants. And as time progressed they became the owners and then the Jews went on to become the wholesalers, selling to the restaurants. And now what’s happening, you see more Spanish people becoming restauranteurs, because it’s just like a natural progression.
MDN: How old were you when you first started working with your father?
BK: I would say 7, 8. I was a dishwasher helper, then I was a dishwasher, and then I was a delivery boy, basically every aspect of the restaurant.
MDN: And where were you living at the time?
BK: Queens, in Bayside.
MDN: Were there a lot of Greeks there?
BK: Not as much, no. A lot of Greeks were in Astoria and Jamaica.
MDN: And what inspired you to stay in the family business?
BK: Well, what happened was I left the family business, and I had a career in Citibank. I got my masters degree. I did a lot. And what brought me back was 9/11. What happened was the building moved a hairline fracture when the World Trade came down.
ER: When did that happen? How long after 9/11?
BK: A year later. And we didn’t realize it. And we had the city check it out with engineers. Everything passed. It was no problems. But when the trains re-opened, the vibration caused us to crack. And the city didn’t want another building coming down a year later so close to the World Trade. So they said, “You have basically 3 or 4 hours to fix it.” on a Saturday, which was physically impossible. “Or we’re taking you down.”
And that’s what happened. It was more of a shock that we just came down and it was bad. And then it was very traumatic for my father. You know, to see all his life work go down in rubble. And then the insurance company goes, “Well you have 4 hours to fix it. Why don’t you try?”
And that’s how it started. Then we had to sue them of course. And we won, but it was very traumatic. And that’s how I came back into the family fold, into the business.
MDN: Was your father active in the restaurant after that?
BK: He was, but when the building came down it took something from him and he just couldn’t do it anymore. And that’s why I simply took over the reigns.
ER: Did he own the building?
BK: He did.
ER: When he took over in ’81…
BK: He did not. He rented it from the original guys. And when the old man passed away his children went to my father and they said, “Listen. Would you like to buy it?” And my father goes, “Sure.” And that’s how we took over as a family.
MDN: What year did he buy it?
BK: It was literally a year before 9/11. So that’s why it was very traumatic for him, because he just bought the building and then 9/11 occurred. We were always down here, but he put all his finances into down here, and then a year later 9/11 occurred, and then a year after that we came down.
ER: When he started the business how was the business, was he making money?
BK: Yeah. Yeah. We were doing well. George’s always had a good following. Cause it’s not rocket science. It’s good food, good environment, clean, you know, bright, and good quality. And we just always did well. But we always worked hard. It was nothing free. And it’s like a curse and a blessing the blessing is if you know what you’re doing you’re gonna make money, but the curse is you lose your life, because it’s non-stop. And it’s still non-stop. Like we discussed earlier. It’s so many factors now getting involved between developers trying to come into the neighborhood and demanding what they want to do, or feeling it’s their right now. But not forgetting, “Hey guys, we were here when it was rubble.” Now it’s all progressing. Now you want to go, “Oh. I’m gonna take it from you.” It’s ludicrous. It gets me very upset.
The fact that you have to go through this, instead of just doing what’s right. Like, this developer now, he’s getting into a tiff where he’s suing me right now in federal court because he’s not getting what he wants. It’s not that he’s gonna win, but why do I have to go through the aggravation? But now I gotta deal with this individual who doesn’t want to pay what the norm is and feels it’s his right or his entitlement, and how dare I stop? It’s crazy! Because why wouldn’t I want a hotel with 170 rooms next door to me? Of course I would want that! But because of my experience and because of what we went through as a family, I gotta make sure that this building is protected, and not just let him run rampant and do whatever he wants. And that’s what it comes down to. It’s not stop your progression, it’s simply taking and making sure that things are done properly, because for example, Sims, down the block, going under construction right? Look at Wogie’s. They punctured his basement. Right? I mean come on, the floods, the waters and so forth.
I remember the World Trade, the first one not being finished yet. Okay? So I’ve seen the dynamics of this neighborhood as a child. So I’ve seen the spectrum just evolve. And I’ll tell you, I remember as a child on this block alone there was maybe 4 diners. Four diners – You had Moran’s, you had the Trade Center Diner, you had so many places. You had next door, the Blarney Stone. And you you see it how, it’s just gone! And I’m like the last man standing in a sense. ‘Cause how many diners are left in this area?
What I’m saying is that what’s happening right now, this whole area is changing dramatically. And I don’t know if it’s good or bad in a sense. Only time will tell. But from what I saw as a child to where it is today, we’re losing the mom and pops. Even myself it’s getting harder. I close George’s at 5 o’clock because financially I can’t afford to keep it open past that. And now the politicians are forcing big businesses to come in and forcing guys like me to leave. And I’m getting phone calls left and right about stores that are going for sale or they’re simply shutting down.
So you’re losing people like me, because it’s getting to the point that it’s not fun anymore. It’s not just working. You have to deal with bureaucracy. You have to deal with stress, and then you have nonsense, you know, like the Board of Health changing. It’s all about making money. It’s not about what’s right.
But when the foreign money stops coming in then what happens? And then all of a sudden you lose people like me. And then what happens? There’s a Starbuck’s? Then you lose the culture of a neighborhood.
MDN: Very much so.
BK: Right? For example, you could come in and say, “Bill, oh my God, I forgot my wallet!” I have no problem! “Here guys. Eat.” I’m not gonna worry about it. But try doing that at a McDonalds or a Starbuck’s, see what they tell you. “Alright, give me the food back.” Alright? And that’s where you lose the culture, where you know the name, the faces. If you’re in trouble can we help you or “Oh Bill, can you do me a favor? I forgot, can you send me over a Bounty?” Or a friend of mine goes, “Bill I forgot avocado, can you…?” Of course! Yeah. I can fix some avocado!
ER: Now I remember, I think you used to be open late…
BK: We used to be 24 hours.
ER: Yeah. Because I used to think when I first moved here, cause the streets were dead, if I ever needed help I could go to George’s. [BK: Yeah! Yeah.] …If someone was following me I could go into George’s…
BK: And unfortunately it’s going away more and more and more. And it’s sad. And I always say that New York City is a very large metropolitan area, but each neighborhood becomes a small, like town within a town. And I can walk down the street and I know, how many people? Cause my customers became my friends. It’s like family in a sense. And that’s why it’s very hard for me to let go. Cause I was offered a lot of money to sell this place many times. And I could retire in a sense, but I’m not. But how many times can somebody get punched? Right? You have Hurricane Sandy, you have 9/11, then you have the city coming at you. And I say, “Wait a minute guys! Whoa whoa whoa!” Make it easy for small business. Cause once you take that away you lose the foundation.
MDN: Billy, what year did you leave to go get your masters…?
BK: No, I got thrown out of the business. My dad goes to me, “You’re Bill, I’m George.” And he goes, “You have a brain in your head. Go figure it out. And he threw me out. He goes, “You’re not working at George’s anymore.”
It was my third year of college. So what year was that now? ’92.
So my first job was working for Metropolitan Life Insurance basically selling insurance door to door. And I did very well at that and Chase picked me up. And I worked for Chase. They did pay for my MBA. They paid for everything for me. And then from there Citibank picked me up. And I was basically in charge of Westchester and the Bronx, for a period of time. And that’s when I came back here.
MDN: Going back to when you were much younger, what were your earliest memories of the neighborhood?
BK: Oh my God! It was all office. The whole neighborhood died after 4 o’clock. It was very quiet. George’s was 24 hours back then because we used to cater to Sanitation, the police department. They would come in the middle of the night, about 2 in the morning. 3 in the morning, transit workers and so forth, more city employees. It was mostly a very robust area during the day, Monday through Friday between the two exchanges.
I remember the World Trade, the original, not being completed yet. Battery Park was just Gateway at the time. Then they started building it, which was all flat land. Yeah, it was just a different area. It was just totally night and day.
MDN: Were there any other Greek establishments around?
BK: There was. There was other diners like I said earlier. There was a lot of Greek community, where they would come in, like all the owners. They would play cards, like, every Friday night. They would come here, or they’ll go there, they’ll take turns. And it was like, they stuck together. It was more like help in a sense. Where they were like a family. Even though they’re our competitors, but they really weren’t competitors. If you needed something, my dad’d be like, “Alright go to John’s place. We’ll get a box of ketchup.
It’s changing dynamically very, very quick. Maybe that’s progress, I don’t know. But I liked it when it was more of a family. And you still have it in a sense where I know a lot of people, but they’re hanging on by a thread. Like, for example, in this neighborhood I remember there was Jane. She had a gallery, now they’re up in, uhhh, 120 Broadway. Then you had also the jewelry store – the 2 young girls. They were also on Greenwich. They were family businesses. And we all grew up together, but they’re all looking to get out. And you’re talking about people who’ve been in this neighborhood, for how many years?
The market next to the pizzeria, Variety Market, he’s gone. And Steve’s been in the neighborhood since I was a kid. He started in 19 Rector. He was on the corner where the pizzeria place is now. That was his place. It was a diner. And the he moved over here. Things got tough for a while so he switched over from a food establishment to a sort of a market. And even now, he’s like, “I can’t do it!” And you’re talking about people who’ve been here forever. People say, “Well, you know, times are changing.” But you’re talking about people who’ve been around for 30 or 40 years! Not just for 5 years. So they knew what they were doing cause they maintained it for 30 or 40 years. So what’s actually happening that’s pushing these people out that have been a staple of this community? And why am I thinking about leaving? Because it’s these outside forces that are coming in and they’re destroying the mom and pop! And we’re becoming like, Ohio!
But that’s what it is, and that’s why it’s very sad. And it’s great what you guys are doing, trying to maintain it, but 50 years from now that’s what we’re gonna have!
MDN: Were there any business organizations in the area that were started by Greeks…?
BK: We had the Hellenic, The Restaurants Hellenic Society, and that was sort of a communication between all the restauranteurs. But everybody just worked hard, you know. My dad would wake up at 4 in the morning, be here by 6, leave here at 5:30, 6. By the time he gets home, 7 o’clock, and then do it again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. And that’s how the Greeks worked. It was very, very hard work. Like, I remember when my dad took a little offense to it. It’s like, “You know what? You work so hard. Nothing is given to you in this country. You have to work, but you have the opportunity to work, and if you do work hard you get rewarded.” That’s the idea of why we’re here and not in Greece now. Right?
MDN: What can you tell us about Saint Nicholas Church?
BK: The original Saint Nicholas, that was the church that we used to go to. Again, community – It was great. I remember as a kid we used to service them every Sunday morning with the donuts and the bagels and all that. And of course during Easter we would walk around…You know, with the cross…
MDN: Tell us about that.
BK: It was reminiscent of the old country in a sense. And that’s how we did it in Greece, and they simply copied that downtown. And the church! I thought it was the most beautiful church. It was old, boutique-ish. You know, it had a lot of history to it. And they tried to maintain it and they did for quite a long time.
MDN: So this was an Easter procession at night?
BK: Yeah. At night. And they’d bless the neighborhood, and the priest would walk in different stores and bless the stores going out.
MDN: And did they do the throwing of the cross in the river?
BK: Yes. Yeah. They did. And they would go and jump in there and pick it up. Yeah. And it was great because, think about this – Downtown Manhattan, the financial district of the world, right? And they had this situation where they had a little church, culture, vibrant. It was like, that same experience you would have it in a village in Greece, and you had it downtown. And we were very fortunate to have it for many years.
ER: And you always went to Saint Nicholas Church?
BK: Yeah. All the time.
MDN: Do you remember any of the celebrations or festivals in the neighborhood?
BK: Of course! Of course! Listen, it was a neighborhood! Like a village in the big city. That’s what I consider downtown – a village in the big city. And people loved it because it was quiet. And you could hop on a train and you could be anywhere in the city within minutes. And people just loved it downtown. But 9/11 changed everything at that point. It really did.
MDN: So when did you find that there were more residences here?
BK: After 9/11. Yeah, because the real Wall Street moved to Jersey City, all the back offices and so forth. And with technology, they didn’t need to be downtown anymore. And that whole market changed too, I’m hearing stories that the New York Stock Exchange, they might make it into a catering hall.
MDN: Were you or your father at the restaurant on 9/11?
BK: My Dad was in Greece and he was flying back that day. I was working in Citibank in Astoria, and my sister Maria came here. We always kept a family member in the store. And she called me up, she goes, “Where are you?” I go, “I’m in the bank.” She goes, “Look out the window downtown. A plane just hit the World Trade. I’m gonna close George’s down.”
And I said, “Don’t close George’s. Don’t worry.” Cause I was thinking back like in ’92 – you never thought that the buildings were gonna come down. I thought we were gonna get crazy busy because they were gonna evacuate the towers, like they did back in the 90’s with the first bombing. And then the second plane hit. And I’m like, “Oh God!” And everything shut down really fast. I even had to walk across the Queensborough Bridge. I lived on 38th St. at the time. And like, you couldn’t get down there. Everything was shut down. The military took over. And I remember her coming to my house thank God.
ER: She walked?
BK: From here to 38th Street, Yeah. Yeah. And she just started crying, she was hugging me. She said, “I’m glad you’re alive.”
And my Dad had no clue what was going on. And then what happened was the plane was coming into the States over the Atlantic. They turned around! The pilot goes, “New York is under attack. They closed their American borders”, and went back to Greece. So now imagine what my father says, “What’s goin on?
So they went back to Greece. And he called me up, my Dad, and he says, “Listen. You better go open George’s” I go, “Dad, I don’t think you understand how bad it is.” And then I think we were the first store to open up down here. We opened up within, 5 or 6 days. We were the only place down here, cause it was considered the “red zone” back then. And we were giving waters out and masks.
ER: What was your first experience getting back into the restaurant and how much work did you have to do?
BK: Oh forget it! It was major cleanup. And I remember the World Trade. We were given a sort of a showing of it, of when everything happened. You still saw, like the smoke coming out and so forth. And it was like a movie set. Total destruction. And I remember we knew a lot of the people from the fire department, the police department. So we called a couple people up and they gave us special clearance to come through security. Cause first you had a Canal Street checkpoint, and then you had a Seaport checkpoint, and you had different checkpoints controlled by the police and fire department. But as soon as you came here it was controlled by the military.
And I remember, I think it was the second day, I got through all the checkpoints. And I remember a guy stopped me, a full blown soldier, and he said to me, “How’d you get so far?” and he goes, “You better speak proper English.” I go, “Calm down. See this key? It opens the store right down the block. “ And I said, “I’m just coming to get my insurance papers and I wanna leave.” And he goes to me, “Let me escort you out now, because we’re arresting people.” Cause now, all the stores were closed, and people were coming in to loot and so forth. And the military came in and took control of the whole area.
My father came back. He flew in, I think the following day. As soon as they allowed him back in he got on the first plane out. So I think about 5 days we opened up. It was such a major cleanup too.
ER: So when you opened after 9/11 it was mostly Fire department, police…?
BK: Oh yeah. It was a lot of military. It was fire department, police department, sanitation department, a lot of I would assume secret service. It was just a lot of people.
ER: Were you giving food away at that point?
BK: No, no. In the beginning we were. We were giving away waters, masks. I had a friend of mine who’s a major plumbing company. So he used us to sort of donate through us to give it out. Yeah, it was just traumatic, but we also came together as a group. That’s why I’m going back. You know, people forget that. People come by every 9/11 it drives me nuts. Like, “How’d you feel?” So I’m, “How you think I felt during 9/11? I lost a lot of good friends.” I don’t want to think about it. You never forget. You know, they’re smiling, taking pictures. I’m like, “C’mon! Guys!” And people forget how bad it was. And we all came together back then.
I remember with Brian at Moran’s, he couldn’t get his bread, so we were giving bread from here cause we were the cutoff. So he couldn’t get his stuff, deliveries down there or anything like that, but, I didn’t be like, “Okay Brian we’re not giving you any food.” No! We helped!
Fast forward how many years, now it’s like Emerald City now. It’s beautiful. It’s great! But wait a minute now – The people who suffered are being pushed out now? That’s what gets me upset.
And then Greenwich became the hotspot because the first floor they made of the original World Trade there was no pass through, so now they realized that and they fixed it this time. So that’s why Tribeca is connected with the Financial District. You can walk right through. So that’s why everybody’s changing their addresses now to Greenwich. Like, 2 Rector is now 101 Greenwich. 88 Greenwich used to be 19 Rector. Cause people are changing their addresses to Greenwich now on purpose.
And I remember back in the 80’s it was amazing how on this side of the World Trade was safe but on the other side it was very dangerous before Tribeca really blew up. And there was a lot of robberies and a lot of theft going on.
MDN: Was the restaurant affected by Sandy?
BK: No! We were fine, When we built back the building we put French drains around the perimeter. Cause I remember in the old days when there was a heavy flood or the sewers backed up all the old buildings never had proper structure so we said we were gonna do it and put pumps in as well. So we were not affected. Plus, this is God’s land. What really got affected if you look back during Sandy was all landfill properties. Like it was God’s way of saying, “This is not your land.” And that’s what happened. And we were fine, but the problem was, everybody around us was destroyed! So it was very tough!
ER: So once you were open after 9/11 how was business? Cause other businesses were having a lot of trouble.
BK: It was very tough! Cause people weren’t coming back down here. A lot of the corporations left and they never returned. They found it cheaper and more structural to stay to Jersey. It was very, very tough going. I’ll give you an example – When we first opened up after that we had 2 waiters for the entire store.
ER: And your employees, they didn’t all come back?
BK: No. They did not. Cause it took us about 2 and a half years, 3 years to build it back, because we were a small building so it wasn’t the city’s priority to have us first – so the gas hookups, this and that. We had to wait. You know, over and over again. And that’s what killed us, the delays. They didn’t make it easy.
ER: So you stayed open, and how long was it…Tell us about the crack and what happened.
BK: Well, when 9/11 occurred there was a crack in the foundation by the corner of Rector and Greenwich. Anyway, long story short we didn’t even know it – a hairline fracture type situation. We realized it when the train, the 9 and 1, the vibrations, cracked us. And then we saw the corner going more like, tilt and went this way. And then the fire department came and they go, “Listen guys, you’ve got 3 hours to fix it.” And then the building department came in and they said they didn’t want another building coming down a year after the anniversary of 9/11 so they brought us down.
BK: It was, I remember it was during baseball season. We went to the baseball game. So it had to be in August or July. It was summer…[ER: of 2002…]…Two.
ER: And tell us about the whole process of having to knock it down.
BK: There was no process. The city knocked it down, so there was no process. They just gave us the bill for the demolition. So, it was just, was gone within hours.
ER: Everything inside.
ER: But, salvage?
BK: Nothing. So, it was complete destruction. Yeah.
ER: What about papers or records…?
BK: Nope. They said that the building was condemned, no one goes in the building, and that was it.
ER: And how did you manage to rebuild, you had insurance?
BK: Of course we had insurance, but we sold everything we owned, my dad did. He literally sold everything. And that’s how we did it. It was very tough.
ER: He had some real estate?
BK: Yeah. Yeah. But we were so determined to stay here. He could’ve sold out. The property was still worth money. He could’ve sold, but he said, “No. I’m going to build.” And he sacrificed everything he had. That’s why it’s so disheartening to what’s going on today. Like, “Guys, come on! What are you doing?” Now you want it from us cause now it’s valuable, but you don’t know what it took to get to this point.
ER: And you brought the business back here.
ER: Now he only built, 3, 4 stories. How come he didn’t build a giant hotel?
BK: Well, we didn’t have the money number one, to do it. Plus the floor-plan, if you went past a certain level – you needed two stairwells to get out, they changed the whole dynamics. So we lost a lot of space on it. And if we went high we’d need an elevator losing more space. So we did it to maximize the floor-plan.
MDN: Is there another generation that might be interested in taking over the restaurant?
BK: I wouldn’t let that happen.
MDN: You’re it.
BK: That’s it.
ER: Not your kids? Not your sister’s kids?
BK: No. Look, I can’t say that. I don’t know. Maybe they will, but I don’t foresee us being here for them to take it over. I’ll be honest. Because like I said, it’s getting way too difficult – it’s just, the bureaucracy. You know. It’s all a tax. It’s about making money. Money, money money. You know what I mean?
ER: So, how long did it take you to re-build?
BK: Three years it took us to rebuild.
ER: Tell me about the reopening, did you keep your employees…?
BK: No. We did not. They all found jobs. They all moved on. Three years is three years. And I don’t blame them. We had two that came back with us. But it was a new beginning, a new store, new everything.
MDN: Do you have any stories you’d like to tell us, about the restaurant life, customers, being on the Lower West Side?
BK: Well listen, like I said earlier. Everybody’s family in a sense. It’s great. It’s really unique being here as long as we have been here. And I don’t see people as customers, I see them as friends. But I’m feeling now the tightness where it’s getting harder and harder. It’s tough. Even the insurance companies, they raised my insurance because the museum opened across the street, the Tribute Museum. So they raised my insurance. You can’t win. So it’s like, how much can I charge for an egg? Right?
ER: As long as we’re asking about customers, do you have any stories?
BK: Oh yeah! Of course!…George’s became a spot where you have celebrities coming in here, athletes come in here. Colin Quinn’s a good friend of mine. Paul Cubby Bryant from the radio, KTU. He’s a regular here. And they come in and you would never know they’re here. And it’s funny, there was a basketball player on the second floor and a kid just looked up at him, he goes…[Laughs]…And it was adorable.
MDN: Billy is putting his finger to his mouth indicating to be quiet!
BK: Yeah!…But it was great! It’s a unique situation. Everybody comes here from the bum in the street, to the mayor of New York, to celebrities to the person who works in an office job. And the biggest compliment I get is from people from overseas who make it a point of coming here. And then they come here once and they’ll stay uptown the next time they come to New York or whatever it is, but they always make a point of coming back to George’s.
ER: Have you ever been written up in any of the travel guides?
BK: All, almost every one of them. Yeah, the place to eat, top 5 places in New York. Yeah. That’s how people find us. And it’s their word of mouth that pushes it, not us. I don’t pay for anything like that, or, you know. Us being here as long as we have, us running it like the way we’ve been running it. It’s a unique situation.
ER: Okay, I wanna hear about the opening when you re-opened.
BK: It was like a celebration in a sense. We tried to do a soft opening first so we could get the kinks out in the systems and you know.
ER: Do you know the date that you reopened?
BK: I don’t remember exactly. And I do remember one thing that was very dramatic that touched me very well.
The first day we opened up we were packed – A lot of support for the neighborhood and so forth. And I remember when my dad went to the second floor of the restaurant everybody just got up and started clapping. Yeah. Yeah. That was a very touching moment. And that showed the love of the neighborhood and a lot of companies gave us a lot of business. I remember another company, they said, basically, “Everybody eats at George’s.” And that’s it. And it was very, very, warm and welcoming.
MDN: You came back to work after 9/11 or after the building was rebuilt?
BK: Me?…I came back after the building was rebuilt. I came back into the business, cause my Dad just couldn’t do it. It was just too much. It was more emotional than anything else. You know, you’re retirement age coming up and everything you had is just gone Alright? It’s tough.
ER: Why don’t you tell us also about Sandy?
BK: Sandy, we were okay, thank God. The store was structurally fine, there was no flooding, there was nothing. The problem was with us, what affected us, we were on the same grid with the World Trade. So when they closed the World Trade out of fears, with the electricity they cut us off as well. So we lost power. On a side note, when they opened the power first it was the World Trade, we got power first here. So it was like a give and take.
But everything around us was destroyed. And we had no phone service or internet service either for quite a long time, cause Verizon at that point had all the regular phone lines but they went and changed to FIOS so they weren’t doing it, so we had no communication with anything. And that was tough on us too, because everything’s internet based and phone based. And it just, it hurt us a lot businesswise.
MDN: Was the restaurant actually closed for a period of time?
BK: It had to be closed cause we had no power! And plus we got evacuated.
MDN: How long was that?
BK: It wasn’t long at all, it was about 3 days give or take. Cause we had to be evacuated out of here. There was no way we could stay here. But it took a while to come back – It was just, again rebuilding. You know, 9/11 then Sandy, then you have to rebuild again and you gotta do this and you gotta…
It gets too tiring. I’m 47 turning 48 now. I shouldn’t be tired, but it’s just everything else around, like everyday it’s something new.
ER: Can you retell the story of what happened with the Health Department?
BK: Oh sure. That’s when they changed the systems over…It used to be like 24 points give or take and then they made it to 13 points, and then A, B, C.
My God! The Board of Health used to be like our friends in a sense. They would come in here, guys who knew what they were doing, guys who’d been around forever. And they would come in and they would say, “Okay. This is an issue, that’s an issue, that’s not an issue. That’s perfect. That’s great.” And then they’ll come back two weeks later and inspect the one piece that was an issue, let’s just say. Alright? Let’s make sure you fixed it.
Fast forward, and Bloomberg takes over, fires the old-timers cause they’re making too much money, and he brings in all these young people out of college, paying them $30,000 a year with a biology major. That’s all you needed to qualify. They had no idea about anything with food or anything whatsoever.
I had situations where they’ll put a thermometer into somebody’s food plate. I’m like, “What are you doing?” I could go on and on and on.
Anyway, long story short, there was an agent that came in here. And I knew he was looking to teach me a lesson. And it was proven too. Because what happened was his girlfriend was here prior. They worked together in the Board of Health. And she was an inspector. And I said to her, basically, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” She got insulted. She tells her boyfriend. He comes in to teach me a lesson, cause he said that to other people. Cause there was a big investigation done. He was looking to close us down, and I saw him doing that so I started videotaping him.
And he literally shut us down, where I lost my temper and was ready to kill him. And the cops came. I knew the cops. And they go, “We’re gonna lock you up. Don’t do it.” Blah, blah, blah. But where they made the mistake is that I happen to know David Silverman really well from the New York Post. So David came in here with a crew. Same day! And he walked around the store videotaping everything. Cause if it’s so bad and you close it down, So from an “A” to a closure. So the next day I was on the second page of the Post.
Yeah. Second (page) of the Post. And then who picked up on it? Danny? Who’s Danny? Another customer of ours – 1010 WINS. He had me on the loop every hour.
So from an A to a closure to an A all in two days. It’s crazy! So they closed me down Friday, we opened on Monday. Again, it’s about a money machine, it’s not about what’s right!
But now they started going after things that have nothing to do with food. So you see a grade – it might be a B or a C or whatever it is – but that might not necessarily mean that it’s the food! For example, they came in and said well, down by the stove downstairs there’s a lever for emergency cutoff by the Fire Department that you cannot close it off, cause God forbid if there’s a fire you have to be able to shut it down. They cited me for that – the Board of Health, saying it’s not open. I go, “But if I close it I’m gonna get a fine from the Fire Department!” [Laughs]
And they’re young kids! And they don’t know! My last inspection – I’ll give you an example. My condenser from the pipe got broken. It was busted up and I had my plumbers fixing it. She was more concerned about them fixing the pipe then checking the food temperatures or anything like that.
ER: I just want to ask, where do you see yourself and your business in 10 years?
BK: It won’t be here in 10 years. I see myself basically, maybe somewhere south, Florida, Texas, [phone rings] give or take, basically my time with my family, with my kids.
ER: Is there a date at which you would retire?
BK: I’m never gonna retire. That’ll never happen. I just can’t stay home. But it won’t be like this kind of level. Cause like I said earlier it’s a curse and a blessing. The blessing is you make money if you know what you’re doing. The curse is you lose your life. You’re always on call no matter what.
ER: You had the other business. Do you have other businesses now?
BK: No. That was the last one. We opened the pizzeria, we had the bed and breakfast. But no more. My goal at the time was to open one store a year in the neighborhood, but now it’s like, I’m staying with George’s and that’s it.
BK: It’s bad! It really is! The job is not the problem. That’s the best part. That keeps me going. It’s not the work, it’s everything around it
MDN: It’s a tough business in the best of circumstances.
END OF INTERVIEW