BILLY KOULMENTAS INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
080614_00 – 00:00
[Chatter while setting up]
Billy Koulmentas (BK): …He bought in in 7 years…But what it is it’s the arrogance, there’s the demeanor, and talking down on it…like it’s their world and we’re just part of it. And I’m like, “Listen guy, I’ve been here since…like my family’s been here since the beginning, alright. You came from California. You better calm down a little bit and just understand what you’re doing here. Alright? Of course I want you to build, I’m not gonna let you do anything you want to do…
[More setup talk]
Mary Ann DiNapoli (MDN): So how often do you get to Aruba, speaking of pleasant things?
BK: Oh yeah. I try to go once a year. It’s my favorite spot in the world. It really is…You gotta go. It’s great. It’s guaranteed weather…
[Good room tone here]
MDN: How’s you dad Billy?
BK: He’s doing great. He’s actually in Europe right now. He’s in Greece.
ER (SLATE): It’s the 6th of September, 2018, and we’re interviewing Billy from George’s…
080614_01 – 01:01:51:12
MDN: Billy are you willing to tell us your age?
BK: Of course! I’m 47, turning 48.
MDN: and your professions is restauranteur?
MDN: Can we have your verbal permission to use this interview in our archive, for the public and possibly for radio?
MDN: 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, (Mic. rumble) 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 it 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 their children to this country.
MDN: And about what year was that?
BK: It was to escape the second world war in Greece. So I’m thinking about ’43, ’44, give or take. I’m not sure but I know it was during that process.
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, so…
ER: Do you have any idea what brought him to Georgia of all places?
BK: No idea. No. I always thought the same question. He passed away before I got to really know him.
MDN: So your parents as children first settled in Georgia?
BK: My mom’s side. Okay my dad’s side was always New York.
MDN: What part of the city…?
BK: They first came, it was Brooklyn. It was Brooklyn.
MDN: Do you know what part?
BK: No. No. And then they went to Washington Heights.
MDN: And did they maintain contacts with relatives in Greece?
BK: Of course. Of course. Of course they did. Still today. Yeah.
MDN: SO when did the business get started here? How did that happen?
BK: Well 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 always catered to my father. 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, then he came here. 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 bought and opened two more stores – bought two more stores.
MDN: Where were they?
BK: One was in Forest Hills, and the other one was in Jersey on route 4.
MDN: DO you still have either one of those?
BK: No. No. 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. I did. I did. 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.
ER: Where were you living?
BK: In 20 Pine Street.
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?…
080614_02 – 01:06:21:16
BK: Oh yeah! Nick. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
MDN: Tell us that story.
BK: Oh no. It was two brothers that had started George’s and they had another place as well which is not that far away, right by…Oh God! Right by the World Trade, what’s that street with Burger King?…Liberty…Yeah, well it’s not…It’s the store right next to it, which I think is Charlie’s now, and Steve’s Pizza?
ER: Oh yeah. That’s on Cedar Street.
BK: Cedar Street. So now these two brothers, one had that store and one had this store. And you talk about old school, they just, you know, they barely spoke English, but they worked hard…[MDN: They were Greek?]…They were Greek, yeah. 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, there was no, you know, they had to to take care of their family. And my grandfather, matter of fact, 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, 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 where the clerk (?) is.
ER: Who is that?
BK: My dad’s father.
MDN: And what was his full name?
BK: Gus Priovolos. (spells it)…
MDN: And he was mayor of what town?
BK: “Gatbenici” (Sound like ?). It was called a small village – Mikolo Coro (? Sounds like)
Mdn: And your mother’s side of the family was from where?
BK: That is my mom’s side.
080614_03 – 01:08:26:16
BK: …It’s from the mountains, and my dad’s from Kalamata, which is the southern part. So we had, you know, it was very unique that from both sides of the family I had both experiences where I had the mountain 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.
ER: And they invented the olive there! (laughs)
BK: Yeah! Yeah! The olive, yeah.
MDN: Do you know if your father ever experienced prejudice in the area here?
BK: No. No, I don’t think…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. He was in, you know, during Vietnam. So you would never think he was…But maybe my grandparents, but they never spoke about it. I’ll be honest. They never spoke about it.
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. 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, you know, 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.
080614_04 – 01:10:00:05
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, you know, English very well. And that’s what they did. That’s why, you know, you see it how 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 controlling, like the wholesalers, selling to the restaurants. And now what’s happening, you see more Spanish people becoming restauranters, because it’s just like a natural progression.
MDN: How old were you when you first started working with your father?
BK: Oh God, I was young. I would say 7, 8.
MDN: What did you do?
BK: I was a dishwasher helper, then I was a dishwasher, and then I was a delivery boy, then I was, 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.
080614_05 – 01:11:23:20
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. And basically through my education and through my knowledge with the banking and so forth, my father – When 9/11 occurred, we came down a year later – the building, the original building. And it was just more than he could handle, because the insurance company, they didn’t want us, you know. They had, “Well, we’re doing an investigation,” blah blah, blah, blah, blah blah. And we had to sue them, because we had, literally, the city came down. 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 9/11, 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, you know, 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: Now, did he own the building?
BK: He did. He did.
ER: So when he took over in ’81…
BK: He did not. He rented it. He leased 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 – A year and a half before 9/11. So that’s why it was very dramatic for him, because he, you know, he just bought the building and then 9/11 occurred. We were always down here, but you know, he put all his finances into down here, and then a year later, you know, 9/11 occurred, and then a year after that we came down.
ER: I want to hear the whole 9/11 story, but 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. Because it’s not rocket science. It’s good food, good environment, clean, you know, bright, and, you know, 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, you know. The curse is if you know what you’re doing – I’m sorry. Reverse it. It’s a curse and a blessing where 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, you know, 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. We were here when we were through…” Now it’s all progressing. Now you want to go, “Oh. I’m gonna take it from you.” Or you know, it’s ludicrous. It gets me very upset.
And you have these politicians who, they never really, I mean, know about small businesses because if they did, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.
ER: Have you talked to Brewer’s office about this…?
BK: No I haven’t. I’ll be honest.
ER: They might be helpful.
BK: You think so?
ER: They’ve helped us. We’ve had some problems in my building…
BK: Yeah, it’s just, but you get what I’m saying though? The fact that you have to go through this, instead of just doing what’s right. So for example, like, what I said earlier, 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? [Phone rings] I’m here just to work, 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! It’s crazy!
ER: It’s like, “Just work with me!”
BK: Correct! And make it happen where it’s…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. So these guys think, “Oh yeah. Yeah.”
080614_06 – 01:17:07:16
ER: When they demolished the garage next door they meant to harass us…
BK: Correct! But it comes to the point saying, “But wait a minute!.” You’re here what year, 1981, ’82?
BK: So, (to Mary Ann) what year were you here downtown?
MDN: I wasn’t.
BK:No, no, no no. But my point is, but being downtown, so you’re seeing every aspect of the good and the bad. 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. What I’m saying is that, so I’ve seen the spectrum just evolve. And what I’m saying is that we went through hell. Alright? And now it’s coming out. And now all these people feel like it’s their entitlement to come in and do whatever they want ‘cause they have, you know, deep pockets
ER: Nobody thinks about what was here before and what we’ve tried to do to keep it here. People like you who’ve been here from before, no one will take a lesson from you…but you guys held this place together. You bring the experience of the neighborhood and you have…the continuity.
BK: Yeah. Yeah…The continuity. And I’ll tell you, I remember as a child on this block alone there was maybe 4 diners.
080614_07 – 01:18:44:16
BK: …Four diners – You had Moran’s, you had the Trade Center Diner, you had so many places. You had next door, the bar. Oh God, I forgot the name of it. No, it was not Moran’s. It was an old time. They had 14 bars. It was like an old man who did it. He had the Blarney Stone. And you just, you see it how, it’s just gone! And I’m like the last man standing in a sense. ‘Cause, you know, how many diners are left in this area? Two? Me?
MDN: It can feel very lonely!
BK: …Oh yeah, but it’s not, it’s not healthy. It’s not done for it…One second…
MDN: Did you have something you wanted to finish saying?
080614_08 – 01:19:34:00
BK: No. 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 like I said, 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, because we were known as a breakfast lunch place. And when minimum wage was, you know, 4 dollars, 5 dollars and the waiters were making the tips everybody was more happy as compared to today. 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.
Plaza Diner in Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, alright? It’s gone! They’re closing down. Yeah.
MDN: Are you serious? Oh my God!
ER: I’ve eaten there a few times with my grandmother.
BK: Yeah. They’re changing. They can’t do it anymore. And you would’ve thought, and they’ve been around forever. So you’re losing people like me who are coming in, 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.
Which, it’s all about making money. It’s not about what’s right.
MDN: I remember your fight with the Board of Health!
BK: Yeah! ‘Cause think about it alright? You lower the temperatures, you lower the point system, you lower…Why are you touching something that worked for so many years? And you know why? Because it’s all about becoming a generating revenue stream for the city. Instead of controlling their books, instead of controlling their giveouts and handouts, alright? Because it’s like, you know, there’s only so much you can take from people like me where I say, “You know what? No mas! I’m out!”
ER: The bottom line is the developers have all the power with the city…
080614_09 – 01:21:38:15
BK: Correct. But when the foreign money stops coming in then what happens? And all of a sudden you lose people like me. And then what happens? There’s a Starbuck’s? I mean, then you lose the culture of a neighborhood.
MDN: Very much so.
BK: Right? Or you come in 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?” You know, something stupid, you know. Or a friend of mine, A A Greenwich 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. 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 that’s what I’m coming at.
080614_10 – 01:22:51:16
MDN: It’s places like yours that make the neighborhoods in the city. You know people who don’t know the city, their first reaction is, “Oh it’s a big cold place and you don’t know anybody.” But in places where there is the neighborhood feeling – in a place like yours gives it a neighborhood feeling, it is like a small town. And once you eradicate that, yeah, it’s gonna be cold.
BK: It is… And that’s what, you know, you said it best and I always say that New York City is a very large metropolitan area, but each neighborhood has it’s still its neighborhood where then it becomes a small, like town within a town. And, like, I can walk down the street and I know, how many faces, how many people? You know. “Cause my customers became my friends. And then it’s like, it’s like family in a sense. And that’s why it’s very hard for me to let go. You know, 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, cause I also have a commitment to my work, those who’ve been with me forever. You know, their families, I also have commitment to the people in the neighborhood . But how much is enough enough where it’s coming to the point that I’m fighting, like every day I don’t know what’s gonna hit me.
ER: I get the same feeling living here that I can’t leave. I have a duty to the neighborhood.
BK: Yeah. Yeah. It’s crazy. It’s really nuts!
080614_11 – 01:24:25:06
BK…And that’s what it comes down to where it’s very symbolic in a sense. 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. I mean living downtown, look at the village. There were so many mom and pops on Bleecker and so forth. They’re all gone!…Yeah. It’s sad!
080614_12 – 01:25:05:13
[MDN discusses GV Historical Society drumming up business for mom and pops]
BK: See the problem is now, it’s also too, it’s people aren’t realizing. It all comes from the government. When the government gets involved with their, you know, policies and their laws and so forth. It’s a trickle effect. Again, going back to minimum wage, going to 15 bucks an hour. That’s a trickle effect where now it’s going to cost me much more to maintain my staff. Okay? Now on top of that what does that mean? Now your burger goes from, say 5, 6 dollars, it goes to 10 dollars. Than how long can you afford to be paying that or live in this area? – Or your Tropicana now, for example, your orange juice in the supermarket was now 6, now, it’s now 15! Do you see my point what I’m trying to say? And that’s where it comes, saying, what are you guys doing? Why are you playing with a system that’s been working for years? Alright? And that’s what it comes down to because what incentive do I have at this point of just staying around? Alright? Now for example, now I’m fighting the developer. Why am I fighting the developer? Why is even a situation going on? Because he’s not getting what he wants, because it’s going back to entitlement.
MDN: Yeah. You shouldn’t have to do that. It’s crazy.
BK: You shouldn’t have to do it. It’s horrible!
080614_13 – 01:26:40:10
MDN: Billy, what year did you leave to go get your masters…?
BK: I left, no, I got thrown out of the business when I was…
MDN: You got thrown out?
BK: Yeah. Yeah. My dad goes to me, he goes to me, “You’re Bill, I’m George.” And he goes, “You have a brain in your head. Go figure it out. Go figure it out.” And he threw me out. He goes, “You’re not working at George’s anymore.”
MDN: When was that?
BK: That was just before I started…No. It was literally my third year of college, my third year of college. So what year was that now? Good question, ’92, for my bachelor’s, ‘91? (noise, turns form mic.) I always forget. I think it was…’92. Yeah ’92. And he threw me out, and he goes, “Go figure it out.”
So my first job was working for Metropolitan Life Insurance. I was basically selling insurance door to door. And I did very well at that and Chase picked me up and I worked for Chase. And then from there I 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 them, for a period of time. And that’s when I came back here.
080614_14 – 01:28:12:15
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. Oh God. 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. There was other diners like I said earlier. There was a lot of Greek community, where they would, you know, come in, like all the owners. They would play cards, like, every Friday night. Yeah…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. We’re like a family. Even though they’re our competitors, but they really weren’t competitors, where if you needed something, they would, you know, “Alright go to John’s place. We’ll get a box of ketchup.” You know.
080614_15 – 01:29:46:08
MDN: (talks about Charlie Sahadi doing the same on Atlantic Avenue)
BK: Yeah, Yeah. That’s what it is. And now they’re gonna. Now, for example Essex is leaving.
ER: Oh. Essex Street Market.
BK: Yeah. They’re gone. They’re leaving here. And they’ve been there forever. John’s been in this neighborhood forever, and now he’s being pushed out.
So it’s changing dynamically very, very quick. And you have (inaudible)…Maybe that’s progress, I don’t know, man. But I liked it when it was more of a family. I liked it when there was more, you know, you could walk down the streets. And you still have it in a sense where I know a lot of people, but they’re hanging on by a thread. You know? Like, for example, in this neighborhood I remember there was Jane. She had a gallery, which they’re now…On Greenwich, but 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 with their father, family businesses. And we all grew up together in a sense, you know. And I’m just trying to tell you, 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, the market (?), he’s gone in November. And Steve’s been in the neighborhood since I was a kid. Alright? He started in 19 Rector and now
ER: He wasn’t always there…
BK: No. He was on the corner where the pizzeria place is now. That was his place. It was a diner. Alright? And the he moved over here. Things got kinda tough for him 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. So what happened…?… I’m trying to understand this. So people will say. “Well, you know, times are changing.” Yeah, 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. What’s happening? Right? And why am I thinking about leaving? Why? Because it’s these outside forces that are coming in and they’re destroying the mom and pop! And we’re becoming like, Ohio!
ER: (Talk about “the strip”)…Every street with Jiffy Lube and MacDonald’s…
BK: Correct!…But that’s what it is…
080614_16 – 01:32:36:08
BK: …And that’s why it’s very sad, I think. 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!
ER: That’s all we’re gonna have.
MDN: Do you remember any Syrian or Lebanese businesses down here?
BK: No I don’t…[MDN: It was probably too late.]…Yeah.
MDN: Were there any business organizations in the area that were started by Greeks…?
BK: We had the Hellenic…I forgot what they called it…The Restaurants Hellenic Society, and that was sort of a communication between all the restauranteurs and all that. But we just, everybody just worked hard, you know. It was never like…You’re talking about…My dad would wake up at 4 in the morning, be here by, you know, 6, you know, 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. Nothing’s easy! You know, and that’s why at certain times, 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? And, you know, when certain politicians say, “Well, you know what? You’re successful because we built the roads for people to come to you.” Well if you built the roads then why [isn’t] everybody successful?…You know what I mean? And it just tells you the disconnect where you have career politicians who have no clue as to what’s going on because all they know is Washington. Right?
It’s funny. I saw a show the other day, a documentary, with the cocaine coming to Florida, back in the 80’s and so forth. Right? And one of the senators that was on the committee back then that was going after them was Biden. So if he was in the head of the committee back then, so he had to be a senator from ’76, ’77 – So, you’re talking about decades here now in politics. What do they know about the common person? Right? Schumer. What’s he know about the common person? Cuomo, who never had a job? What’s he know about the common person? And that’s why we’re having problems. Because if it was me, but whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. (?) You gotta do certain things here. You gotta make sure these people are able to survive because if we lose that then we lose our culture. But they don’t seem to care about that. You know what I mean? And that’s why we’re having these difficulties. You know.
080614_17 – 01:35:25:21
BK: That’s what it is. That’s the world we live in now.
MDN: What can you tell us about Saint Nicholas Church?
BK: That’s embarrassing. Number one. The money disappeared from what I heard…
MDN: [Laughs] Go back to the original!…
BK: Oh! Oh my God! That’s embarrassing. The priest took the money. Come on. They raised more than enough money to build that church. And that’s gone?
ER: And they’re covering their ass…
BK: Yeah, oh, God!
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. Yeah. And of course during Easter we would walk around…Yeah. Yeah, 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. It was, 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?
BK: Yeah. At night…at night. And they’d bless the neighborhood, and they would go…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. Yeah. Yeah. They did. And they would go and jump in there and pick it up…[MDN: On January 6th right?]…Yeah. 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. You know. And we were very fortunate to have it for many years.
MDN: Do you remember any of the celebrations or festivals in the neighborhood?
080614_18 – 01:37:27:06
BK: Of course! Of course! Listen, you know, the whole neighborhood, it was a neighborhood! You know, like I say it was like a village in the big city. That’s what I consider downtown – a village in the big city. And you had people back in the ‘80’s who lived, literally, you know, people like yourself. And you had David Wolfe. Now who’s David Wolfe? He was another guy, he did all the clubs at night, the music and the lights and so forth. He lived, literally down the block. 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 the downtown and it was very boutique-ish in a sense. 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. After 9/11. Yeah, because the real Wall Street moved to Jersey City, all the back offices and so forth. And with technology, you know, they didn’t need to be downtown anymore. And that whole market changed too, dramatically, with the exchanges and it just changed the whole situation. I’m hearing stories that the New York Stock Exchange, they might make it into a catering hall…a catering hall. So…
080614_19 – 01:38:48:09
ER: …I have a question for continuity, how old were you when your father took over…?
BK: He bought it in ’80…I was, God, 11 years old? 11 years old approximately. But I was working with him when I was 7 cause we would work…I remember driving to the Waldorf with him and…Cause he always wanted to have that work ethic, that nothing’s for free. 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, leave the base. So every time his orders came to go to Vietnam, they were denied. So he did his tour in the United States.
080614_20 – 01:39:42:08
BK: So he was very fortunate in that.
MDN: Were you or your father at the restaurant on 9/11?
BK: Oh. My Dad was in Greece and he was flying back that day. I was working at the bank and my sister came here. We always kept a family member in the store. [MDN: What’s her name?]…Maria…And she called me up, she goes, “Where are you?” I go, “I’m in the bank.” She goes, “Look at 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.” We thought it was more of a (?) give or take.
MDN: Where were you working?
BK: I was working in Citibank in Astoria. And I was on a train going in to the bank and I just looked out the window downtown. And I said, “Don’t close George’s. Don’t worry.” Cause I was thinking back like in ’92 that they’re gonna – You know, you never thought that the buildings were gonna come down. I never think that. I thought that 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 come in. And then the second plane hit. And I’m like, “Oh God!” Now I’m like…Communications went down, everything went down. And I (?)…I had no idea what was going on. And everything shut down really fast. I even had to walk across the Queensborough Bridge. I lived on 38th St. at the time. And I’m like, “Oh my God!” And like, you couldn’t get down there? It was just…Everything was shut down. The military took over. And I remember her coming to my house thank God. And she goes…
ER: She walked?
BK: From here to 38th Street, all covered in suds, 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? Huh?”
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.” Alright? And then we, I think we were the first store to open up down here. And we were giving orders and masks and so forth.
MDN: How many days? The next day?
BK: We opened up within 5 days, 5 or 6 days. We were opened up and running. We Were the only place down here, cause it was considered the “red zone” back then.
ER: (Talks about the red zone and having to show ID and remembering George’s was open)
BK> Yeah…Correct…Yeah. We were the first place. Cause I think Guiliani wanted to keep George’s open where the people didn’t feel like they were going to a truck – the responders and so forth.
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. I’m like, “Oh my God!” Total destruction. And I remember, cause we’ve been here so long that we knew a lot of the people from the fire department, the police department. And so we called a couple people up and they gave us special clearance to come through security. Cause there was, at 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, he goes, you know, “How’d you get so far in here?” number one, and he goes, “You better speak proper English.” [Phone rings] I go, “Calm down. See this key? It opens the store right down the block, right there. “ 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, what happened too, all the stores were closed, and you know, and people were coming in to loot and so forth. And the military came in and took control of the whole area. Which I never experienced that in my life in New York.
ER: (talks about fire department looting Liberty Street apartments)
BK: Yeah. I believe that.
080614_21 – 01:44:35:15
MDN: Now, when were you able to re-open?
BK: Oh. Within days we were open. Yeah.
ER: SO with this guy not letting you in though…
BK: No. My father came back. He flew in, I think they opened the following day. He flew in. 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: Were you protecting yourself?
BK: No! We didn’t think.
ER: How’s your health?
BK: Thank God. Matter of fact I just increased my insurance with my family and everything checked out great.
ER: You sister and your dad?
BK: Yeah! Everything’s great! (Interruption)
080614_22 – 01:45:22:02
[Cuts in, talk about old George’s sign]
BK: I loved that sign! The “lunch” on it? Oh, I wish I had that sign, I really do.
[Talk about photos]
MDN: So you didn’t know anything about the crack until a year later.
BK: No. We had no clue! No, we had no clue. If we knew about it we would’ve…
ER: SO when you opened after 9/11 it was mostly Fire department…?
BK: Oh yeah. It was a lot of military. It was fire department, police department, sanitation department, a lot of I 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. We were giving away waters, masks. I had a friend of mine who’s a major plumbing company. So he used to donate through us to sort of give it out. Yeah it was just, it was traumatic, but we also came together as a group. That’s why I’m going back. You know, people forget that. You know, people come by every 9/11 it drives me nuts. It’s like, you know, (?) well, “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!” You know, there’s no…And it’s like, people forget how bad it was. Right? And we all came together in fact.
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.
[Talk about the red zone and how cars couldn’t get through]
BK…Washington, you couldn’t get…Yeah. And so, but, I didn’t be like, “Okay Brian we’re not giving you any food.” No! We helped…
080614_23 – 01:47:47:07
BK: We helped! And that’s what I’m saying. That’s what gets me upset now. Fast forward how many years, now it’s progressing. It’s like Emerald City now. It’s beautiful. It’s great! But wait a minute – The people who suffered are being pushed out now? That’s what gets me upset.
ER: (Talks about the context of what was there before)
BK: Correct. And…(sigh) I don’t know. It just gets me upset sometimes, cause you just – I understand. I’m not saying not to progress. I’m not saying that. Of course! Things change all the time, but you have to keep in mind though. You know, there has to be sort of balance here where there should be, I don’t know. People say, “Wait a minute!” You know? Like, for example, you’re knocking down Essex, right? So a developer bought those two buildings, and they’re knocking the guy down, which is, I guess, progress? But is that progress now? And what’s he gonna put there? Another hotel?…
ER: Another hotel and a Rite Aid!
BK: Yeah, because what’s happening now is that you have an influx of people coming in, and then all of a sudden here it’s becoming hotel row on this side. You have a lot of hotels around this area right now, and two more coming online. So that the guy behind be is gonna build a hotel, and even the American Stock Exchange is gonna be a hotel. Right? And they’re anticipating a heavy influx. So we’re becoming Times Square? Is that what it is?
And then Greenwich became the hotspot because the first floor they made of the original World Trade there was no pass through…
080614_24 – 01:50:06:09
BK: 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. You know. Cause people are changing their addresses to Greenwich now on purpose.
ER: That’s one of the things that broke this neighborhood up…because there was no way to come through.
BK: And I remember back in the 80’s it was amazing how on this side of the World Trade it 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.
ER: There was nothing to steal from here for a while!
BK: Yeah, but on the other side it was. People (?) were like a mark. You might be careful when you walk on the other side.
080614_25 – 01:51:10:12
MDN: It seems to me that they did these studies after 9/11 about what was here, what could be here, but then it seems like the development just went rampant, like if anybody made a plan nobody stuck to it.
BK: Listen, they never did it properly. They never anticipated the amount of schools coming in or they never anticipated the amount of the situation going on or whatever it is.
ER: The infrastructure, they have to build for more people.
BK: Yeah. Correct.
MDN: Was the restaurant affected by Sandy?
BK: No! No….[Phone call]…So what happened was, no, we were fine, cause when we built back the building we put French drains around the perimeter. Cause I remember in the old, 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.
ER: You’re on a hill too!
BK: But all landfill properties got destroyed. 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, everyone around us was destroyed! SO we couldn’t, you know, it was very tough!
080614_26 – 01:52:41:16
ER: Let’s go back to after 9/11…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. 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 started, opened up after that we had 2 waiters for the entire store. Alright?
ER: And your employees, they didn’t all come back?
BK: No. No. They did not. They did not. Cause it took us about 2 and a half years, 3 years to build it back, because the city was – We were a small building bing built so it wasn’t the city’s priority to have us first – so the gas hookups, this and that. We had to wait. We had to wait. You know, over and over again. So, and that’s what killed us, the delays. They didn’t make it easy, you know…
ER: Could you get any help from the city in terms of monetary compensation?
ER: There was a thing that the community board helped set up where small businesses could get help, but you didn’t…?
BK: No. No. Nothing.
ER: So you stayed open, and then tell us about the crack and what happened.
080614_27 – 01:54:30:22
BK: Well, // when 9/11 occurred there was a crack in the foundation by the corner of Rector and Greenwich. And anyway, long story short we didn’t even know it – a hairline fracture type situation. We realized it when the train the (number 1?), the vibrations, it cracked us. And then we saw the corner going more like, tilt and went this way. And then the fire department came in, 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.
ER: Do you have a date?
BK: No. I don’t remember to be honest. I’m not sure.
ER: Was it within the year, or after?
BK: It was in the summer…No! It was when the trains opened up. So that’s probably (?)…Cause it was about a month after that it occurred. And I remember it was during baseball season. We went to the baseball game. And it was, yeah, so it had to be in August or July. It was summer…[ER: of 2002…]…Two, yeah.
ER: And tell us about the whole process of having to knock it down.
BK: Well the city – There was no process. The city knocked it down, so there was no process. They just gave us the bill for the demolition. Alright. So, it was just, was gone within hours, hours.
ER: Everything inside.
BK: Everything. Everything.
ER: But, salvage?
BK: Nothing. Nothing. So, it was complete destruction. Yeah.
ER: What about papers or records…?
BK: Nope. Nope. 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. He sold his houses, everything. And that’s how we did it. It was very tough.
ER: He had some real estate?
BK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
MDN: It’s like starting from scratch.
080614_28 – 01:56:46:14
BK: Yeah. At his age. But we were so determined…to stay here. That’s what it was. We got offered…He could’ve sold out. You know, 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!, You know. 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. You helped do that.
BK: Yeah. Correct.
ER: Now he only built, 3, 4 stories. How come he didn’t build a giant hotel or whatever?
BK: Well, we didn’t have the money number one, to do it. Plus the floor-plan, if you went past a certain level – cause now with the new laws, with 9/11 after, you know, you need two stairwells to get out, you need fire…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.
ER: I don’t know that dynamic so I was curious, but I was glad that it stayed the same size.
BK: Yeah. Oh Yea, That’s why people try [walks away from mic] to buy me out all the time, but…[Beeps]
080614_29 – 01:58:23:04
BK…buy me out all the time, but it’s just like I said, it’s, you know, it’s getting tighter and tighter. It really is, cause they’re making it very hard in order to survive.
MDN: Is there another generation interested in taking over…?
BK: Oh, I wouldn’t let that happen.
MDN: You’re it.
BK: That’s it. When I’m (?) it’ll all stop here.
ER: Not your kids? Not your sister’s kids?
BK: No. 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. Cause like I said, it’s getting way too difficult – the taxes, it’s just, the bureaucracy. You know. It’s all a tax, you know, everything. It’s about making money. Money, money money. And where’s the money going? You know what I mean? That’s why these politicians, I’m going towards them, cause they’re the ones responsible.
80614_30 – 01:59:16:17
ER: So, how long did it take you to re-build?
BK: Three years it took us to rebuild. Three years.
ER: Tell me about the reopening, did you keep your employees…?
BK: We kept…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.
ER: I remember a black guy with a gold tooth…
BK: Oh, David. David. David. He’s a great guy. Yeah, but I couldn’t blame him. We asked everybody to come back, but you know.
ER: And you couldn’t pay them when they weren’t working.
BK: Correct. No. It was tough. Yeah.
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, it’s like I said earlier. Everybody’s family in a sense. It’s great, you know. It’s a really unique situation, unique being here as long as we have been here. And I don’t see, like yourselves, I don’t see people as customers, I see them as friends. But, like I said, but I’m feeling now the tightness where it’s getting harder and harder. That, I’ve got to raise my prices, and that kind of bothers me a little bit, because I’m getting it from all ends, all sides. And it’s tough. Even the insurance companies, you know, they raised my insurance because the museum opened across the street, the Tribute Museum. So they raised my insurance for terrorism. You know? It’s just, like, you can’t win! You can’t win. So it’s just like, how much, you know, how much can I charge for eggs? Right?
MDN: That’s crazy!
ER: As long as we’re asking about customers, do you have any stories…?
BK: Oh yeah! Of course!…
80614_31 – 02:01:31:12
BK: 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 was a regular here. And they come in and you would never know they’re here. You would never know they’re here. And it’s funny…Was it Felt or was it Carmello? There was a basketball player on the second floor sitting in the middle of the tables and a kid just looked up at him, he goes…[Laughs]…And it was adorable. It was adorable!
MDN: Billy is putting his finger to his mouth indicating to be quiet!
BK: Yeah!…But it was great! It was great. And like I say, you know, it’s a unique situation where you have, you know, everybody comes here from the bum in the street, technically, to the mayor of New York, to celebrities to the person who, you know, works in an office job. And that’s what it is. And the biggest compliment I get is from people from like, overseas who make it a point of coming here. And 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.
80614_32 – 02:02:52:22
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. All the time. 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. It really is.
ER: 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. To be honest. I’d be lying to you. I don’t know the exact date. Don’t forget it was all like a fog. It was all, it was very much for us. Yeah. I could look it up and find it, but it was more of, like on a mission to get it going, to get it done. And I do remember one thing that was very dramatic that touched me very well.
80614_33 – 02:04:04:14
BK: 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. Yeah. That was a very touching moment. And that was a very touching moment for us. And that showed the love of the neighborhood and a lot of companies gave us a lot of business. You know, I remember another company, they said, basically, he goes to his workers, “Everybody eats at George’s.” And that’s it. And that’s what it came down to. And it was very, very, you know, warm and welcoming to the neighborhood, back. And that’s it.
80614_34 – 02:04:55:07
MDN: So you were working, you came back to work after 9/11 or after the building was rebuilt?
BK: Me?…I came back after the building was rebuilt. After it was (?) I came back into the business, cause my Dad just couldn’t do it, you know. It was just too much. It was more emotional than anything else. It was more like, again think about it – You know, you’re retirement age coming up and everything you had is just gone [Mic. hit]. Alright? It’s tough. Tough.
MDN: It says a lot about you and him that you came back and started all over again. It takes a lot.
BK: Yeah. Yeah! It really did. And that’s why again – I’m repeating myself, that’s why it’s disheartening. It’s very, it’s saying, “Come on! Why? Why?” That’s all…Okay? Anything else?
80614_35 – 02:05:48:15
MDN: Anything else you’d like to say?
BK: No. No. No. No.
ER: Why don’t you tell us one more time about Sandy and how it’s affectewd you?
BK: Sandy, we were okay, thank God. The store was structurally fine, there was no flooding, there was nothing. The problem was with us, that 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 the 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.
ER: I didn’t have power for 2 weeks.
BK: Yeah. We got it right away. 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 here, 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 – That or nothing (?). It was just, again rebuilding, again. You know, 9/11 then Sandy, then you have to rebuild again and you gotta do this and you gotta…
ER: It’s daunting. At least it’s not as bad, but once you’ve been through it you don’t want to go through it again.
BK: It gets too tiring.
80614_36 – 02:07:36:20
BK: It’s tiring. Like, I’m tired. I’ll be honest.
ER: I wouldn’t leave when Sandy was happening because I’ve done it already! I can’t do it again.
BK: Yeah! Yeah. It’s crazy! It’s a lot! It’s truly a lot. So like I said, sometimes again, it’s overbearing in a sense. Like, I’m tired. I’m 47 turning 48 now and I’m like, tired. And I shouldn’t be tired, but everything else around, like everyday it’s something new, it’s something, you know. You know, like frivolous lawsuits, to give you an example, workers right, they feel like everything’s entitlements with labor this and that. I fought two suits already. Right? I won them both, but still had to pay something out to my lawyer fees and all that. Do you know what I mean?
ER: Yeah. It’s still gonna cost you.
BK: Still gonna cost! And it’s just like now this lawyer, I have to pay for my lawyers now for this guy. Now I’m gonna have to sue him back. Why? Why? Why?
80614_37 – 02:08:40:10
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. And Bloomberg…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. They were just going, you know, they didn’t even know the temperatures. 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, 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.
MDN: What year was this Billy?
BK: I don’t remember. Oh God! Maybe 5 years ago, 6?
ER: No, I think been longer than that.
BK: Has it been longer than that?
BK: And I started videotaping it. 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, “Don’t…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, right? So from an “A” to a closure. So the next day I was on the second page of the Post.
ER: [& MDN] Yeah I remember that!
BK: Alright? 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 a closure – 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. But I said, again, it’s about a money machine, it’s not about what’s right!
ER: Did that guy suffer…?
BK: I have no idea. I have no idea. To be honest, I have no idea, no idea whatsoever. But now they’re starting to go after things for example, 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! That might mean for example that there’s a, like a wall that has a hole in it down in the basement or something like…For example, they came in and said well, down by the stove downstairs – We have two kitchens and the one in the basement 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, a barrier.
ER: That’s the gas lever?
BK: Yeah. 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! They don’t know. My last inspection – I’ll give you and 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.
80614_38 – 02:12:57:20
ER: That’s like a DOB thing…It’s two different agencies…
BK: Correct! But that’s my point. That’s my point. And then you have Department of Transportation now coming in here with my guys – You don’t have the helmet, the lights, or no thing, the deflectors (reflectors)…
ER: For deliveries?
BK: …For deliveries. But what cracks me up is like, that never existed before. Now all of a sudden they care? Then why – CitiBikes, a lot – No helmets. Same street. Because I’m a target, because business is a target because it generates revenue! That’s all!
ER: Although you are responsible for your employees…
BK: A hundred percent! No, no, no. I agree. I agree! But that never existed. Why now? Why now? It’s another revenue stream. To me it’s like another tax. Now thank God we’re okay with it. We never had any issues with it cause we follow the law. But it’s coming to the point that it’s not about running a restaurant anymore, it’s about running about everything else instead of actually doing my job.
80614_39 – 02:13:58:17
BK: So, that’s it.
ER & MDN talk about more questions…
ER: Just to get more of a history…Who came here first to this country…?
BK: My grandparents. My grandparents – both sides – My mom’s parents and my dad’s parents.
ER: And what year?
BK: It was ’42 was it, ’43?
ER: Both at the same time?
BK: Yeah, to skip the war from the Germans in Greece.
ER: And they moved where?
BK: My father was Brooklyn and my mother, my grandparents went to Atlanta, but they didn’t like Atlanta and they came back to New York.
ER: Where in Brooklyn?
BK: I don’t remember. I think it was Flatbush but I’m not even sure. I’ll be honest with you. But then they moved to Washington Heights. That’s where my parents met in the church, the Greek church.
ER: And when did your grandfather start the restaurant business?
BK: Oh God…Well they both started as dishwashers. So when he opened his first store in Brooklyn? Oh, I don’t remember. I don’t know. I’d be lying to you.
ER: And that was before your time?
BK: Yeah. Way before my time.
[Talk about Saint Constantine & Helen in Brooklyn]
ER: And you always went to Saint Nicholas Church?
BK: Yeah. Yeah. All the time.
ER: Oh. I want you to say your name and spell it.
BK: Okay. My name’s William D. Koulmentas…[ER: Otherwise known as…]…Bill, Bill. Or, aka George. Everybody calls me George too. [Laughs]
80614_40 – 02:16:31:06
ER: Where do you see yourself and your businessvin 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: And is there a date at which you would retire?
BK: I don’t think I’m ever gonna retire. I’m never gonna retire. That’ll never happen. I’m always gonna do something for work and so forth. I just can’t stay home. But I’m not gonna be working, it won’t be 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. And 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, the last one. We opened the pizzeria, we had the bed and breakfast.
ER: Oh, where was the bed and breakfast?
BK: Right here. Right here on this floor. Yeah. Yeah…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! Because there’s no point. It’s getting too…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 that’s out of my control. And it’s not just me it’s every restaurateur. You have restaurants in the city that are closing down that have been around for 50, 70 or a hundred years! Why? Cause they can’t do it anymore, they’re done.
Plaza Diner – perfect example. Right? I heard it’s becoming a barbecue place.
ER: That seems to be the latest thing, like Clinton Hall.
BK: Aw, please!…But that’s what’s going on. Even Clinton Hall, Abraham. Right? He shut it down because he was like, saying you can’t do it! So he made it very simple – four items and liquor. And that’s it!
MDN: It’s a tough business in the best of circumstances.
END OF INTERVIEW