By Carol Tannenhauser
Demetris Raptis and Yannis Botsis, the new owners of BIG NICK’S at 70 West 71st Street, between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West, didn’t come to the Upper West Side looking to lease a 55-year-old, beloved, local landmark.
“Our business plan was to make another GYROSHOP,” Raptis said, referring to the two Greek restaurants the business partners and best friends own downtown. “We thought, we’ll keep the name to bring the crowd in and slowly introduce our stuff — gyros, falafel, spinach pie — all homemade — and, maybe, later on, the name BIG NICK’S would go away. But, after we saw the people’s reaction, we were, like, ‘We have to change our business plan!”
“We opened last Friday afternoon and people started coming in immediately, hugging us and saying, ‘Thank God, you’re back!’” Raptis explained. “We were like, ‘Wow. This never happened in our other stores.’ There, we had to fight to bring the people in. Here, the people hug us! We didn’t have to do nothing and people were running in and thanking God!”
Welcome to the Upper West Side.
“After two or three days of people saying, ‘Oh, I’m eating here since 1998. I was so sad they closed. I didn’t know what to do. Thank God you opened.’ I thought, ‘I owe it to them to keep the name and menu. We’ll have to see if they accept our other stuff here.
“Hugging us,” he marveled. “People we didn’t know.”
“We feel lucky for this place,” Botsis said.
“And proud,” Raptis added. “This is a neighborhood here. The other places we have is like fast food: people are working; they eat fast and go out fast. We don’t have the contact we have here. It’s nice. I’m proud we managed to lease this place, which is so much part of the neighborhood.”
They didn’t keep the exact name, he explained, “because we didn’t want to be confused with the lessee they had before. Big Nick’s is a common name, so we can use it. But we’re trying to reduce the risk of having any issues in our business because of whatever mistakes the old owners have done.”
In fact, the previous owners were ordered to pay $2 million this past November for violating labor laws by not paying their workers minimum wage, overtime, or, sometimes, at all. (That Big Nick’s also had different ownership from the one on Broadway that closed in 2013.)
“We are new owners,” Raptis emphasized. “We don’t have anything to do with the old company, although, most of the old staff came back. I always pay everybody everything the law says. I believe in paying people good. Of course more than minimum wage! I started as a worker not an owner. I know how it is, working for your pay.”
He recalled how he and Botsis had met, when they were just out of high school, working as waiters in Athens, Greece, “in a restaurant in front of the sea.”
As he spoke, the new awning went up outside the window. BIG NICKS PIZZA JOINT AND BURGER JOINT TOO had officially become BIG NICK’S PIZZA/GYROSHOP. The photos below show the transformation as it happened:
Inside, the first round of renovations is complete. “We changed the booths, we cleaned the wood, we painted the ceiling, and changed the lighting,” Raptis said. “We’re going to change the door so it slides open all the way, so people can have fresh air inside. We should be done in about a month.
“Otherwise, we try to keep everything the same and slowly implement the changes that we think,” he concluded. “Of course there will still be burgers. They also told me they used to work until five o’clock in the morning. I don’t know yet how busy it’s going to be. Definitely on Fridays and Saturdays, and, if it’s busy during the week, too, we’ll keep it. Maybe we’ll do 24/7. We’re excited to see how it goes.”
Photos by Carol Tannenhauser.