Billy Koulmentas grew up in the family business. He still remembers at 12 years old delivering burgers from his dad’s diner George’s (currently 89 Greenwich Street) to brokers at the New York Stock Exchange. Eventually, his father decided to throw him out. “‘Get out of the restaurant business!’ — and I did,” Koulmentas told the Downtown Alliance. “I got educated and went corporate.”
But after September 11, Koulmentas came back. George, in his early 60s by then, nearly went bankrupt trying to rebuild. Miraculously the shop pulled through, and Billy’s time away from the family business came in handy. He realized the menu needed an update to keep appealing to a changing landscape. “If somebody wanted a steak, going into a diner wasn’t the case anymore,” he said. “If you wanted a chicken parm, you’d go into an Italian restaurant. So I streamlined George’s for what you’d go into a diner for.” Cheeseburger deluxes, turkey clubs, eggs and brunch dishes filled the diner’s menu pages.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, no experience, in the restaurant industry or out, could have prepared anyone for that.
Koulmentas could have stayed open even through the worst of the curve, but a phone call from an employee’s mother, who was recovering from cancer, made him realize business had to be put on pause. “She called the store,” Koulmentas said, “and was like, I’m scared for him to go to work, because if he gets something in the subway or if a customer gives it to him or something happens, I could die. That’s when it hit home. I shut the store down immediately.”
Over the past couple months, whenever Koulmentas would check on the shuttered diner, he found notes on the door, like Please open up! and When are you coming back? In the first week of May, after being closed since March 20, Koumentas unlocked the doors for takeout and delivery. “There was more of a handle on what was going on,” he said. “When the PPP money came in, that was one of the triggers. I went, You know what? Let’s go!”
George’s still isn’t out of the woods (“I’m losing money; we’re still not making it”), but Koulmentas can recall a number of major setbacks in recent history (let alone the diner’s 70-year history) that nearly put them under. September 11 and Superstorm Sandy aside, he described “a major flood in the building” four years ago that shut down the restaurant for months. Still, that his family bought the building years ago helps a ton.
“If I had to pay $50,000 a month rent I’d be out of business,” he said. “We’ve been here forever. Without the support of the community, I would have been gone a long time ago.”