New York.- By Aaron Elstein/Crains
Photo: Buck Ennis
Meanwhile, revenue at the Bel Aire is rising about 2% annually, said Dellaportas’ 30-year-old son, Kalergis, who despite his father’s misgivings is confident he can run the diner, where he started busing tables at age 11. “My father always tells me I’m not tough enough,” said the younger Dellaportas, who goes by Kal and lives in a basement apartment with his 28-year-old brother, Peter, below their parents’ Astoria home. “I’m not the kind of person who berates someone in front of everybody else for doing something wrong, and he sees that as weakness.”
Kal Dellaportas attended St. John’s University for three years with an eye toward becoming a high-school biology teacher before heeding the family business’ siren call. He puts in 50 hours a week at the Bel Aire, but figures he can oversee the diner working just 20 hours a week by delegating more responsibility, something he said his father struggles to do.
In the meantime, he wants to create outdoor seating and beef up the bar offerings to boost revenue and better compete with other restaurants in Astoria. Besides the Bel Aire, the Dellaportases own a restaurant in Southold, L.I., called Six Three One. Kal, who works 20 hours a week there, wants the family to sell it and focus on the diner.
By comparison, according to the trade journal Restaurant Business, Tao Down-town reported $38 million in revenue last year–the most for any independent restaurant in the city—and Smith & Wollensky $26 million. Even so, the Bel Aire remains more profitable than many expensive restaurants, with Dellaportas disclosing margins of 6%, or about $200,000, in annual profits. Margins at Shake Shack are less than 2%, and are barely 5% at Ark Restaurants, which owns the Bryant Park Grill, among other eateries. (High-end restaurants tend to have lower margins than cheaper ones because they have to hire more staff, such as coat-checkers and wine stewards, not to mention the higher cost of unionized waiters and busboys.)
Success at the Bel Aire, which can seat 160 people at its tables and booths and 10 more at the counter, is based on getting customers in and out the door within 40 minutes without rushing them. It has to be that way, because the average check is just $14.
“When I took courses at the French Culinary Institute, we were told we had 40 minutes to get the food on the table,” Kal Dellaportas said with a can-you-believe-that look.
Bel Aire’s formula for homemade dining, prepared and served quickly, works because 5,000 people come in weekly. Breakfast and lunch are the busiest times; dinner draws seniors and families for the seven-course meals; and overnight is what Mr. Dellaportas called “the drunken crowd.”
They all come because somewhere on the 18-page, 1,500-item menu is something they want. Besides the usual sandwiches and omelets, there are such Greek standards as moussaka and pastitsio—plus Philly steak quesadillas, fettucini Alfredo and more than 60 different burgers, including a Thai version with red onions and peanut sauce.
Feeding so much to so many requires 3,000 pounds of potatoes, 1,400 pounds of chicken, 500 pounds of hamburger and 100 pounds of coffee every week. Four walk-in refrigerators in the basement hold it all. Diner menus can be huge because many of the same ingredients are used in different items. Still, it’s hard to find cooks who can quickly prepare 400 different dishes up to the family’s standards and assistants who can master 50 different sautés or 60 salads.
The elder Dellaportas is so concerned about losing his best people that he asked that none of his staff be named in this article because identifying them would make it easier for rivals to hire them away. That includes a pair of immigrant Mexican bakers who work in the basement.
While most diners today buy their baked goods from wholesalers, the Dellaportas family still makes its own bread and desserts. The baklava is perfectly balanced between sweet, nutty and buttery. “It should be good,” the elder Dellaportas said. “I’ve been a baker since I was young.”
Apart from staff, the secret sauce for Bel Aire is keeping a lid on costs. But that is getting harder. Egg prices have tripled since the spring, to $110 for 30 dozen, because of an avian flu outbreak. That translates to an extra $2,100 a week, Kal Dellaportas said. Passing that along to customers would mean reprinting the voluminous menus at a cost of $1,000. Moreover, the diner aims to tweak prices only once a year.
Labor costs for the 40-person staff are also rising, thanks to the healthier economy stoking demand for workers. Wages are poised to rise significantly in January after the Cuomo administration’s decision this year to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers by 50%, to $7.50 an hour.
Rent is another problem. Only a few diner owners had the foresight and means to buy the land under their restaurants in the 1970s, when property was cheap. Those who didn’t are vulnerable when their long-term leases expire and the inevitable rent hikes come. The average asking rents for Manhattan retail space have increased by 39% in just the past three years, according to the Real Estate Board of New York.
The Dellaportas family doesn’t own the Bel Aire’s land and pays $25,000 in monthly rent. Kal Dellaportas says they have a long-term lease with an accommodating landlord, but his father isn’t so sanguine. “Every day in the city they throw people out,” Archie said, referring to landlords evicting diner owners. “If they drop me out, they drop me out.”
PHOTO GALLERY: The surviving diners in the city
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Skylight Diner near Penn Station
The Skylight Diner near Penn Station offers a genuine egg cream (which contains neither eggs nor cream) for $3.25, according to its online menu.
BETWEEN COST PRESSURES and the seemingly endless hours, many in the next generation of diner-owning families don’t want to keep their eateries going. “The next generation has opportunities their parents and grandparents didn’t have,” said Kasselakis Kyles of Vassilaros. “It’s just that simple.”
It’s also unlikely any new ethnic group will invest in the business in the numbers that Greeks did in the middle decades of the 20th century.
It costs as much as $4 million to open a new diner these days, Kal Dellaportas said, compared with $500,000 to $1 million for a higher-end restaurant, because diners require so much storage space for the inventory that their large menus require.
Landlords prefer to rent space to chains like Applebee’s instead of independent operators, so property owners can reach out to the corporate parent for rent if the franchisee can’t pay. All of which suggests that a chapter in New York culinary history will soon end. “A diner is a much bigger gamble than any other kind of restaurant,” Kal Dellaportas said. “That’s just reality.”
A diner is a much bigger gamble than any other restaurant. That’s the reality.
Still, the brothers are determined to keep the Bel Aire going, and Argena, owner of the Evergreen, is hopeful that more than a few of the next generation will stay in the business. The 56-year-old said running a diner isn’t as bad a career as it may seem. He works afternoons, after his brother handles the morning rush, and by closing at 6:30 every night he gets home to Flushing to see his 8-year-old son.
For someone who grew up struggling to get enough to eat in the Greek town of Pyrgos, this is a good life, which is why he has a message for young Greek-Americans who, like his brother’s children, aren’t especially interested in running diners.
“My advice to them is: Go, explore,” Argena said. “But remember that when you have a restaurant, you keep food on the table.”
WHAT EXACTLY IS A DINER, ANYWAY?
In the traditional sense, diners are train cars that were taken off the tracks and converted into restaurants. But that definition doesn’t work well in New York, where many diners are tucked into office or apartment buildings and certainly never rode the rails.
Whatever their origins, all diners share a few characteristics, starting with extensive menus and waiters to take your order. Food is usually made to order, and combinations of eggs, potatoes and meat can be whipped up at any time. (Eggs, bacon, burgers or chicken appear on 80% of diner orders.) Often, there is a counter to accommodate people who eat alone, and the owner or a family member usually keeps an eye on things.
In defining diners for this article, Crain’s turned to a restaurant-inspection database maintained by the city’s Department of Health and compiled a list of restaurants that have “diner” or “coffee shop” in their name. There are obvious shortcomings with this approach. For starters, numerous diners and coffee shops call themselves cafés or restaurants. At the same time, there are places like the Coffee Shop at Union Square, which is open virtually around the clock and may serve perfectly good coffee, but most people are there to enjoy Brazilian specialties, such as feijoada washed down with a stiff caipirinha.
Some diners stopped being diners long ago. The Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights, Queens, was a standard greasy spoon until 1983, when the father of current owner Manjit Singh bought it. Within two or three years, the burgers and omelets had been replaced with masala dosas and lamb vindaloo. The family thought that changing the eatery’s name would confuse customers.
“Often, people eat at an Indian restaurant but can’t remember the name afterwards,” Singh said. “That’s not a problem for us.”
In the end, say people who study this sort of thing, atmosphere defines diners more than anything else.
“There’s a camaraderie inside diners that doesn’t exist in other restaurants,” said Jan Whitaker, a restaurant historian based in Amherst, Mass., and author of the blog Restaurant-ing Through History. “You can easily start a conversation with someone while you’re waiting for your food or drinking your coffee. Or, if you want, you can keep completely to yourself.”
**** A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2015, print issue of Crain’s New York Business as “Dark times for diners”.