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In Hungry Times, Eateries Struggle or Thrive

How are local diner restaurants faring in this economy? One is doing well, one says they're optimistic and a third is finding it challenging to turn a profit.

The restaurant business has a high mortality rate, and can be particularly tricky if you try to be all things to all people – as in the traditional family diner.

Niles’ Violet Sego knows the situation all too well. For more than 15 years the chief cook and bottle washer of her Violet’s Café in Morton Grove, she wonders if she can keep her doors open. Business has continued to drop off through the economic doldrums, and she’s not satisfied with her lease.  Sego’s plastered big signs on her front window, advertising a breakfast special for $4.95 and a lunch special for $6.95, to try to draw in customers.

The situation isn’t that critical for two of the three family diners in Niles, the ones that offer cuisine cutting across a variety of ethnic tastes. 

Omega, of course, dominates the market in its sprawling building on Golf Road, now playing off business from the relatively new Meijer supermarket in the same parking lot.

Two smaller restaurants have to pay more attention to detail even though they are in close proximity to traffic generators – Just Like Home, on Dempster three blocks east of Lutheran General Hospital, and Niles Grill on the south border of Golf Mill.

Competition on Dempster

At Just Like Home, the Nikolarelis family is keeping its collective head above water at 8501 W. Dempster. They’re in the critical stage of a diner’s life – starting the second year and building loyalty amid tough competition. A Baker’s Square is well-established across Dempster. A Portillo’s does land-office business three blocks west and across from the hospital.

But Sotiria Nikolarelis, managing Just Like Home on behalf of her parents, has the optimism of a veteran restaurateur. The family used to run a smaller diner near the intersection of Dempster and Busse Hwy. just east of the Des Plaines River. The present eatery opened nearly a year ago.

“My dad always wanted a bigger place,” Nikolarelis said.  “The old place had 60 seats. Here it’s 189. He always wanted to be open for dinner. His cooking is mostly dinner (entrees).”

Doctor tipped restaurateur to location

Indeed, you’ll find patriarch Kosmas Nikolarelis in the kitchen, prepping Greek spinach pie and other specialties as the head cook. He located in the former Jonathan’s Restaurant site when he heard a tip from his physician during a checkup at Lutheran General after he had recovered from a heart attack. The doctor suggested he open a restaurant at the location, and why not open for dinner, too, for hospital late-shifters and other diners as Jonathan’s typically closed at 3 p.m.?

“We never knew it was closed,” said Sotiria Nokolarelis. “We’d come by, and we thought it was just closed for the day. We called the landlord and in a matter of 10 days, came into a deal.

“The landlord did a great job keeping it up. Our major construction was a bar. We had to get the (liquor) license. We did the basic cleanup, booths, walls, and new grills, ovens and stoves.”

Building business steadily

The family is relying on patience and perseverance to steadily build business in the tough economy. That has not been a challenge at Niles Grill, which took over an old International House of Pancakes building in 2006 after starting six years earlier in smaller quarters further south on Milwaukee Ave.

Blue collar diner sailed through recession

“Friendliness and low prices” and “good food and low prices,” is the pitch from owner-grillmaster Zig Valachi. He claims business was up 20 percent in 2011 and never really suffered in the pit of the recession.

With classic faux red leather booths, Niles Grill has a more blue-collar feel than the brightly-lit, spacious Just Like Home. Valachi is normally open from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., starting 30 minutes later on Sunday, but now is considering evening hours for dinner to handle movie- and mall-goers at Golf Mill. 

Niles Grill moves a lot of its “two-two-two” $4.75 breakfast special: two eggs, two pancakes or French toast, and two pieces of bacon or sausage.  “We sell that like crazy,” Valachi said, also touting his chicken breast for lunch.

Differentiating from competition

Valachi, who has lived at Golf and Washington for decades and is of Albanian descent, doesn't specialize in ethnic offerings. However, the Nikolarelis family, of Skokie, does offer Greek cooking, along with classic American entrees.

The menu is distinct enough that Sotiria Nikolarelis is not worried about competition from the entrenched eateries nearby.

“Baker’s Square is a completely different kind of dining,” she said.  “Different, being mostly pies with sandwiches. They don’t have (the full-course) dinner like we do.  We have roast turkey, pork. Portillo’s is mostly a fast-food chain, so I don’t think we’re competition.  It’s a different kind of cooking.”

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