UPDATE: See the exclusive renderings for the building the new owners have planned for this space.
El Greco Diner is bustling with nostalgic patrons since news of its impending closure after 40 years of business became public.
“It’s been crazy since you ran the story,” owner George Venetoklis told Sheepshead Bites. “Lines to get in. Too bad we are closing. Packed as we speak.”
Venetoklis said the deal for the 1821 Emmons Avenue location officially closed Friday morning. He declined to name the buyer or the sale price, but Sheepshead Bites learned that Rybak Development purchased the property for $13 million with plans to build a mixed-use property and public plaza. An auction to sell off the restaurant’s equipment is scheduled for late December.
Venetoklis said a sale has been in the works for some time, as he, his brother Peter and mother Anastasia put blood, sweat and tears into keeping it going in a changing community and economy.
“We had a really good run. A lot of businesses, at some point the model just changes. Our model was large portions at good prices. Our food prices were beginning to skyrocket and we couldn’t keep up,” he said. Other economic factors were also at play. “Real estate taxes, labor costs, everything took its toll. As a family, we realized we put in our time. Forty years, it was time to move on.”
A final breakfast of two eggs over easy with sausage and English muffin for this reporter.
El Greco’s owners did mount a search prior to the deal to sell the business and keep it in operation, but they said businesses like theirs have a shrinking place in communities.
“We were looking for a more modern version of the El Greco family to come in and take over,” he said. “I think that [Sheepshead Bay] has been doing well, but it’s just that the larger corporate-run businesses are the ones that have greater longevity and more backing and more ability to do things in a different way. That’s just what the nature of the beast is.”
It wasn’t an easy decision to close the diner. Founded by George’s father Minos in 1974, El Greco’s remained a true family business, where the two brothers were raised and eventually worked to keep the elder Venetoklis’ memory alive 20 years after his passing.
“I was three-and-a-half when it opened, and my mother is fighting off tears.” he said. “I have four children … and they were heartbroken. I can understand it because I was basically their age when I was growing up in this restaurant. My 8-year-old turned to me and said, ‘Dad, what are you going to do?’ I said ‘I’ll spend more time with you.’”
Venetoklis said it’s the relationships he makes with customers, employees and business suppliers that he’ll miss the most.
“The highlights have been the customers and the friendships we made. This place has never closed, the business has a life of its own. It doesn’t sleep. And I’ve worked every shift in this place; I’ve seen the neighborhood change. I’ve seen the menu change – we had items that we’ve had to remove because the customers weren’t around to eat them,” he said.
The restaurant, recently named one of the borough’s best diners, was teeming with longtime regulars on Saturday afternoon. Chatter about the pending closure could be overheard at almost every table.
Among the regulars were Marc and Zoya Baroda, a Mill Basin husband and wife who met at the restaurant nearly 20 years ago and who now visit regularly with their three children, ages 6 to 15.
“I worked here as a hostess, and he was the pickle man,” said Zoya. It was 1995, and she got the job because she was a frequent patron. “I grew up here. I came here before I met him, before I worked here, and this was the place to go after a club or a night out and this is where to meet up.”
Marc and Zoya Baroda with their three kids. They say they’ll be back again before the restaurant closes for good.
Her future husband made the regular deliveries for Mr. Pickle – which he’ll continue to do until the closing this week.
“He’d flirt, of course. He delivered, and would come to the cashier and I’d have to pay him and he’d flirt,” she said.
It took a vacation out of town to work up the nerve to ask her out, said Marc.
“I was talking, talking and one time when I went on vacation to Mexico, one of the guys who works for me, I told him to tell Zoya when I come back I’m going to be looking for her,” boasted Marc.
He did, and they married two years later. They took their wedding photos inside the restaurant.
“There’s an old joke I used to do with Peter and George after we got married. Every time she got pregnant, I’d tell them the price of the pickles went up,” he laughed.
When they found out it was closing, “I was shocked. I was completely distraught. And my phone has been going off non-stop. My friends who moved out of Brooklyn saying that they have to come to New York to have that last breakfast or lunch or whatever,” said Zoya. “I’m very sad to see the place go, but all good things must come to end.”
“I’m not just losing a diner, I’m also losing a client. But I’m not losing a friend,” he said of Peter and George.
Venetoklis said such sentiments have been endlessly echoed by regulars, and that’s what they’ll remember the most when they lock the diner’s doors for a final time.
“It’s bittersweet. It hurts, but at the same time it feels good,” he said.