[Nick Sitnycky with longtime John's employee Pedro]
By James Maher
Name: Nick Sitnycky
Occupation: Owner, John’s of 12th Street
Location: 12th Street between 1st and 2nd Ave
Time: 1 pm on Monday, Dec. 16
Yesterday, Sitnycky talked about growing up on Avenue B and the early days of John's of 12th Street...
So 1972 comes around. I was a little young, 27, and I had just gotten married. One of my best friends, whose family owned Angelo’s on Mulberry Street, goes, ‘Nicky you want to buy a restaurant?’ So I go, ‘No, no, no.’ Then he tells me it’s John’s. Danny, who was John’s son, was retiring. I had also met my partner Mike, or Big Mike as they called him, Mikey two names, a few years before in ’69. So in ’72, I go to him, ‘Mike you want to buy a restaurant with me?’
Big Mike was a big guy from the South Bronx and I was a skinnier guy from the Lower East Side. I still call it the Lower East Side. When we started off in the restaurant we didn’t have any experience. Danny helped us and stayed on for a couple of months.
It was a matter of hard work. We both had other jobs. I was with Xerox corporation for almost 20 years while I had the restaurant. I was multitasking all the time. I started in sales, surprise-surprise, and then I was promoted to management and then I did international operations. And Mike was a salesman, selling in the garment district. So we were both in sales and marketing and [the restaurant business] is about people. We understood that money goes where it’s treated best from the minute someone walks in. The one thing we knew was how to be hospitable and friendly from the minute someone walked in.
When we started, Mike learned the kitchen inside and out so would never have an issue. He had a knack for the kitchen. And sure enough, a couple years later our chef broke his leg and Mike was in the kitchen for months. I started taking care of the front more, although Mike was an impresario up front — he was all over the place. We just mixed and matched and worked and worked. We worked as dishwashers, as busboys, we did everything.
This whole staff, this whole organization has tenure. We have tenure here. Our chef is almost here for 40 years now. Our waiters will be here 10 years, 20 years. Pedro’s been with me 25 years. You want to hear about an American dream story? Pedro came here as a migrant worker picking blueberries when he was 15. He was from Mexico city. He became so proficient and was such a good guy that the farmers got him a green card. He stayed there and then came to New York. We sucked him in here when he was 18 and he’s been with us ever since. Now he’s married and has two children, both in charter school. He’s an American Citizen. Talk about living the American dream.
We pursued preservation, just as Danny did. He went over all of the things from the linen to the candles. It’s a real, historic art gallery. This [below me] is 1890s, tile-by-tile hand-laid Belgian mosaic tiles. I get a little ridiculous sometimes. These walls were brought in from Ferrara, Italy, three-by-five foot slabs of one inch thick marble inlaid in terrazzo. The paintings are painted on canvas. There are city-states of Italy, there are various coats of arms, there are scenes. We preserved and maintained them. We’re like curators. We figure we’re the third generation.
This is my whole life. I have a lot of love for this place so I get emotional. We weren’t really planning on selling even though we had some very strong pursuers, big companies. We wanted to make sure that we passed it along to someone like Brett [Rasinski] who was going to be the 4th generation. Brett’s been a regular customer of ours for almost six and a half years. This is a continuation, not a transition. These are the routines, these are the hours, this is our menu. He’s a real preservationist.
I’m going to be doing with Brett what Danny did with us. He wants me to spend a lot of time with him here and it’s an open amount of time. Unfortunately, when we decided on doing this in May of this year, when Brett came back to us with an offer that we accepted, three days later my partner Mike found out he had cancer. From the end of May to July 13th, he was gone.
This is John’s. John’s is what is disappearing in New York, not only in this area. John’s is part of New York City, so we’re very careful to keep things the same. These traditions are very important. There’s a history; there’s a legacy.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.
Previously on EV Grieve:
About the new ownership for 105-year-old East Village institution John's of 12th Street
Out and About in the East Village
Thank you, Nick. I hope you have the preservation in writing with Brett, because that sounds amazing that you are passing the torch. It's a little worrisome because of the guys track record, but maybe this is more personal for him, and the other stuff was more business. Thank you, Nick. A true LES/NYC cat.
I hope, hope, hope the new owner just leaves the physical space alone. It is so old and beautiful, and it shouldn't be touched. The awning can go, though. They changed it a few years ago and slapped the word vegan on in a clear attempt to lure overflow from Angelica's kitchen. The changed irked me and didn't sit well with me. John's is old school Italian and should stick with that!
This made me cry. I wish I had been around for THIS NY since it's why I moved to the city.
Thank you Grieve & James for not making us wait until next week for the second part!
this is a fabulous series. really enjoying it.
I would love to believe this is true, and my fingers are tightly crossed, but remember when we heard this about Fedora:
"Stulman gave an eloquent speech on the history and importance of the eatery in the neighborhood, and his close relationship with Ms. Fedora Dorato, the chef and owner. As Stulman described it, the 90 year-old Dorato was approached by many interested parties, but Gabe was the only one she felt that she could trust to carry on the restaurant so that she could retire. Stulman has, after all, opened three successful West Village restaurants, which are beloved by the neighborhood, and he himself lives right down the block from the red sauce joint."
Sounds like the same exact story. But he gutted the place, making it accessible only the well-heeled.
These stories are wonderful, and we can only hope the new owners will really keep true to Nick's and Mike's spirit. As much as the décor and architecture, that includes making everyone welcome, no doorman, being family-friendly, elderly-friendly, single-person friendly, etc. Mike over and over slipped us the never-expiring 10% discount cards because he liked neighborhood people coming back over and over. That won't be the case if this restaurant becomes unaffordable and/or star-struck.
I LOVE John's .. we have been going for years.. as a matter of fact we are going tonite. I had to read this article one more time so I can gloat with them ;)
YuMMMM going vegan was beyond genious ... such brilliant businessmaen and incredible article!!! xXx
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