[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