Last Sunday morning, a student from Quinnipiac University broke one of the windows of Yorkside Pizza on York Street in an early morning brawl. The restaurant, a favorite of Yale students since it was founded in the seventies, is still in the process of rebuilding its property, but to the restaurant’s owner, George Koutroumanis, drunken patrons are just part of the business plan. Just a couple days after the incident, WEEKEND sat down with George and his daughter Eleni to discuss the ins and outs of a family business that depends on cravings of undergrads.
Q. So what’s the history of Yorkside Pizza?
GK. [My family] came to America in 1958 from Greece. They grew up doing part time jobs in factories or as restaurant workers. Three brothers [in the family] went through New York. Then they ended up working in restaurants. We’ve been in New Haven in the restaurant business in some sort of way or another since 1958 or 1959.
Q. Was that all three brothers working together?
GK. Our family mostly worked separately. We worked at Lake Quassapaug Amusement Park in many different jobs from chefs to cooks to waiters. You name it, we’ve done it. One of our first ventures was the Embassy Luncheonette in 1960 or 1961. From there we went to a place out towards Orange called the Bonfire Drive-In. Then we migrated towards West Haven and opened up West Haven Pizza Palace and Broadway Pizza [on York Street]. In 1973, we opened Pizza Den, which was over on Chapel, just below Church, but we ended up leaving there. Finally, in 1977, we founded Yorkside.
Q. How many family members work in the restaurant now?
GK. Well, there were three brothers originally. So now, brothers, cousins, different people, sisters, daughters…
EK. Right now in this restaurant you have four relatives.
GK. [pointing to the rest of the restaurant] Me, my sister, my daughter, my son…
EK. And a cousin.
GK. So five.
Q. What’s the history with your connection to Yale? You can see a lot of Yale memorabilia in the store.
GK. Well, we started on Broadway with the Yale memorabilia and then we came here and made this a little more. We had a Yale graduate from the Yale School of Art who did the original shields. Then little by little we accumulated pictures. Many alumni have been through here — President Bush, Governor Pataki and Barbara Bush — and music stars from the Rolling Stones to Billy Joel. Basically anyone you can get on the Toad’s Place t-shirt, they’ve probably been through here.
Q. Have you met any of them?
GK. Yeah, most of them. George Thorogood has a thing where he needs three drumsticks and one thigh, just boiled.
EK. My favorite story was when my dad came home one day and said, have you ever heard of this rapper guy ‘Canyon East’ and I said, “oh, you mean Kanye West.” So, he was close! That was years ago.
GK. I mean, there are some names I’m not familiar with, but most of the people who come through here we’ve got pictures of. Really everyone and anyone who’s anything. We fed them at one point or another.
EK. And it’s nice; you have people come back years later.
Q. And do you remember them? Do they come and see their pictures?
GK. Actually, most of the pictures people have brought in themselves. We buy some, the teams give us some. So we try to gather things, you know? And then we frame them, arrange them and try to make a little memorabilia station. People hopefully remember us not only for pictures but also for our food service — we try. We put in a lot of hard effort, and we might not be number one, but we try.
EK. And we’re all family. A lot of family time is spent in the restaurant. [Laughs.] But it’s a good thing!
Q. Do you get to know individual students who come here a lot?
GK. Going back years ago, it was easier and more common for people to use speech and communication, you know, through the mouth. [He mimes talking.] Now everybody’s online, everybody’s texting. People are walking around [he hunches over to mime texting] doing this, and we’re saying “can we help you?” Going back it was all verbal. Eyesight and handshakes. Now it’s like laugh out loud and a sideways smiley face.
Q. Do the kids ever get hard to manage?
GK. Sometimes, yeah. Listen, kids go away — it’s like they’re going on vacation with their folks’ money. They are going to go out and experience things, drink and do whatever they do and however they do it. And hopefully they remember that the people they’re dealing with in this town stay here. Unfortunately, sometimes we’re forced to do things we really don’t like to. Like, “hey guys, hey girls, let’s keep it down.” Then you have to escalate a little bit, call the police or do something you really don’t want to. But it’s just human nature.
Q. Does that happen often?
GK. We get a little rowdy here on a Friday or Saturday night, after a game, but it’s all in good fun. Everything’s always in good fun. On occasion, you’ll get a person who passes out, a person who falls down outside or goes through a window.
EK. Or punches a window!
GK. People fight, which is a shame. Because really, everyone’s not bad, it’s just beer and that need to become a macho person. They all say, “I can do it, I can drink this!” But we’re all human.
Q. I’m sure being close to Toad’s Place brings that out.
GK. Yeah, yeah, it does. But Toad’s has been great neighbors since they opened in 1976. We’re always working cooperatively to make a better community, to make a better neighbor to take care of each other’s needs — whether that means us feeding them or them protecting us from the drunkards that come out. They’ll send out a guy who says, “Come on, let’s move, move!” We’re a neighborhood. We’re here.
Q. Do you have anything on the menu that you especially recommend?
EK. Honestly anything people eat here. That’s what we eat for dinner every day.
GK. People might misconceive us for a slice joint, but we process our own chicken, make our own meatballs, cook our own meats, make all our own lasagnas, roll our own manicotti and fry our own eggplant. The cold cuts we slice, but other than that we make everything on the premises. Real food, real people. And I wish people would try more dinner, I feel like we’re a diamond in the rough.
EK. And I have to say, you guys are lucky. I went to school in New York and the pizza was not nearly as good.
GK. We didn’t find anywhere like a Yorkside at all the different schools that we went to.
EK. we’d go and sit down and he’d say, “What’s your local pizza place?”
Q. You guys stayed open during the snow storm, what was that like?
GK. It was crazy. It was an adventure. I stayed with a friend downtown and we opened up with a skeleton crew, and we were there.
Q. Did you get many customers?
GK. Very many. We did a lot of business with students and the plow workers, just many different people. It’s family taking care of family.
Q. Have you had to make any changes to the menu over the years?
GK. Not really. The things that people are talking about now, we’ve been doing forever. Not to mention names, but like Quizno’s toasted buns was a hot thing [that we made before they became popular]. We’ve been toasting people’s buns for 45 years. Hand spun shakes. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that terminology, it’s the new big thing at Wendy’s. We’ve been scooping ice cream, putting in syrup and mixing it around by hand for 35 years. I don’t like to be too trendy because you kill yourselves for trends. Real food is real food.
Q. Has the restaurant environment around New Haven changed much over that time?
GK. Competition is a lot more immense. There’s about the same number of people, because there’s only so many parking spaces. But the number of restaurants has gone up. 1000 percent. There used to be like five restaurants around. There’s hundreds now. Food carts are all over the place. They dot the countryside like locusts. Everyone has a place, but it’s tough. Those carts pay almost nothing to be here.
Q. What sorts of relationships do you have with other restaurants?
GK. Louis’ Lunch and Sally’s Pizza are good friends of ours. Also, Bobby’s and Ricky’s. It’s a community and everyone has their thing. We try not to step on each other’s feet and keep a nice balance in the environment, just like in the real world.
Q. Working late must be exhausting.
GK. Right now I’m here from eight or nine in the morning to eight or nine at night. Friday and Saturday I’m here from eight to eleven, for after the sports games.
Q. Do you have any other anecdotes?
GK. I wouldn’t even want to start, because they’re endless and I wouldn’t want to get anyone in any trouble.
EK. If walls could talk, you know.
GK. I mean, you recognize all sorts of people.
Q. I’m sure you recognize some who don’t remember later.
EK. Oh, absolutely, yeah.
GK. Unfortunately you always get a little action, the drunkard action [he points towards the broken window] and it’s like, I try so hard to make things this way, and then these yoyos come in. The only thing I would stress to tell every student, everywhere in the world, is just to think it’s someone’s family you’re going to see. And the nicer you are to them, the nicer they’ll be back to you.