For 40 years, Yorkside Pizza and Restaurant on York St. has served its famous pizza and milkshakes to locals and Yalies alike. Yorkside has established itself as a legendary Yale tradition, frequented by the likes of President George Bush ’68 and Yale Chief Investment Officer David Swensen.
But now, Yorkside faces steep challenges; shifting demographics, increasing costs and heightened competition pose obstacles to the popular family-owned restaurant.
Yorkside owner George Koutroumanis never thought he would become a Yale fixture.
Born in 1955 in a rural part of Greece, Koutroumanis immigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of three. While still a high school student, he began working at his two older brothers’ business, Broadway Pizza, in New Haven.
“People loved Broadway Pizza so much that soon we were able to open another location,” Koutroumanis said.
And thus, the three brothers became partners, and Yorkside Pizza opened for business in Jan. 1977. Over the next years, Yorkside became more well-known throughout the Yale community.
“At first, few Yale students trickled in,” Koutroumanis said. “But more and more students started to come. Soon, word was out that we had good food and good prices.”
He claims that Yorkside’s secret recipe has always been “good food and good prices.”
Restaurant customers, however, add a third component to that list — good service.
According to both current and former Yale students, the Yorkside staff is friendly and attentive, giving the restaurant a comforting atmosphere.
“All the pictures of Yale events on the walls don’t hurt either,” Kamau Walker ’20 said. “It shows Yorkside cares about the Yale community.”
West Haven resident Karen Treat, who walks by Yorkside every day on her way to work, said she appreciates the Yorkside atmosphere and that she often brings her kids to the restaurant.
When asked about Yorkside’s future prospects, Koutroumanis expressed concern.
“I don’t want to say the outlook looks bleak,” Koutroumanis said. “But with recent changes, the outlook doesn’t look as bright as it once did. There is a lot of uncertainty coming up ahead.”
According to Koutroumanis, Yorkside has been adversely affected by changing demographics and new cultural trends in dining. He added that new restaurants are “popping up left and right” in New Haven, increasing the competition Yorkside has to face.
And as customers start to increasingly favor fast-food options, sit-down restaurants like Yorkside face an additional challenge, Koutroumanis said.
“So between the loss of customers and more competition, we’re getting a smaller slice of the pie,” Koutroumanis said. “In today’s society, so many people are in a rush. They come in, and they can’t afford to wait four minutes for us to put the pizza in the oven.”
A demographic shift is not the only challenge Yorkside faces; a rise in its menu prices is also forthcoming.
Koutroumanis said increasing ingredient prices as well as the rising cost of living adjustments in his employees’ compensation are pushing him to increase menu prices, something Yorkside has not done the past five years.
Using cheaper ingredients, Koutroumanis said, is not an option for Yorkside.
“We use real meat on our pizzas. Our pork sausage comes from a local farm. We make our chicken sausage in-house,” he said. “Many stores just use fake meat on their pizzas to save money. But it’s not all about the money.”
While these problems may seem far off, they have very real consequences for those who have devoted their entire lives to Yorkside. Multiple Yorkside employees told the News that they were distressed by the thought of a challenging future. Some even remarked that Yorkside had become their second family.
Many Yale students were equally distraught when asked to think about a future without Yorkside. Stephanie Hickman ’19 said she could not imagine “anything replacing Yorkside” and that losing the restaurant would be similar to losing a part of Yale.
Despite the uncertainties in Yorkside’s path, Koutroumanis continues to be a pervasive presence in the kitchen, ready to greet each and every customer by name.
“My heart and soul are here,” Koutroumanis said. “We’ve been a part of Yale for 50 years now, and I’ll do my best to make sure we continue to be a part of Yale for another 50 years.”
You may know him as the pizza mogul honored on the walls of Yorkside, the star of a “Daily Show” segment (see “Herman Cain: An American Presidency”) or simply as a 2012 Republican presidential hopeful. With his Southern drawl and quotable debate performances, Herman Cain became a national celebrity last year. Though he failed to obtain the Republican candidacy, Cain’s still working for America, pushing hard to get his message out with trips across the country and his radio show. Following Cain’s eventful Yale Political Union debut this week, WEEKEND sat down with him to discuss taxes (9–9–9!), Syria and his plans to elevate America’s political IQ.
Q.How did you enjoy your time at Yale?
A. I thought it was awesome. It was a packed house. What I found most interesting was the old-time British parliament format, the stompin’ and the hissin’. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I enjoyed the feedback I got from students — the stompers and the hissers.
Q.Before becoming a presidential candidate, you were a pizza man. Some say that New Haven has the best pizza in the country, so do you have a favorite New Haven pizza place?
A. No, because I didn’t get a chance to eat any pizza in New Haven. We went to the place next to Mory’s, York … York … something? [WKND: Yorkside?] Yorkside! They have a picture of me hanging on the wall from the late 1980s, and the students I was with told me about it, and I said “Get out of here!” So I walked over there. I don’t have a favorite pizza place because I didn’t get a chance to eat it, but let’s just say Yorkside would have to be one of the first places I would try.
Q.The Pew Research Center reported that of all the Republican candidates in the 2012 presidential primary race, you received the most media coverage. What was it like to be in the limelight like that?
A. It was bittersweet. The sweet was it gave me the opportunity to get my message out, in terms of the solutions that this country ought to be working on making happen. The bitter was when some in the mainstream media turned viciously against me because of some accusations that were never proven. They insisted on pursuing it when there was no evidence. Overall, I got more out of it than having to go through that. It’s been all sweet since then (the primary). There has been no focus on the bitter part because there was nothing to it to begin with. How many times can you write the same story over and over, saying nothing about it but accusations?
Q.What part of the message have you been focusing on getting out since the primary?
A. Solving America’s biggest problem: replacing the tax code. Not reform, replace. Capitalize the word replace. Reform will not fix the problem. If we replace the tax code, we will create a much more robust economy in terms of growth. We can solve a whole lot of problems in terms of growth. Our tax code is our biggest barrier to success. At my website, hermancain.com, there are 3 options. We’re having a national poll as we speak. [There’s the] fair tax, flat tax, and 9-9-9 plan that I developed. I’m going to take a vote of everyone that decides to vote to pick that best plan and try to rally people around one plan that we would demand at the U.S. Congress. I would be happy with either one, even though it’s the 9-9-9 plan that I developed. Whatever the people prefer, that’s what I’m going to get behind, that’s what I’m going to get others behind, so we can move forward.
Q.What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the country right now? What concerns you the most about the world?
A. The economy. Domestically, the economy concerns me the most, because we do not have a policy that is growing the economy. That’s why I’m focusing on the movement. Internationally, the biggest thing that concerns me is that we do not have a very clear foreign policy. All you have to do is look at the mess related to Syria.
Q.If you were president, how would you be handling the crisis in Syria right now?
A. If I had been president, the situation in Syria probably never would have happened, because I would have done something to pre-empt those kinds of things going on. I would not have waited for 100,000 people to be killed. I would have rallied with international partners, trying to get them to put whatever pressures we could not to get to this point. When it first started, something should have been done, [though] not necessarily a military strike. But instead this administration sat back and waited till it got to the point of outcry around the world before this administration was thinking about doing something. We still don’t have clarity on what it is they expect to achieve. I don’t think it ever would have gotten to this point had I been president.
Q.So what do you think are the most important qualities for a president to have?
A. Leadership. Leadership is the ability to Work on the right problem — W — and Ask the right questions — A — and Remove barriers — R. What that will lead you to is prioritization, prioritizing the right things. This administration … we cannot spend our way to prosperity. Energy independence could be moving along much faster than it is, in spite of the federal government and its regulations, energy is moving forward. If the government got out of the way it could be moving much faster, [and we would] not [be] subject to the whims of energy-producing countries like we are today. The economy, energy independence and of course, national security. Our military is weak right now. We need to re-strengthen it. It’s not just how much money. It’s been drained by the war in Iraq, been drained by what’s going on in Afghanistan, been drained by other smaller conflicts in other parts of the world.
Q. How do you think the state of the military will affect any American action in Syria?
A. In Syria, it’s dependent on what they decide to do. The military will rise to the occasion, but you can only strain your military so much before it reaches a breaking point where it will not be as effective as it will normally be. We still don’t know what the outcome would be if we used military force. That’s going to open up an entire Pandora’s box.
Q.Going back to you now: what have you been up to since election season ended?
A. I have a syndicated radio talk show. People can find out more about it at my website, hermancain.com. The radio show is basically what’s consuming all my time.
Q.How do you like being a radio man?
A. I love it, love it, love it. It gives me an opportunity to continue trying to help people become better educated about what’s going on in this country. Too many people are clueless. When people have the right information, they’ll make the right decision. This is something Thomas Jefferson said years ago, and he’s right. I want to raise the political IQ of a lot of people who have a very low political IQ.
Q. Is a 2016 run on the horizon for you?
A. Nope! Not at this part point in time. But last time around I didn’t know that was something on the horizon. I have no plans right now, but I didn’t have any plans in 2012. Because of circumstances, considerations and frustrations I decided to run. A lot can happen between now and 2016.
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.