The diner, a neighborhood staple at 45-30 23rd St., has been feeding hungry New Yorkers since 1946. While many diners in the state have been shutting down, Kanellos thinks that the Court Square Diner will thrive for years to come.
Kanellos, who was born in America but lived in Greece from the ages of 5 to 15, grew up working in the restaurant industry. When his family moved back to Astoria and he began attending Long Island City High School, he worked at local restaurants to make extra cash.
Though he majored in computer programming at St. John’s University to try to avoid staying in the industry, Kanellos and his brother bought a coffee shop in Long Island City after he graduated. Bebe’s at 39th Avenue and 21st Street was the duo’s first venture. After a few years, the brothers sold it and purchased the Court Square Diner.
“Back then we didn’t even know what Long Island City was,” he said. “People from Astoria didn’t know what Long Island City was.”
The diner was busiest on weekdays for lunch and diner and “dead” on weekends. But as the crowds got younger and more residential buildings and hotels started popping up, things shifted.
“Through the years it changed,” he said. “Now, sometimes it’s even busier at night. The weekends are extremely busy. It became more like a normal diner.”
Kanellos works 80-hour weeks and oversees most of the operations with his brother since there are no managers. The secret to their success is the duo’s flexibility and their willingness to change.
Their most popular dishes are the Souvlaki platter and dishes like tuna and chicken melts and burgers. Though they frequently change the menu, they do not add items but swap dishes out to make it easier on kitchen staff. Kanellos also gets advice from his 23-year-old son, who has suggested new beer options and food items that cater to new residents.
“The crowd now is a young crowd,” he said. “They eat a little lighter and they drink a lot heavier. We sell a lot more alcohol than we used to sell.”
Customers can also order food on Seamless or Grubhub, which also helps attract new business.
While young people and tourists “who want to see an American diner” make up a good portion of their customers, the diner has a lot of regulars who work in the area. Citi Bank employees, judges, lawyers and their clients and workers in nearby manufacturing centers all come to Court Square Diner for lunch. One customer has been frequenting the diner for 52 years.
“[The neighborhood] used to be envelope factories, taxi companies,” Kanellos said. “Now, it’s residential and hotels. The way we do business changed. The diner is not only about the food. You’re part of the neighborhood.”
Court Square Diner has a catering arm and also provides food for events hosted at nearby MoMA PS1. They are also the largest contributors to Long Island City Artists, a local arts nonprofit.
In addition to loyal customers, the diner has loyal employees. Some people have worked at the diner since Kanellos purchased it in 1991, while others have been around for as long as 18 years.
The train-car style diner, which was renovated in 2009, is also a favorite among film and television scouts. Shows like “Jessica Jones,” “Gotham,” “Gossip Girl” and “Person of Interest” have all filmed scenes there. Stars like Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Ray Liotta have also shot movies there.
Kanellos said running a diner requires the owner to have “the same passion and work ethic as when you first got the place.”
Since the diner is open 24/7, Kanellos works on Thanksgiving, New Year’s and other holidays. He’s had to scale back on allowing movies and films to use the diner as a location because customers get upset when he has to close for 12-hour shoots.
Since the diner has been around for so long, the rent is affordable and Kanellos is able to keep his prices cheap to compete with surrounding businesses. He added that many diners are going out of business not just because of rising rents but because younger generations are not interested in putting all the hours in.
“You see less and less diners because nobody wants to do this,” he said. “It’s a lot of money to invest. You gotta work Thanksgiving, New Year’s, all night long,” he said. “Young people don’t want to go into this.”
His 23-year-old and 19-year-old sons work at the diner on weekends and Nick Kanellos’ daughter runs the cash register on Saturdays. But so far, none of them have plans to continue in the family business. Still, Kanellos is hopeful.
“I think this diner’s going to be here a long time,” he said. “Even after me.”