There was a time when the location of Nick & George's Restaurant, at the intersection of State Street and State Line Road in Hammond, Indiana, was a prime site for a diner. It was minutes away from the town's bustling center, which guaranteed a brisk daytime trade. Nighttime business was even better, because the diner was situated in the middle of the Sin Strip, a gauntlet of nightclubs, burlesque joints, and bars that Life magazine once called "the Barbary Coast of the Midwest." Then the steel mills that were the basis of Hammond's prosperity began to close in the 70s, taking the nightlife with them. Nick & George's, which has been around under various names but the same family's management since 1929, was one of the few businesses along the strip to survive. But now its continued existence is threatened, not by economic blight but by well-intentioned plans to revive Hammond.
The restaurant, a modest white and brown frame building that seats 29, has provided a living for three generations of the Liaskos family. When Nick Liaskos, 72, came to Hammond from Greece as a teenager, the place was called Jim & John's. Nick's uncle John Liaskos put him to work parking cars for the restaurant's well-lubricated nighttime clientele. Over time more than 30 members of the Liaskos clan have immigrated and worked at the restaurant--most just long enough to save some money and acclimate to American culture before moving on to start new lives. Nick and his wife, Helen, stayed on and eventually took over the eatery from John's widow. Nick's eldest son, George, has worked there since he was a teenager in the 70s. In 1996 Nick made George a full partner, but this didn't entail changing the signs or menus because Nick's previous partner, a cousin's husband, was also named George.
Perhaps because its name has changed as partners have come and gone, the restaurant has acquired a couple of nicknames. Some locals simply call it "the greasy spoon"; others know it as "the cancer clinic," which is not a reference to the prevalence of deep-fried food on the menu but to the fact that the century-old building once housed an actual cancer clinic for factory workers.
In the heyday of the Sin Strip, the restaurant stayed open 24 hours a day. Business is no longer that good, but the place still does a steady trade from 7 AM to 9 PM, six days a week (it's closed on Sundays). Fans of the diner say it's the food that has made Nick & George's recessionproof: eggs and bacon, burgers, steaks, chops, homemade soups, french fries. Nick grinds the beef for the burgers and chili by hand; George works the fryer and grill. A lot of the regulars are people who moved away from Hammond after the economy crashed and come back just to eat there. The clientele is extremely resistant to change, says George's brother Peter, who also works at the diner. "Back in the 80s we changed to frozen french fries. That lasted about a week. Our business dropped 50 percent, and the people who still came were letting us know they were not happy."
In the last few years the city of Hammond has been working on revitalizing the downtown area and the strip. With real estate values and rents climbing in Chicago, planners in Hammond feel they have a good chance of turning their city into a hot spot, the next Wicker Park or Pilsen. Hammond is only 30 minutes from the Loop by car or train, but it has much lower property and sales taxes than Chicago.
To get the gentrification ball rolling, in the mid-90s large sections of the strip were officially declared "blighted." The diner then belonged to Nick Liaskos's aunt Kalopi Liaskos, who'd retired to Greece; the blight label enabled the city to force her to sell it in 1998. "She was told she could either sell the property to the city, or the city would go to court and get an order of condemnation to get the land for redevelopment," says Carol Green, attorney for Hammond's Redevelopment Commission. Kalopi was paid $57,200 for the property--"an excellent price at the time," according to Green.
Hammond sold the property surrounding the diner to Indianapolis developer Herman Renfro, who leased part of it to Walgreens, making the drugstore chain the diner's reluctant landlord. The company has erected a new outlet right behind Nick & George's and hopes to bulldoze the diner as soon as possible to replace it with a flower bed. For the time being, the drugstore giant has put up a tall wooden fence to conceal the humble diner from its customers' eyes. Helen Liaskos finds this gesture a bit hurtful. "Hammond is an old city," she says. "People know what it looks like here, but they put a fence around us as though we are an eyesore!"
"Walgreens has been very gracious," adds Peter. "Our lease with them actually ran out last November, and they'd have been within their rights to evict us, but they've let us stay on while we figure out where we're going next."
Renfro and the Liaskos family worked out a plan that calls for the creation of a brand-new Nick & George's in the Sibley Shoppes, a minimall Renfro is building just around the corner. The proposed new restaurant will seat 90 and have a liquor license. But the mall, which was supposed to be finished last fall, is still a vacant shell awaiting tenants, and negotiations between the developer and the restaurant owners have been protracted and complex.
Part of the problem is that the Liaskos family is leery about moving into a mall. "Before the city came along and used its power of eminent domain to take the property away from us we were planning to knock down the building and then build a new one that mimicked the old as closely as possible," says Peter. "Nick & George's looks like a shack and people like it that way. We're not a cookie-cutter business and we're worried about losing our identity. Look what happened when we played with the french fries 20 years ago; people still remember that. You can't blame us for being suspicious about change."
To help the family overcome their qualms, Renfro is helping to pay for the build out of the new restaurant, and the Hammond Redevelopment Commission is paying for part of the business's relocation costs. Peter says his family appreciates the help but adds that the projected overhead of the new restaurant is far higher than they were originally told to expect. "Over the months our expected costs have doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled," he says. "The sums we're looking at are staggering for a small family business, and we don't know if the volume of business will be there once we don't look like Nick & George's any more."
Renfro allows that the projected costs of the build out have risen since he first started talking with the Liaskos family. "In part that's because it's turned into a much more ambitious project than it was originally," he says. "We started out talking about 2,000 square feet of space and now it's nearly twice that, with a full bar. But costs have been rising in general--a lot of building materials have gone up. Also, when you're in the early planning stages of something like this, you're working with some pretty conceptual numbers. As things get more concrete it often tends to get more expensive. But I'm hopeful we can work something out; I really want to see their place continue."
The family's lawyer is currently examining a lease submitted to the family by Renfro. "We're waiting for the final numbers to be determined, then we'll be able to make a decision," says Peter. "If it looks economically feasible, we'll do it. Otherwise, I hate to think what's going to happen. I guess we'll lose a family business that's been here for nearly a century.
"Nobody here is really a bad guy," he adds. "Walgreens has been very patient. Mayor [Tom] McDermott has been very supportive of keeping Nick & George's going. Mr. Renfro is not a bad guy, he's just doing what a developer does. It's more a combination of forces. If we'd been left alone to build another little place, there'd be no issue. We never wanted to get involved with politics or developers or city officials. We just wanted to be left alone."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.