For 44 years, Louie's Charcoal Pit has been the place to go in Teaneck for a hearty meal enjoyed among good company. But the bad economy, coupled with a smoking ban in restaurants, has made business conditions tougher for the diner, leading owners to put the Teaneck staple up for sale.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Owner Gerry Stamatelatos bought the diner from Louie Bavaras in 1972. The restaurant had been open prior to that from 1966, and the name was never changed. Something that eventually did change was the placement of the grill and open charcoal pit, which used to be behind the counter.
That setup must have made an impression with one famous customer.
"Bill Murray used to come in every Thursday for spaghetti and meatballs and sit around here," said Dino Stamatelatos–Gerry's son–pointing to some stools at the counter near the kitchen's entrance. "He came while on the cast of Saturday Night Live. That skit about cheeseburger/cheeseburger, no Coke/ Pepsi–John Belushi played my father while Dan Aykroyd worked the grill, and Murray served the drinks. They designed the backdrop like our restaurant–with the grill behind the counter."
Dino started working alongside his father at age 13, peeling potatoes and carrots on the weekends and during the summer. Dino's sisters, Nikki and Anna, also helped out when they were younger. "Nikki still comes and works a little," Dino said. "Anna lives in Dallas."
Dino's three children, ages 9, 10 and 12, also come in and help.
BUSINESS TAKES A HIT
Louie's was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week from 1976 to 2008. Gerry and Dino would each cover 12-hour shifts. Lately, due to medical reasons, Gerry has had to cut back his hours.
"Even though I manage and run the restaurant, my dad is still the boss," Dino said. "He only comes in and out during the mornings now."
Now, Louie's is open 24 hours only on Fridays and Saturdays. Dino said once the smoking ban in restaurants took effect, business dried up instantly at night. The slowing economy didn't help either.
"My father's age, his declining health due to his bad back and, frankly, the economy–all of that made us consider selling," Dino said. "Also, there are obstacles to doing business in this town. With all the taxes and fees, I feel like every time I turn around Teaneck is giving us another bill."
The property was put on the market last year, and the listing is set to expire any day now. "I'm going to let it expire," Dino said. "In this economy, no one comes by with serious offers."
If Louie's ever does sell, Dino said he'd struggle with creating a place with its own identity.
"I always said to myself, if I left, how do I build something new when this place is all I know? That is the frustrating part for me," he said. "I really don't know."
Dino added he would open a new restaurant somewhere in New Jersey, but he said he doesn't know where. "I know it won't be in Teaneck," he said.
CHERISHED BY CUSTOMERS
Aside from the frustrations of running a restaurant, Dino said he's proud of the food he serves.
"Customers come here for the quality and the quantity," Dino said. "We're not amateurs; we've been serving the same food for 40 years. Everything is cooked to order and made from scratch."
Regis Dale, who grew up in Teaneck but now lives in Singapore, used to go to Louie's as a teenager in the '70s. When he got married, he introduced his wife, who is from Taiwan, to diner food.
"She loved how quickly the food came, the onion rings and desserts," Dale said. "My wife became a citizen in 1989. After her swearing-in ceremony, she insisted we go to Louie's so that her first meal as an American could be a hamburger."
Customers of all ages come to Louie's, and Dino recognizes a lot of the faces.
"I see adults now with their young children, and I remember when those adults used to come in as teens," Dino said. "They tell me they want to show their kids where they hung out."
Randy Krakower grew up in Teaneck and said he ate at Louie's frequently in the '60s and '70s.
"I have taken my sons to Louie's several times this year," said Krakower, who now lives in Lumberton. "If you count my grandfather, who lived with us in Teaneck during the '70s, then four generations of my family has eaten at Louie's."
Krakower, who orders the Hungarian goulash or chicken parmesan, said Louie's always felt like home.
"Louie's is one of those iconic places of my youth and early adulthood," Krakower said. "It was really important to me to bring my wife and kids there so they could get a feel for the place and understand how it fits into our family history."
While times change and customers move away, when they return for their favorite meal at Louie's, they know it'll be as they remembered it. For customers Linda Poskanzer of Hackensack and Carol Volk of Waltham, Vt., both hoped the iconic diner would always be there.
"Teaneck wouldn't be Teaneck without Louie's Charcoal Pit," said Poskanzer, who still comes in a few times a month to enjoy a chef's salad or breakfast items.
Volk, who tries to come at least once a year, said one of the best things about Teaneck was Louie's. "Teaneck would not be home without Louie's," she said. "I hope it never changes."