Restaurant is Family Affair & Covington's Best Kept Secret
Walk in the door of the massive Gateway Center at the corner of Madison Avenue & Third Street at around noon on a weekday and you will find one of the busiest lunch spots in Northern Kentucky.
Often the line is nearly out the door and every table is taken.
Behind the counter, a tight-knit family (that sometimes even includes the little ones) and their staff are all over the place, executing a system that only they can understand that keeps the food and the line moving.
This is Nick & Tony's Double Deckers, the once tiny sandwich shop that opened six years ago in a former Subway on Scott Boulevard but later expanded into the sprawling office building that houses hundreds of federal workers in the upper floors. When Izzy's moved out, Nick & Tony's owner Ryan Kassis saw an opportunity.
On Scott, "We did OK," Kassis said, "but I always wanted to move closer to this."
The move has paid off. Nick & Tony's has become the lunch spot of choice for tons of IRS employees that populate downtown Covington during the day, and also many sheriff's deputies, attorneys, and other courthouse professionals, as well as those from other nearby offices. It's not unusual to see judges and local prosecutors eating lunch at Nick & Tony's. However, despite the booming lunch business that flocks to the corner every day, Kassis admits that his business is barely known outside the immediate neighborhood.
"I don't even know if it's six blocks. It may be three blocks," the restaurateur said of his reach.
That may change soon. Nick & Tony's already takes an unusual approach for its location and stays open through dinner time. It's also open for breakfast. Coming soon is something that Izzy's coveted but was not permitted to have due to rules implemented by the building's previous owners. The new owners, who acquired the Gateway Center in Northern Kentucky's largest-ever real estate transaction, will permit Kassis to add outdoor dining.
"I see all these people streaming by and I think some tables with umbrellas outside will hopefully make it more of a neighborhood place," he said. Though the restaurant is surrounded by government offices, it's barely a stone's throw from residents downtown, in Mainstrasse Village, and in Licking Riverside, and guests at the riverfront hotels. "I think it will add some ambience."
He also hopes it increases his dinner business, too.
And what a menu guests have to peruse! Naturally, the first page is full of "double deckers" (that can also be served as wraps) with American favorites like ham & cheese, BLT, turkey club, and corned beef. There is always a fresh soup or two and eight different salads -- all topped with homemade croutons courtesy of Kassis's sister, Donna, who also works at Nick & Tony's.
There are fifteen different burgers that range from the typical bacon cheeseburger (with barbecue) to the extravagant like the Awesome burger which puts bacon on a beef patty and replaces the bun with two grilled cheese sandwiches. Hungry guests can also opt for the Cincinnati burger which is topped with goetta, an egg, and cheese. Other cafe favorites are also available like a patty melt, country fried steak, and daily specials throughout the week like fall-off-the-bone barbecue ribs and meatloaf.
Oh, and the gyros. Kassis is a native of Israel and is of Greek Orthodox faith, and though he moved to America as a child, Nick & Tony's has mastered this Mediterranean favorite. The family will showcase their famous gyros and other Greek favorites at the St. James Mediterranean Food Fest in Loveland, Ohio which runs Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (June 12-14).
Moving from behind the counter at Nick & Tony's, Kassis and the whole clan will work at their annual church festival including wife May, sister Donna, daughter Nadia, and young sons: Nick and Tony. They all know the massive menu because it's important to keep those customers coming back in and the key to that is variety. They also master their efficient system because IRS workers, who make up 60% of their business, typically only have 30 minutes for lunch.
May said all of the recipes are from the family and Ryan said that some of the items come from their other businesses, one of which is the iconic Log Cabin restaurant in South Covington which has been owned by Kassis for ten years. So on any given weekday, at both ends of Covington, the family is feeding the city's workers. "I always say it's the only place on a Friday night where you can get an omelet and a shot of Jack Daniels all at the same time," Kassis said about the Log Cabin. The famous spot has been a destination for decades and still features pictures of couples on a first date there in 1949.
Now Kassis is hoping to make a similar successful destination at the north end of the city (and he's also looking to expand the Nick & Tony's name to Eastgate where the family lives). It's a different line of work than the accounting job Kassis originally had as a career. "It was not people-oriented. I like to interact with my customers. Sitting behind a desk is not very rewarding," Kassis said, noting that he probably knows 200 of his regular customers by name.
"Our eyes are always on the customers, so that's the advantage," May added. "Everybody cares about the customers and we treat our employees as our family."
"We lean on each other," Kassis said, "and we have each other's back. If I'm busy on the phone, she'll cash somebody out. We make it work. That's the thing when it's family. We just make it work."
Story & photo by Michael Monks, editor & publisher