Students arriving on campus expecting to find unique New York boutiques might be shocked by the many chain stores and vacant windows that line the blocks of Morningside Heights. But scattered between 110th and 114th streets are six resilient, family-run businesses whose survival carries the neighborhood’s history.
Locally-owned establishments have been increasingly hard to come by in the area. Their sink-or-swim subsistence often makes them more vulnerable to swings in the economy. Still, select family-owned establishments in Morningside Heights have survived for decades—some for more than 60 years—and as the demographics have shifted around them, these institutions have persisted as an infallible retail backbone.
At many of these businesses, knowing what people are hungry for has kept them thriving. Strongholds such as the Hungarian Pastry Shop, Mondel Chocolates, Symposium, Tom’s Restaurant, and V&T Pizzeria have fed locals through other tough economic climates.
For V&T, which has had its home on Amsterdam and 110th St. since 1945, the economy has had little effect on business.
“We have been up and down, but it is mostly okay. We are not going anywhere,” Vinny LJ, manager of V&T, said. “When there is a tough economy, good pizza makes people happy.”
Next door, though, the Hungarian Pastry Shop—coming up on its 33rd anniversary—is noticing a decline in patronage. “It is manageably slower here, but we are going to ride this one out,” said Wendy Binioris, who owns the shop along with her husband, Peter Binioris.
In addition to cups of coffee and pastries, the Binioris family also serves up Greek food two blocks north on 113th Street at Symposium, an authentic Greek restaurant that has been cooking gyros for four decades.
“We are like ambassadors for Greece,” owner Chris Binioris, brother of Peter, said. “Students we know come in here and ask advice about their trips to Greece, what to do, where to eat. When they come back, they say that Symposium is the best Greek food they have ever had.”
Many owners attributed their long-standing success to consistency. Tom’s Restaurant, on Broadway and 112th St., has operated as a local diner since the 1930s.
“We have stayed the same and people appreciate that,” Mike Zoulis, manager and partner of Tom’s, said. “They want to come back to the place they trust. We are simple and down-to-earth, serving real food. Fresh pancakes the way Grandma made them.”
Paula Blat, manager of Mondel Chocolates—established on 114th Street in 1943—agreed, saying that “people love to come here and see that the shop looks exactly the same as it did years ago.”
Because their shop is so old, Blat said, it has become a local landmark. “People who went to school here come with their children. There are sometimes even three generations of a family who come to our shop.”
Wendy Binioris echoed these sentiments. “There is a lot of nostalgia in the pastry shop,” she said.
While these standout establishments continue to thrive, other locally owned stores aren’t faring as well.
“The photo studio, the stationery store, the cleaners, men’s clothing store, a smaller diner. All family-owned, and now all gone,” Zoulis said, adding that “a lot of smaller stores have been combined into larger ones.”
Zoulis said he remembers when the neighborhood’s socioeconomic status meant many customers were elderly, or lived in single-room occupancy buildings. But as the area was spruced up, rents rose, forcing former patrons to move.
“We still have these locals, but the neighborhood has become very gentrified, and some can’t afford to live here anymore, or they have to work really hard and have no time to hang out at Tom’s,” Zoulis said. At one time, “everyone knew each other. It was like a village hangout place.”
Jim Ma, an employee at Janoff’s Typewriter and Stationery—a family-run business since 1980 on 111th Street, and for many decades prior on 112th Street—agreed with Zoulis.
“The neighborhood has changed. It has gotten nice here. So nice that some stores around here are empty,” Ma said. “We are really a part of the old neighborhood that people remember.”
But some store owners saw this change as a good one, at least for business.
“The neighborhood is actually wonderful,” Blat said. “It is getting better and better, and has become much safer.”
Eduardo Morales, a resident for over 30 years and a regular at V&T, agreed.
“Today, you find people from everywhere living in the same neighborhood,” Morales said. “It [V&T Pizzeria] is a family place, with all types of people from the neighborhood, students, doctors, everybody together.”