Food trucks have taken over U.S. cities throughout the last several years, partially due to street food's social media appeal and the rise of foodie culture. But Nicko Karagiorgos, owner of NYC favorite Uncle Gussy's and a member of the New York Food Truck Association, says it's all about building relationships and word of mouth. Karagiorgos founded Uncle Gussy’s, one of the first Greek food trucks, back in 2009. Now, all of Midtown knows his name.
Uncle Gussy's fare is inspired by Karagiorgos' mother, who emigrated to America to give him and his brother a better life. Before the pandemic, Karagiorgos would serve souvlaki platters and gyros for up to 700 customers a day. But, like most of the food industry, Uncle Gussy's was hit hard in 2020, especially with the drop in nine-to-five professionals frequenting Karagiorgos' Midtown East neighborhood.
We spoke to Karagiorgos about building a successful business in New York City and adapting to survive a pandemic that’s decimated 50% of his customer base.
Business of Business: Could you tell us about your background and building Uncle Gussy’s?
Nicko Karagiorgos: My uncle started in 1971 with a typical New York pushcart. He was one of the originators at the time. In 2007, I took over and built a bigger cart. Then in 2009, we put out one of the first Greek food trucks. We saw a whole lot of chicken and rice in the market. My brother and I created specials to differentiate ourselves— lamb chops and potatoes, shrimp souvlaki, braised beef and other meals originating from our mother’s recipes. It was me, my mother, and my brother. We were unstoppable.
What was demand like at the time? Did you do any marketing?
Food trucks make such a bigger impression than food carts. It was like day and night. Our business went up by a quarter in days, up by half in a matter of a week, then doubled in two weeks. Let me tell you, the best marketing is word of mouth. The more you’re in people's faces, the more you're in videos, they’ll come and come — even if you’re not that good. The prime hours are lunch, during office work. 11:30 am to 3:00 pm was pandemonium, like a royal rumble at WrestleMania. It was crazy.
Did you embrace social media when you first started out?
As time went on, we did. It was the owner of Big Gay Ice Cream Truck who told us we had to get a Twitter handle, get online and post where we are. I said, "Everybody knows where I am!" But then he said, "This isn’t everybody. There’s a whole world you can conquer." Back then, this guy had 250,000 followers on Twitter. He’s funny, gay, and proud. He took a regular softee truck, took a rainbow cone, and put “Big Gay Ice Cream” on it. People went apeshit for him.
You're here in the thick of things on 51st and Park. What kind of customers do you serve?
People from corporate, finance, accounting, logistics, hedge funds, men, women, young and old. I remember there was this young, very cool kid who came in as an intern for Blackstone. I watched that kid grow over the years. You could see his progress, his entourage of likeminded people. I know another kid at Fidelity, I knew his father who passed away, and I know his son. I know the owner of this building right there, I know the homeless guy, I know everybody.
Looking at all these buildings, you can think of real relationships you’ve built.
Absolutely, 100 percent. I’m here more than I'm at home. But the world definitely has changed, and I don't know if there's going be a lunch rush again. I just spoke to somebody I haven't seen for over a year. This guy was always decked out and looking good, but now he's looking a bit rough and wearing jeans. He tells me he’s back and things are picking up, but it's not going to be the same.
I’m more defensive and pessimistic about things. I’m ready to take one of the trucks and go south. We used to come out, bang out lunch, clean up, reload, and do it over again 5 days a week. This isn’t the case any more, now we gotta chase this every day. They're not coming to you anymore. You gotta come to them.
"I know another kid at Fidelity, I knew his father who passed away, and I know his son. I know the owner of this building right there, I know the homeless guy, I know everybody."
How are you adapting to less demand during the pandemic?
We’re putting a product out at the supermarkets with Prime Food distributors. I gave them my recipe, and now they’re packaging my skewers with my branding on it and everything. Direct-to-consumer sales is the future for me, my friend. The subscription model is like the American dream. You sleep and make money. People want everything personalized now, and they want it when they want it. Another thing we're doing is advanced deliveries. You put in an order and I’ll have it there by a certain date, kind of like a meal plan.
What has competition been like lately?
I don't want to have a festival look. For some odd reason, when one truck comes around, more and more come around and it gets too cluttered. Government entities in New York get privy that you’re here and they start fucking with you, at least they did back then. That, or the restaurants would be like, I’m paying $60K in rent, and these guys are not kosher.
That's what it costs? $60K?
2,000 square feet on Lexington or Park Avenue, what do you think that we're paying for it? Upwards of $25K. You think there's enough to go around for everybody, but if you have a big scene, there's not. It’s a respect thing. I don't pull up next to people, even if it's a hotdog cart. We’re very small, so if I go next to that hot dog, I'm gonna kill that guy. I’ll crush him. What, like he doesn't have a family? He doesn't have bills to pay? So if he's there already, I'm not gonna bother.
What's the communication or coordination like between you and neighborhood restaurants?
I know a lot of restaurants, a lot of diner guys, a lot of deli guys, I know the Fresh&co owners. They’re all getting crushed. There’s a diner in the theatre district, they just built out two floors, spent millions of dollars, then COVID hit and they’ve been shut down ever since.
There’s one guy out in this industry looking to help us, David Portnoy. I follow him on Instagram. I get goosebumps when he speaks to these restaurant owners. It makes me want to cry. I ran through my savings just to fucking survive. It sucks. But again, I'm not gonna sit here, lay down and die. I’m trying new things. I see the future as volatile, but bright. A big change is coming, it’s already here because it’s just me and you in this plaza.
Why am I still here? Because it's what I've done for decades. I just don’t see myself parting from here, but I don’t know what to do.
At your peak, how many customers were you serving before COVID hit?
600 to 700. But since COVID hit...I may have done 150 orders today.
You told me many of your clients have the option to work remote, right?
So, one of my clients, a small hedge fund, he's paying $24,000 a month for rent. He laid off a few people, but everyone is working. One is in a different country, five are in different states. He’s in Connecticut telling me he only pays a portion of the taxes and they’re still making a shitload of money.
I'm a journal reader — I read some of the New York Times and I read the Wall Street Journal — that's how I used to gauge my day. If the markets are bad, people are coming out to eat. If the markets are good, people are really coming out to eat.
Another year of remote work is definitely in the works, so that’s bad for me. It's a red flag. If you're working just fine from home, why the hell would you want to get onto the subway?
"The subscription model is like the American dream. You sleep and make money. People want everything personalized now, and they want it when they want it."
Did you ever work in the corporate world?
I worked in the corporate world for a bit. They've got no love for you, bro, which is unfortunate. They'll cut you off in a heartbeat. They’re looking out for themselves. I mean, that's the beast of this world. You're just a number, and if you’re not bringing in numbers, you’re no good. You’re obsolete. It's sad, how they have us glued to screens all day. What happened to entrepreneurs in America? What happened to this innovative country?
Sometimes I ask myself, why did my mom come here? Why didn't we stay in the hills of Greece to farm and enjoy that beautiful, clean air? It was freedom, a way to move forward, and this was the promised land. If you ask my 72-year-old mom if she’d go back, she’d say no, because this country gave her everything. But I don't think this country is giving us anything anymore.
I don’t want to close up shop. I love my brand and I love my business. You know those cups that say, “It's my pleasure to serve you”? It’s literally my pleasure to serve you. It’s not just about giving food and making money. It’s about that reaction, the experience when people say, "Damn those were some good french fries. Next time, I gotta get extra feta on that."
It's the relationships I create, from the guy who owns that building to the homeless guy who sits outside of it. I don’t care who you are. I like to serve people and make them happy. It’s my thing. If you come to my house, I cook. Well, my wife cooks. I grill.