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Schenectady's Blue Ribbon Restaurant family is living American dream

Outlook

Schenectady's Blue Ribbon Restaurant family is living American dream

The recipe for the Menagias' success blends family ties with an award-winning cheesecake
Schenectady's Blue Ribbon Restaurant family is living American dream
Blue Ribbon Diner family on Friday, February 8, 2019.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer

SCHENECTADY — Angelo Menagias and his family are living the American dream. “We are immigrants,” he told me by way of introduction, along with a lot more, about how his family not only came to Schenectady, but also became successful business owners through perseverance and effort.

He and his brother, Jerry, are co-owners of the Blue Ribbon Family Restaurant and its sister company, the Blue Rose Cheesecake & Bake Shop, both located on State Street. How they reached this point after arriving from Greece is a good story; one of love, family and a lot of hard work.

Menagias was proud to share it, as we sat in his spotless restaurant on a quiet and rainy afternoon. It’s important to him – it tumbled out in chunks; alternately, he was silent and reflective of his good fortune.

“I wouldn’t be here,” explained Menagias, but for his Uncle Jimmy. While Jimmy Menagias may be the hero of this story, he got off to a rough start.
 
In the 1950s, Jimmy was living in the United States illegally, where he met and fell in love with Anna Guidicelli, an American. Ultimately, immigration authorities sent him back to Greece.

Undeterred, Anna went to Greece to find him. They married and two years later came back to New York.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Blue Ribbon Diner in the beginning Friday, February 8, 2019.
PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
A shot of an old photograph of Blue Ribbon Diner in the beginning.

Jimmy worked in restaurants here: Newest Lunch on Albany Street, Broadway Lunch on Broadway.  And he never forgot his brother’s family back in Greece.

Jimmy borrowed a lot of money – $6,000, (about $45,000 in today’s money), to buy boat tickets to bring his brother, his sister-in-law and their four children to America.

Angelo, his brother, Jerry, their sisters, Kathy and Vicki, and their parents arrived in New York on April 4, 1967.

Jimmy met them at the boat and brought them to their first home in America, 2101 Broadway in Schenectady, which he had recently purchased.  It would soon become the Broadway Lunch restaurant; the family lived in the apartment upstairs.  He’d arranged jobs, too, for Angelo’s father and mother.  Angelo was 15 years old.

Angelo went to work the very next day.  “My father got me a job at Wetson’s, on Nott Street,” the old hamburger chain restaurant, where he prepped potatoes for french fries, the way they used to be made. “I peeled and sliced potatoes,” he said, with his hands in ice water all the time. “I think that’s why I have arthritis in my hands today,” he said, examining them.

He didn’t go to school. “We had to pay back the money,” he explained. Soon after, Angelo went to work at Broadway Lunch. “I worked every day for two years. Monday and Wednesday nights I went to Van Corlaer Junior High School and learned English.”

There’s a black and white photo that hangs in Broadway Lunch of Angelo, Jerry, their father, and Uncle Jimmy standing behind the counter there.  The brothers are slim and handsome, Angelo with the same thick mustache that’s mostly grey today. They’re all looking at the camera; they look pleased to be working, to be together. On the menu board over their heads, fried chicken is $2.25.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Blue Ribbon Diner in the beginning Friday, February 8, 2019.
PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
A shot of an old photograph of Broadway Lunch in the beginning.

Six years after he arrived, Angelo became partner at Broadway Lunch.  He was 21 years old.

A few years later, Angelo and Jimmy bought the building that had been Mike’s Hot Dogs on State Street and opened a restaurant. “Blue ribbon – that means best, first prize,” he said. “I thought, someday if I open a restaurant, that’s what I’d call it.  It was a good name for a restaurant.” He paused a moment, and added, “Award-winning.” It opened July 28, 1977. Angelo knows all the dates by heart.

“It was a big family effort,” Angelo said. They worked hard, but were off to a slow start. Jimmy eventually sold out his share to Angelo’s brother Jerry. Things were, “not too good.”

More from Outlook 2019

By chance, Angelo met someone who gave him a recipe for cheesecake.  They’d met on a plane going to Greece; while Angelo and his wife, Alexandra, were on their honeymoon.  “It was an old gentleman from Philadelphia. He had a German bakery,” he recalls. They had a few drinks together. “By 6 a.m. he gave me the recipe,” was how Angelo remembers it. When he returned to the restaurant, “We doctored it.” It was a great recipe; a winner.

Someone suggested they enter their cheesecake in a competition. “It was the Finger Lakes Fall Festival in 1981,” an event that continues today. “We brought two pumpkin cheesecakes and won.” Then, they went to Vermont, for another Fall festival. “We won first prize there,” he recalled.

Angelo thought there must be something bigger, and there sure was:  the New York Restaurant Show, at what is now the Javits Center in New York City.  That’s about as big as it gets; this year, it’s a three-day extravaganza with 550 vendors, educational sessions, live culinary demonstrations and competitions.  They brought about eight cheesecakes, sliced them up and arranged plates on a display.  “We won,” he said, “Four years in a row.”

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Blue Ribbon Diner Zachary Menagias, Angelo Menagias, Georgio Menagias, Jerry Menagias, and Phillip Menagias Friday, February 8, 2019.
PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Blue Ribbon Diner Zachary Menagias, Angelo Menagias, Georgio Menagias, Jerry Menagias, and Phillip Menagias Friday, February 8, 2019.

Cheesecake was selling well at the Blue Ribbon. “Holidays we sold hundreds.” The restaurant was running out of room to make them all. They needed a bigger production site, and bought a nearby building at 2001 State Street and turned it into a bakery, outfitting it with equipment and handsome fixtures made in Italy.

“All the baking is done there now,” Angelo said. But they had to figure out what to call it.  “We always think business,” he said, and didn’t want to use the same name as the restaurant.  They settled on something similar: “Blue Rose by Blue Ribbon,” Angelo said. It opened a few months ago and will hold its grand opening on June 9. “It’s going well.”

Over time, the brothers bought the two properties immediately to the west of the Blue Ribbon to create a parking lot and expand the original building from 110 to 205 seats. “Now we are a landmark,” said Angelo.

Not long ago, Angelo’s sister Vicki, who was running Broadway Lunch, was ready to sell. “She wanted it in the family,” said Angelo.  She called one of Angelo's sons, Philip, who took over the restaurant and opened it on April 4, 2018. “It took a few days for it to sink in,” he recounted: it was exactly 51 years to the day Angelo’s family arrived in New York from Greece.

Another of Angelo’s sons, Georgio, is in charge of bakery production, while his other son, Zachary, is a host at the restaurant. Alexandra, and Jerry’s wife, Angela, work there as well.  Everyone works long days. “Our wives are understanding,” Angelo said, “we only close Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Mostly, he said, that’s to give the staff time off for the holidays. Their employees are devoted. “The average worker is here 15 years,” Angelo said, adding, “Some since the 1970s.”

As the brothers recall, there were no jobs in Greece. “That’s why we came here. The American dream,” said Angelo.

And they are grateful. “We say thank you, to the U.S., to Schenectady, to our customers and friends,” said Angelo. 

Some customers have become like family. “If they don’t come in, we call.  If they’re sick, we bring them soup,” said Angelo.

“We try to give back to the community,” he added, they support “the fire department, the police; anything we can do to make the community better.”

Perhaps the most important person in this good story, the one who started everything for the Menagias family was the one in love with Jimmy, who went to Greece to find him: Anna.

“We owe her,” Menagias said.

More from Outlook 2019

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