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Big changes in store for Mastoris

Dec 03, 2014 12:35PM ● Published by Community News Service

Alex Mastoris stands in the original room of Mastoris Diner-Restaurant. The restaurant is set to undergo a renovation in the next year. (Photo by Albert Rende.)

Gallery: Mastoris Revisited [2 Images] Click any image to expand.

When Mastoris first opened its doors as the Bordentown Bar and Grill, the simple establishment housed a dining room, bar and banquet room. More than 50 years later, the sprawling brick building has become a landmark at the crossroads of Route 130 and U.S. 206, its name familiar to those who live far beyond the Bordentown streets where the eatery is located.

The Mastoris family has kept a balance over the years of keeping their promise of quality food served in generous portions but also continuing to find new ways to reinvent the business to keep up with the times.

And the restaurant has seen its fair share of changes. There was the year and a half it took to rebuild the restaurant after a fire destroyed the original building in 1967. About 20 years later, a renovation added three new rooms around the existing building, nearly doubling the size of the restaurant. In 2006, Mastoris introduced Alstarz Bar and Grill across the parking lot. And most recently, hosting events and catering off-premise events have become a growing aspect of business.

So in 2013, the Mastoris family started tossing around ideas about what new, big change would be in store this time around. “We want to make a big splash with Mastoris,” said Alex Mastoris, 71, who now runs the business along with two partners: his son, Nick Mastoris, and their friend Jimmy Manetas, who also owns the neighboring Town and Country Diner.

The wheels started turning when Alex Mastoris and his partners were approached last winter by Wawa, with a proposition to build a full service convenience store and gas station on the Mastoris property. In that scenario, Mastoris would have been rebuilt across the parking lot as an extension of Alstarz.

While the partners were mulling their options, the story hit local papers. Before too long, customers were telling them just what they thought of the idea. “A lot of people were very resistant to moving the building because they liked coming into Mastoris,” Alex Mastoris said. “They like the warm feeling, they like the food, they like everything, and they didn’t know how they would feel about going into a completely different building.”

The proposition from Wawa got them excited about the idea of sparking change in a new way at the restaurant. But by summer, the partners had decided against a deal with Wawa.  “They sell everything now, so why should we compete on our same parking lot? It didn’t make sense,” Alex Mastoris said.

Instead, they developed a new plan: a $1.5 million renovation of Mastoris that would keep the building in place but would redesign the entire interior. By mid-November, the first phase of renovations was finished. The banquet room was gutted and redesigned to accommodate more upscale weddings and parties for up to 180 guests.

Over the course of the next year, the plan is to renovate each of the diner’s rooms, including the bakery. The lounge is the only room that won’t see a complete renovation, though it will see upgrades including new carpet and wall pictures, Nick Mastoris said.

The next phase of renovations, Alex Mastoris said, will likely start this winter. The plan is to take down the wall between the Lexington and Newport rooms—the wall that features the fireplace at its center—and combine the rooms to make a second banquet room.

Last of all, and scheduled to begin next fall, Mastoris will revamp its busiest and oldest room. The original dining car, with its booths, bar, food displays and more, will all be gutted. But while the idea of the banquet rooms was to design a classier and more modern look, the original dining area will move back in time with the look of a vintage diner.

It’s not the first time this room has been remodeled, but the last renovation still left the room with the same counter and similar design.

All that will change, however, with the next renovation, Alex Mastoris said, noting that they’ll likely have to close the room for a few months because of the huge scale of work that will need to be done.

“You won’t even recognize it,” he said.

* * *

For the Mastoris family, owning a restaurant isn’t just an occupation—it’s a way of life.

Mastoris Diner-Restaurant has been open in Bordentown under the family name since 1969, but the family story begins long before that—back in 1927, when Nicholas Corcodilos moved his family from Perth Amboy to Hightstown and opened up the Hightstown Diner.

In the 1930s, Nick Mastoris, a boy who’d moved to the U.S. from Greece with his family, began working at the Hightstown Diner. In 1941, he married Corcodilos’ daughter, Mary, and went into business with his now-father-in-law.

After Corcodilos retired in 1959, Nick and Mary Mastoris set their sights on Bordentown. They sold the Hightstown Diner and partnered with Jerry Voutsinas, who owned the Bordentown Bar and Grill, then located near the former Saturn dealership. When Nick and Mary Mastoris and Voutsinas became partners, they moved the restaurant to a new property.

The Mastoris building stands on that property today, but the building that housed the Bordentown Bar and Grill is long gone. After a fire ripped through the restaurant in 1967, Nick and Mary Mastoris spent the next year and a half rebuilding; when they finally reopened, they bought out Voutsinas’ share and renamed the location Mastoris Diner-Restaurant.

Now, three generations later, the diner is still a family-run operation. For a number of years, Alex Mastoris’ brother Jimmy managed the front of house operations, and their brother Michael, a chiropractor, often helped out on weekends. Though Jimmy and Michael have since stopped working at the diner, Alex Mastoris’ daughter, Michelle, who graduated from Cornell University School of Hotel Administration just like her father and brother, works in the restaurant office.

And in less than a year, the next generation is set to join the team. Nick Mastoris’ son, also named Alex Mastoris, is set to graduate from Penn State School of Hospitality Management in May 2015, after which the 22-year-old will immediately join the Mastoris team.

It may sound simple, but the Mastoris family insists its success over the years has been due to its quality, homemade food served in generous portions. Their entrees include everything from seafood to homemade pasta to chicken and beef dishes, and the cheese and cinnamon bread sold in the bakery and served up before every meal is nearly synonymous with the name Mastoris.

That bread, Alex Mastoris said, was actually developed by a retired Princeton University baker, Frank Heupel, who came to work at the restaurant. While at Mastoris, he came up with the recipe and, before he left, passed the technique on to the next baker.

Chance encounters like those have been the basis of many dishes at Mastoris, Alex Mastoris said. He’s constantly creating new dishes for the menu, finding inspiration from other dishes, flavors and ingredients to design something brand new.

And what Mastoris is doing must be working, because loyal clientele keep coming back.
“You know them when they come in,” Nick Mastoris said. “And they get the same thing every day, they sit in the same seat in the same room, they come in at the same time.”

Because of its prime location, the restaurant sees its fair share of passersby just driving through the area. And it’s also seen a number of noteworthy guests. In the 1980s, Mastoris hosted a fundraiser for Rep. Chris Smith, with President Gerald Ford as the guest of honor.
“We had security all over everything,” Alex Mastoris said. “We had all the chefs dressed up, and I’ll never forget it. But it was a pleasure having him here.”

* * *

Alex Mastoris says the renovations show that Mastoris will continue to change with the times.
“It’s not just a diner focus anymore… we have four separate corporations, with two separate liquor licenses. It’s a big nut to keep track of, and to keep up with the times you have to keep changing everything,” he said.

The four corporations, he said, are the Mastoris restaurant, Mastoris off-premise catering, the bakery, and Alstarz restaurant.

Though diners are certainly still popular, Alex Mastoris said, some establishments are struggling because, by design, a diner is simply more expensive to run. Because nearly everything at a diner is made from scratch, the cost is higher for the ingredients and manpower.

Mastoris has always employed that same business model—homemade food served in large quantities—Alex Mastoris said, and it’s continued to be successful. But with the refreshed décor and additional event space, an updated Mastoris will attract a wider base of customers.
“I think it’s going to make us more of a destination to have nice upscale parties, which is what we’ve always wanted to do,” Nick Mastoris said, noting that he hopes the refurbishment along with continuing to serve high quality food will bring in more business and corporate parties as well.

While the current renovation project is a huge undertaking, Mastoris continues to explore some smaller changes, too. The restaurant is constantly redoing its menu; the last revised menu came out just three months ago.

Off-site catering has also increased, and for one of its largest events in mid-November, Mastoris served lunch to a crowd of nearly 3,500 employees at the new Amazon warehouse.
And even their famous bread is now going mobile. Just before Thanksgiving, Mastoris was set to launch a website where customers can order bread online and have it shipped anywhere in the country.

“I love change,” Alex Mastoris said. “I really do. I love it and just seeing the beginning of the change here is very motivating to me. When I come in and see parties in our new room, it looks so much nicer. So much crisper, cleaner. Right now I don’t see that there was any other choice really.”

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Food+Dining, Community restaurant Mastoris Diner

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