Nick Castanos, co-owner of Cup & Saucer. Photo by Alex M. Smith.
Editor’s note: Today we’re continuing our series of small business profiles. The series is part of our yearlong reporting project on Small Business Survival. This story is reported and written by Max Rovo. If you’re interested in writing profiles for this project, whether you’ve lived on the Lower East Side one year or fifty years, send us an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
One night almost two years ago, I was out with a friend who taught English at P.S. 42 on Hester Street. He asked me if I had been to Cup & Saucer, right on the corner of Canal and Eldridge streets. When I told him I had not — he was shocked. “Oh, you have to go there. Their endless coffee and breakfast special is the best,” he said. I decided to take his advice — and ever since then have been a proud regular at one of the tastiest Greek diners in all of New York City. You might like it, too. It’s a great alternative to the often overpriced and trendy contemporary food options throughout the neighborhood.
On the Lower East Side, as with the rest of the city, diners have been fading away over the past 10-20 years as rents escalate and development pressures increase. Two of the six old school diners profiled by The Lo-Down just two years ago have vanished. So in the year 2016, it’s a modest luxury to have a 28-year old breakfast institution still going strong. Running any kind of restaurant is hard work. Operating a diner in New York City is especially difficult, given the grueling hours and slim profit margins. At the height of the city’s diner culture a few decades ago, there were more than one-thousand. Today there are fewer than 400.
If you look at Cup & Saucer from outside, it appears unassuming. The faded 1940s-era signage hanging above the restaurant immediately signals that you’ve stumbled upon something to be treasured. Inside, guests are casually enjoying their food while employees hustle to make sure everyone is comfortable. Rather than worry about investing in appearances, Cup & Saucer is all about creating a home away from home for its customers.
It’s a typical diner menu with lots of tasty choices that include burgers and fries, smoothies and more, but what is the most popular item of all? None other than “The Breakfast Special.” It comes with two eggs (made to order), fried potatoes, and a choice of wheat, rye or white taste; plus, a side of ham, sausage or bacon. If this sounds like a lot of food that’s because it is! To top this off, Cup and Saucer provides refills on its drip coffee that tastes, well, just like coffee with no undertones of cardamom or blueberry chocolate. This breakfast special with a cup of coffee costs just $5.50 (a little more if you add meat).
In the 1970s, there was a Cup & Saucer location near Union Square, and two more in the Times Square area. One of them was underground in the subway station. When Time Square rents spiked during the early 90s, Cup & Saucer closed those three locations. Now they have a diner in Ridgewood, Queens, as well as the Canal Street outpost, which has been under the same ownership since 1988. Over breakfast one day, co-owner Nick Castanos took a few minutes away from the hot griddle to talk about the longstanding small business.
Born and raised in Cuba, Castanos moved to New York in the 70s and has been working with John Vasilopoulos and the other owners of Cup & Saucer for many years. Castanos is head cook and works six days a week. The moment you sit down at the long lunch counter, you’re sure to notice his booming voice. “You got it’ and “coming right up” are among his top phrases.
John Vasilopoulos, co-owner of Cup & Saucer Luncheonette. Photo by Alex M. Smith.
Not too long ago, the building was sold, creating at least a little bit of anxiety about the future. Currently, the diner is on an annual lease. Business has been consistent. The fact that the owners run multiple restaurants is a strong indicator of survival, as opposed to single-location mom-and-pops. Historically, Castanos pointed out, Cup & Saucer served mostly locals — but in the past couple of years many more tourists from Germany and Spain have come through their doors. He sees this as a positive sign.
Castanos describes Cup & Saucer warmly, like one would speak lovingly of a close family member. “We make your typical American breakfast,” he explained. “Fast food mostly; burgers, fries, breakfast sandwiches. We’re your regular coffee shop you can count on.”
When asked about neighborhood competition, Castanos replied, “there is nothing like this around here,” alluding to newly arrived restaurants such as “Dimes” and “Pies & Thighs,” located about two blocks to the east, which serve a niche (trendier) clientele.
Right now, Vasilopoulos and Castanos have six employees working with them. In a small, narrow space, Cup & Saucer seats guests inches away from the hustle and bustle of the food prep area. Rest assured, when you stop by for a quick breakfast or a more leisurely weekend meal, the sound of clinking and clanking spatulas, always in motion at this comfortable Lower East Side institution, will wake you up! For almost three decades, they’ve been doing a flawless job serving the community – one breakfast special at a time.
Cup & Saucer Luncheonette
89 Canal St.
Hours: Monday-Friday 6 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday 6 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Max Rovo is a freelance copywriter and journalist based in New York. You’re way more likely to find him at a concert near you than a yoga session.