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Nick's Airport Inn: 51 years of family commitment

October 15, 2012|By MEG H. PARTINGTON | megp@herald-mail.com
  • The dining room at Nick's Airport Inn.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

A lot has changed since Nick’s Airport Inn opened in 1961.

The neighboring Hagerstown Regional Airport has grown and some of the empty land that used to surround the restaurant is now home to Sierra Nevada Corp.

The same quality of food is offered at Nick’s, but the menu has been tweaked to cater to a more health-conscious clientele, said Paul Giannaris, one of several family members who runs the eatery at 14548 Pennsylvania Ave., which has expanded in its 51-year existence.

“Things have gotten a little more casual,” he said of the attire worn by restaurant patrons. “Even the workplace has gotten more casual,” he said in trying to explain the change in clothing worn out even for fine-dining experiences.

The food at Nick’s is still high-class, though, featuring fresh fish and meat.

More locally grown foods are featured on the menu than in the past, including mushrooms, vegetables, cheeses and some meat.

“As much local stuff we can buy, we buy,” Giannaris said.

And many of those who dine at Nick’s are well-versed in the art of eating.

“People are much more knowledgeable” about food thanks to the proliferation of cooking shows on television, Giannaris said. That has made them more open to trying unique fish such as walleye, cobia and escolar, he added.

Not surprising is the increase in prices on that evolving menu.

When the restaurant opened in 1961, a patron paid $3.65 for two crab cakes, which now cost $23.95, Giannaris said. Imperial crab then cost $3.95, but now sells for $26.95; and filet mignon sold for $5.65 in 1961, but has risen to $28.95.

Dinner entrees cost $17 to $43.95, while lunch can be purchased for $6.95 to $12.95.

Even the chain of command at the restaurant has changed.

After the 2010 death of its patriarch, Nick Giannaris, the responsibility of running the establishment now lies in the hands of his family.

Sons Paul, 42, and Dean Giannaris, 40, and daughter, Anastasia Tiches, 46, help run the restaurant. The role of Nick Giannaris’ widow, Tina, has evolved from being involved in the day-to-day activities there to being in charge of the business side of things, Paul said.

Tina, 72, left for Greece in mid-August for a visit with family and friends, and was expected to return in mid-October.

In her absence, “we cover for her,” Paul Giannaris said, laughing.

He works at Nick’s full time and has been a managing partner at Bulls & Bears restaurant in Hagerstown for two years.

Paul Giannaris said Tiches works part time at the restaurant and handles its party planning. Her 19-year-old daughter served as a hostess over the summer during her break from college, and her 15-year-old son buses tables, he said.

His 14-year-old daughter helps out, too, answering phones and helping with work that needs to be done on the computer.

Dean Giannaris is working at Nick’s now, but is in the process of opening a pizza place called Northside Pizza in Hagerstown, his brother said.

It’s all about family

From the beginning, Nick’s Airport Inn was a family commitment.

Paul Giannaris said right after he was born, he was brought home from the hospital to Nick’s, since his family lived above the eatery at the time. Their former living space is now a private dining room.

He said his mother used to put the children to bed, then go downstairs and help in the restaurant.

Paul Giannaris also remembers wandering down to the restaurant’s kitchen in his pajamas to get milk in the mornings, a time when the children had to be quiet because their father worked late and needed his sleep.

With no neighbors nearby, the restaurant staff became an intricate part of the Giannaris’ circle.

“They were like family to us,” Paul Giannaris said.

A lot of the kitchen staff has been with the family for a long time, five of them for more than 25 years, he said. Some used to work at the former Four Points Sheraton when the Giannarises owned it, then came to work at Nick’s Airport Inn.

Paul Giannaris said he thinks many staff members have stayed there for so long “just because we treat them like family,” including inviting them to the homes of Giannaris family members.

Longtime chef Francis Verdier can attest to that sense of belonging.

Verdier, 58, started working at the restaurant in 1981, then left in 2005 to work in catering. He returned in 2010 because “Paul called me,” and now runs the kitchen at Nick’s.

“I became part of the family,” Verdier said, adding that such a connection made it hard to leave. “We’re not just employees, we’re good friends,” he said of Paul Giannaris.

Trenda Harshman, 47, has been working at Nick’s for 25 years.

She applied for a nighttime dishwashing job, but Nick Giannaris saw more in her future.

“This girl has potential. Put her in the kitchen,” she recalled him saying. She said he “just had a knack” for seeing people’s talents.

The secret to longevity

At a time when the struggling economy has caused many businesses to close their doors, the enduring success of Nick’s Airport Inn might seem like an anomaly.

Paul Giannaris attributes its longevity to hard work and reputation.

“We just try to put a stronghold in the community,” he said.

The restaurant offers a very good product at a reasonable price, he said, and its customers are treated well.

“We plug along and we work really hard,” he said. “We go the extra mile.”

Verdier said he and Paul Giannaris share a philosophy: “We want very high-quality food. We understand our customers and we try to do exactly what our customers want.”

Verdier said his specialties are sauces and food presentation.

“I do my own cooking. I don’t cook from books,” said Verdier, who said he has traveled all over France and is well-trained in the culinary arts.

“You’ve got to like what you do, no matter what it is,” he said, adding that he and the rest of the cooking staff get excited when they have the chance to work with exceptional ingredients such as Chilean sea bass and snapper.

After her stint washing dishes, Harshman started working in food preparation, working with seafood and mixes, and peeling potatoes. Then she was in charge of the salad unit until joining the cooking “line” about 15 years ago.

She prepares all sorts of food on the menu, but crab cakes are her specialty. She puts them together in the mornings and after the lunch rush is over.

When she’s not at Nick’s, she said, “I have a hard time eating anywhere” because she can’t find the same quality of food anywhere else.

She must not be the only one who feels that way about the food at the Airport Inn.

The eatery was voted Best Place for Dinner and Best Seafood in The Herald-Mail’s Readers’ Choice awards, which were published Sept. 26. Nick’s topped the list for places to eat dinner last year, too, Paul Giannaris said.

Nick’s does some catering, and groups like Rotary and Exchange clubs hold their meetings at the restaurant.

The longtime eating establishment has a tradition of giving.

Nick Giannaris was known for “Christmas with Nick,” a free holiday meal that was served for 17 years at Four Points Sheraton.

He became involved in other events, like “An Evening with Nick,” which raised more than $500,000 for local charities, and Dream Come True, an organization that grants wishes to children who are seriously ill or have life-threatening diseases.

Paul Giannaris said the family continues the work of their philanthropist father by supporting local charities as much as possible.

Being born and raised in Hagerstown, Paul said, “It’s been very good to me, and I think it’s time to give back.”

Dining at Nick’s

Nick’s Airport Inn, at 14548 Pennsylvania Ave. in Hagerstown, serves lunch Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner is served Monday to Friday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Saturday from 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.

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