Food Fighter

Time and again, Valley restaurant legend Nick Ligidakis has cooked his own goose. Will Cafe Niko be another overtrimmed turkey?

It'd be hard to think of a less likely candidate for franchising success than one-man band Nick Ligidakis. How do you possibly duplicate a personality-driven, portion-control-be-damned eatery without losing the unique qualities that made the operation successful to begin with?

You don't--something Ligidakis learned for the first time in 1989 when a team of investors convinced him to apply his "more is more" approach to cooking to restaurant marketing. In addition to franchising a chain of pita sandwich kiosks like the one Ligidakis briefly operated at Tri-City Mall, their ambitious plan involved closing the McDowell pizzeria, opening a greatly expanded new restaurant and marketing a line of bottled sauces and salad dressings aimed at turning Ligidakis into Phoenix's answer to Paul Newman.

"I still don't know how I got trapped into doing that," says Ligidakis, who claims that the McDowell shop was his only restaurant ever to turn a profit. "My goal in life is not to become rich and all that. But I'd been on McDowell for five years and was so tired, I listened to these people who wanted to make me a household name."

The man who never does anything small shakes his head. "It was a big mistake."

Exactly how big didn't become apparent until his first--and only--Pita Stop outlet floundered in the Tri-City Mall food court.

"Nick tried to position it as fast food--but it wasn't fast food at all," says Romeo Taus, a former employee who eventually left Ligidakis' camp to open his own restaurant, Mesa's Euro Cafe. "He had appetizers, pita sandwiches, half a dozen salads and great desserts--but in my opinion, he overextended himself. By its nature, franchising is geared toward the bottom line, and Nick is almost completely the opposite of that."

When one of the largest investors suddenly found his assets frozen in a divorce suit, Ligidakis found himself with the empty commissary from the doomed enterprise, a huge storefront in the Tower Plaza shopping mall on East Thomas Road.

"That Thomas Road place did me in," Ligidakis says of Nick's Golden Cuisine of Southern Europe, a 9,000-square-foot space more than 10 times larger than his earlier store. As if running a restaurant/bar 18 hours a day wasn't enough work, Ligidakis simultaneously used the building as headquarters for his cooking classes, a commissary for his bottled dressings, a muffin delivery service, a deli, a bakery catering operation, and even a small-scale dinner theater.

Ligidakis, who somehow still found time to apprise followers of his activities via a Nick in the News newsletter, sighs. "A restaurant that big, I simply could not handle."

But that didn't stop him from trying. And for some diners, at least, his Greco-Roman circus made for the best supper show in town, sort of an audience-participation performance piece that might have been titled "How Not to Run a Restaurant."

See Nick running around the kitchen as he tends 20 dinners at once! Watch Nick throwing a pot across the room in a fit of anger! Listen to Nick read the riot act to anyone who has the audacity to request a substitution! And in the wings? Checks bouncing left and right.

Ligidakis loyalist Debra Ross rather enjoyed the chaotic atmosphere. "Watching Nick work was like watching theater," says Ross, a graphic designer who now works on Ligidakis' menus and publishing projects. Nor was she bothered by his dictatorial policies about ordering. "If you couldn't find something you liked on that menu, you might as well go somewhere else," she says. "Just leave Nick alone and let him do what he's doing. He's definitely a character, one of a kind."

Another customer remembers the Tower Plaza store as a tourist attraction of sorts, the kind of place you took friends and out-of-towners just to watch the amazed looks on their faces as they pondered the concept of culinary curios like a salad of deep-fried ravioli with peas, bound together with a mustard vinaigrette.

"That place was wild and aggravating, but the food was great--just these massive, honking, totally inedible portions," says one repeat visitor. "But by the time you got out of there, you were just exhausted because you could see Nick running around in the kitchen, the staff was always in a frenzy and food was paced in such a way that there was no flexibility at all. Nick had to touch every single dish that came out, so the pacing was absolutely disastrous."

Overwhelmed by debt, Ligidakis eventually filed for bankruptcy, leaving behind pages of unpaid creditors to whom he owed nearly $1 million.

One of the largest--and most interesting--claims came from Security Pacific Bank. Because of a banking computer error, more than $200,000 in funds belonging to Pima Community College had mistakenly been credited to Ligidakis' account during the summer of 1990. By the time Security Pacific discovered the mistake, more than $58,000 had been withdrawn from Ligidakis' account. According to court records, that money was never repaid.

"I was vacationing in Greece at that time," explains Ligidakis, who claims someone else--he won't say who--wrote checks against the erroneous deposits. "I had someone else paying the bills. They didn't know what the balance was."

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