Food Fighter

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

Considerably more successful at launching restaurants than operating them, Nick Ligidakis was up and running again on Mother's Day 1992, this time in a smaller location on 37th Street and Indian School Road.

Three years later, in 1995, history repeated itself when Ligidakis accepted an offer to open a second restaurant in downtown's San Carlos Hotel.

Initially resistant to the offer ("I had neither the time or money to open another restaurant"), Ligidakis caved in after visiting the historic downtown inn; the place, he says, reminded him of hotels he'd visited in Europe. Besides, who better to bring upscale dining to Phoenix's newly revitalized downtown district?

Confident that the Ligidakis touch could turn around the jinxed locale (through the years, one restaurant after another had failed in the San Carlos space), he optimistically signed a 10-year lease for a business to be known as Nick's on Central.

But the ink on the contract was hardly dry when it became apparent that Ligidakis had once more bitten off more than he could chew.

In his zeal to establish himself as a downtown force to be reckoned with, he'd failed to notice that the hotel's antiquated kitchen facilities would require a costly overhaul.

He also overlooked--or had forgotten--the importance of another element crucial to any success his past ventures had enjoyed. Namely, the on-premise persona of Ligidakis himself. When faithful fans flocked to Nick's, they expected to see Nick. And when they didn't, many customers began calling in advance to find out where he was going to be when.

His solution? "I finally got it down to 12 minutes a trip," says Ligidakis, referring to the length of time it took him to race from one restaurant to the other. Between keeping customers happy and stomping out proverbial fires at both cafes, he made 10 round trips a day, travel time that added three hours to the already grueling work schedules needed to run two eateries open from breakfast 'til midnight.

In early '96, those taxing commutes came to an abrupt end; court documents indicate Ligidakis was evicted from the Indian School site for nonpayment of rent.

Adding to Ligidakis' bubbling-over bouillabaisse of woes was the pressure of working in a situation where, for the first time in his Phoenix restaurant career, he wasn't the only one running the show.

"On an individual level, he's a nice man," reports Greg Melikian, then-owner of the San Carlos. "But if the question is, 'Would you ever do business with this man again?' the answer would be a polite, but firm, 'No.' You can't run an operation with this man. He won't listen."

Since Ligidakis' volatile reputation was hardly a big secret within the local restaurant community, one might well wonder why Melikian ever offered the temperamental chef a lease in the first place. Melikian's explanation? His family was so crazy about Nick's food that it simply never occurred to him to check out Ligidakis' track record.

An animated talker, Melikian reels off one horror story after another about working with a man who appeared to be his own worst enemy.

There was the time that Ligidakis turned away a party of eight hotel guests simply because they made the mistake of mentioning they hoped to finish dinner in time for the beginning of a Suns game. "This isn't that kind of restaurant," Ligidakis reportedly told them. "I'm not going to rush anything. If you want to rush things, go to McDonald's."

Melikian groans. "Can you believe this guy? Why didn't he just suggest five or six items that could have been prepared before tip-off? Instead, he literally throws these people--and hotel guests, at that--out of his restaurant. What kind of way is that to do business?"

As it turns out, Ligidakis' way.
While staying at the San Carlos during a lengthy Valley movie shoot, 24 members of a film crew wound up boycotting the restaurant for the duration of their stay after Ligidakis refused a simple request to heat several orders of apple pie with cheese.

"They were told, 'We don't heat pie,'" recalls Greg Melikian. "Hey, if some guys want their pie warmed, well, damn it, why the hell not just heat it for them?"

Probably for the same reason that Ligidakis ignored a request to pare down his menu to a few snack items to expedite room-service orders.

"He wouldn't hear of it and insisted that his entire menu be available," reports Melikian. "Who cared that it would take hours before he'd ever get the food up to the room?"

Fearful that guests might check out before they'd ever see food they ordered, Melikian did an end run around his mercurial tenant; he secretly devised a stripped-down room-service menu featuring only those items with quick turnaround times.

Melikian sold the hotel within the year. Ligidakis pulled out of the hotel shortly after, and later filed for protection under Chapter 11 bankruptcy--a plan by which he hopes to reach a repayment agreement with creditors.

According to Ligidakis, his decision to close Nick's on Central was prompted by new hotel management's refusal to let him close the restaurant on Thanksgiving so he could attend to his charity dinners.

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