A potentially game-changing financial commitment to a struggling local diner almost didn’t happen.
“I’m going to try one more time,” multimillionaire entrepreneur and television personality Marcus Lemonis said on Dec. 10 in the midst of a two hour-long effort on Instagram Live to award $100,000 to local restaurants.
The initiative was part of his Plating Change program, which seeks to help those who are food insecure while also keeping independent eateries in business. It’s a direct result of the unprecedented demand for food assistance created by the pandemic as well as its catastrophic impact on small businesses, Lemonis told Business Wire in November.
Just as he was about to proceed to the next restaurant, the screen split and Branford native Jennie Antonakis appeared, a relieved smile on her face, her hand patting her heart as if to slow it down.
“Marcus,” she said, letting out a breath.
Antonakis, who lives in Los Angeles, was calling on behalf of her parents Anna and Tony Antonakis, owners of The Greek Olive, a family diner on Sargent Drive, New Haven. Before the pandemic, they had a staff of over 50 in the 6,000-square foot space, which includes a full-service bar and banquet room.
“My mom visited over Thanksgiving and I could see her stress,” Antonakis, 34, said on a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles. She got her mother to confess that COVID-19 restrictions had brought their business virtually to a halt. They’d already made drastic cuts to their staff, many of whom had been with them for years, and were having to dip into their savings to pay the few they kept on, she told her daughter.
“I had no idea,” Antonakis said. “But growing up in the restaurant business I knew how hard my parents worked over their lifetimes. And I knew I needed to do something.”
As it happens, Antonakis has been a Client Partner at Twitter for the last two-and-a-half years, working in sales dedicated to the Disney account. She knew how to leverage the power of Twitter.
She’d also been a faithful viewer of Lemonis’ popular CNBC show, “The Profit,” where he offered a capital investment and expertise to struggling businesses in exchange for an ownership stake. (The show ended in February 2020 after seven seasons.)
“I thought if anyone could help, at least with advice, it was Marcus,” she said.
On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, she posted a tweet about the fragile state of her parents’ restaurant, requesting a virtual consult from Lemonis and asking her followers for 1,000 likes.
“I tagged his name, so I knew every time someone liked it, his phone would buzz,” she said. “If we got some volume on it, he was more likely to see it.”
Evidently it worked. That night, the philanthropist liked her post, and followed her on Twitter. Then, after a few false starts, came the night of Dec. 10. “He’s calling all these random restaurants, and I said to my mom ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ ” she said. And then “I was hearing him call out ‘The Greek Olive.’ ”
When she’d caught her breath, she told Lemonis about her parents, “the hardest-working people I’ve ever met.”
She told him about the successful restaurants they’d operated through the years — Tony’s International on York Street, Roberto’s on State Street, and The Greek Olive, all in New Haven. They were managing at the outset of the pandemic with the help of stimulus money, she said, and were able to keep their staff, but the past few months had proved trying.
“Takeout has never really been part of their business,” she said. “People go to Greek diners for the experience, so trying to change people’s mentality to come to them for takeout hasn’t been working.”
“These are factors that are totally out of my parents’ control, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s why I’ve been tweeting at you like crazy,” she told him.
Lemonis nodded. “Here’s what we’re gonna do,” he said after a pause. “We’re going to use your parents’ restaurant to feed as many people as we can, and we’re going to keep food costs low to drive revenue toward the restaurant.” He would jump-start the process by covering the cost of 4,000 meals.
He connected The Greek Olive with his partners in his Simple Greek franchise and their Plating Change program. With their guidance, the Greek Olive created a 14- to 16-ounce nourishing, well-rounded “bowl of hope” that includes grilled chicken, chickpeas, rice, and a vegetable.
“It has to be packaged individually, to be able to be heated or eaten cold, and to be cost effective for our restaurant,” Antonakis said. “Otherwise it doesn’t work.”
All the while, she was identifying local organizations who could distribute the meals to those who needed them the most.
On Tuesday, Dec. 22, the restaurant delivered 235 meals to New Haven’s Columbus House, which provides shelter and housing to people who are homeless. The next week, they delivered another 235. By Feb. 2, they will have delivered 1,600 meals.
“The pandemic has stretched our resources to the limit,” said John Brooks, chief development officer of Columbus House. “We are extremely grateful to The Greek Olive and Plating Change for their very generous contribution of prepared, nutritious meals to those we serve.”
Antonakis has also arranged distribution to, among others, the East Haven Public Schools backpack program, which provides weekend meals for kids at risk of hunger; to people in New Haven’s Ward 30 experiencing homelessness living in motels as well as seniors in Ward 30, via Alder Honda Smith; and the Community Dining Room in Branford.
“It’s just a beautiful fresh healthy meal for our clients,” CDR kitchen coordinator Mary Johnston said. “It’s also giving our volunteers a little break from the demands of everyday cooking of all the meals, which is huge.”
As effectively as the program seems to be running now, Antonakis stressed that Lemonis’ commitment is finite. “The whole point is to make the effort self-sustaining, and that’s by donations. Going forward, how many we can deliver each week is dependent on donations.”
Anyone can join the cause by visiting The Greek Olive’s website. A $5 donation buys one Bowl of Hope, $50 will provide 10, and so on. Corporate donations are welcome. Restaurants interested in joining the program should visit www.platingchange.com for instructions.
Since the momentous Dec. 10 call, Antonakis said The Greek Olive has raised $7,000 on its own. “That’s another 1,400 meals, which we’ll continue to deliver to our local organizations based on need.
“A lot of these donations are from people who have no idea who my parents are,” she said. “They’re just people who want to help keep a local restaurant in business and in the process feed their neighbors in need.
“There is such goodness in this world.”
To make a donation, visit https://www.toasttab.com/the-greek-olive-new-haven/v3
thegreekolive.com; 402 Sargent Drive, New Haven; 203-495-9990