New owner aims to broaden Mystic Diner's appeal
Mystic - John Sousoulas, the Greek-born restaurateur from Branford who took over the former Equinox Diner last month and changed the name to Mystic Diner & Restaurant, says he is looking to make his place a local hangout rather than strictly a tourist haven.
"The tourists are great," he says, "but you also need reasonable prices, consistency and quality. I want to make it a home away from home type of place."
Sousoulas, who debuts a new menu next week, says he plans to drop many prices by 10 percent to 15 percent and hopes to attract a regular local crowd with a friendly waitstaff, daily specials and a promise that no one will leave unhappy.
Sousoulas says the restaurant business has been difficult in the past few years as the economy hit rock bottom and customers cut back on expenses. The diner business has been insulated from the downturn compared with more upscale restaurants, he says, but owners can't raise prices significantly and expect to retain their customers.
"You can't charge $12 for eggs," he says.
Sousoulas, a software engineer by training whose first job was at Electric Boat, came into the diner business by way of his father, who owned the Parthenon Diner in Branford since the 1980s. The diner was a family affair, and Sousoulas' father made sure his son kept working nights and weekends even after landing his job at EB.
Eight years later, Sousoulas took over the family business and has since branched out by opening the Old Saybrook Diner with a partner. The 290-seat Mystic Diner is Sousoulas' third venture, and he says he took over a 45-year lease from the previous operators, who had run the 8,000-square-foot space for three and a half years at a prominent location next to the Howard Johnson Inn on Greenmanville Avenue and right off the Mystic exit of Interstate 95.
"There is something really comforting about a diner," Sousoulas says. "I really like dealing with the people. I like getting to know them."
Sousoulas says he hopes to make the diner, which employs between 35 and 50 mostly part-timers whose numbers fluctuate depending on the season, an integral part of the community. He expects to sponsor local teams, host get-togethers by regional organizations and will likely make connections with local soup kitchens, as he has done in Branford, Sousoulas says.
He has been thinking about offering special dinner-and-a-movie packages that have proved popular in Branford as well.
"I'm going to combine things that worked well in Branford with things that worked well here," Sousoulas says.
The new menu will include some Greek favorites, such as baked moussaka, an eggplant dish, and baklava, a flaky pastry. The diner offers a wide range of choices, including a popular lobster roll and Gifford's ice cream, and serves breakfast all day during off-season hours that run from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
A signature dish is the Monte Cristo, a turkey and ham sandwich with melted swiss cheese on French toast.
"People want a place to call their own. ... They're thirsty for a place where they can feel comfortable," Sousoulas says. "You have to be much different than a national chain. "