Everybody Eats at Nick's
But for now, not so many at a time.
by Micheline Maynard
From the August, 2020 issue
Walk into Nick's Original House of Pancakes, and you will see a cross-section of Ann Arbor.
There are people from every age group, background, and walk of life-babies, children, U-M students, their visiting parents, firefighters, sports fans, locals, businesspeople, and older folks.
And don't forget the Michigan athletes, who often tower over other patrons or stand out because of their fit physiques.
Though everybody goes to Nick's, not as many people can dine these days. Nick's, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last December, is now operating at a smaller capacity due to Covid-19 health precautions.
But the elements that define its business remain: generous plates of food and friendly service.
The Nick in the name is Nick Panos, a member of the restaurant family whose places have dotted Ann Arbor for decades.
His mother, Helen, runs the Village Kitchen, and his sister, Georgia, has worked there. His aunt, Gina Pantely, owned the Broken Egg. His father, Demos, has owned-and sold-a variety of area places, including Maiz Mexican Cantina. Nick himself owned Smokehouse Blues.
As a kid, he worked in whatever jobs his parents assigned him. After getting a culinary degree and serving an internship with Marriott in Florida, he came home, dividing his time between his parents' restaurants and selling real estate.
But the idea of a breakfast place intrigued him. He kept the menu for a favorite pancake spot in his desk drawer, waiting for the right building to come on the market.
"Breakfast is my roots," Panos says. "That's what I grew up doing."
His chance came in 2009, when the Big Boy on Lohr Circle suddenly shut down. A realtor friend told Panos that he could have the property for nothing, including all the restaurant equipment, if he would sign a ten-year lease.
After spending $100,000 to paint and upgrade the building, he opened Nick's. On the first day, the flow of customers was steady but not overwhelming.
On the second day, he recalls, a man came in the door and asked
if he was open. Then he made a call on his cell phone. "Within an hour or two, the place just swelled up with people," Panos says, and Nick's was off and running.
"To this day, I cannot believe how lucky I am," Panos says. "I've really been blessed."
My family and I have dined there since the beginning, urged by Helen Panos to give her son's new place some business. The staff sang "Happy Birthday" to my mother, Bonny Maynard, on her 100th birthday in 2013, and her last meal out before she died in 2015 was at Nick's.
Last year, in advance of its tenth anniversary, Panos shut the restaurant briefly for another overhaul, which cost him about $225,000. That turned out to be a stroke of luck. The renovations meant Panos did not have to tear up his interior when the state mandated changes in the wake of Covid-19.
He has erected a plastic shield between the cash register and customers, blocked off some booths, put more space between tables, and no longer allows customers to congregate in what was a crowded waiting area up front. People now stand outside on the sidewalk or sit in their cars until a host comes to fetch them.
19, the restaurant did $1.2 million to $1.3 million a year in revenue, with a profit margin around 15 percent, Panos says. After being closed for three months, he expects he'll come in under one million for 2020.
The regular menu features both breakfast and lunch items. Seasonal specials that once filled two sides of a separate menu card have been paused for now.
When possible, Panos says he likes to source local products. Coffee comes from Mighty Good Coffee. He purchases ground beef from Knight's Market and baked goods from Michigan Bread in Taylor. He serves Dearborn Brand meat and recently added a Detroit favorite, McClure's Pickles.
Nick's uses several thousand eggs per week, and except for scrambled eggs, his cooks crack every egg to order.
That may be a reason why "Build Your Own Omelette" is the top-selling item on the menu. It costs $8.69 including three fillings, and diners can add more items for $1 each.
Other best sellers are two eggs, any style, with breakfast meat, at $8.49, followed by eggs with a choice of pancakes or French toast at $9.09 (meat $3.99 extra).
I rotate between different types of pancakes and Nick's big salads. My favorite is the "Greek Vineyard," a variation on the classic that includes dried cranberries and walnuts as well as feta cheese, $8.99. (Panos says chicken breast is a popular add-on; I often ask for turkey instead.)
My mother's favorite was the Pecan Cranberry Chicken Salad, with big chunks of chicken, nuts, fruit, and minimal dressing. On her birthday, Panos made it a special of the day-renamed in her honor.
Even with fewer customers, the workload for his three cooks is fast-paced, because Panos stresses quick service.
"You've got to remember that this is most people's first meal of the day," Panos says. His goal is to serve patrons within fifteen minutes of ordering on weekdays and twenty minutes on weekends.
Panos says he tries to hire kitchen help that's experienced in high-volume cooking.
Cooks from Ann Arbor's fine-dining restaurants often can't cut it, he says. Panos recalls one new cook with a stellar resume who froze at the speed at which orders came into the kitchen. "I literally had to put on my gym clothes and go take his spot," he says.
From the start, Panos says he's been offered opportunities to expand.
He's spent years looking for a second location in a part of Ann Arbor not already served by a breakfast place, but with Angelo's, Northside Grill, and Coney Islands spread across town, an optimal spot has been hard to find. Given the pandemic, any growth is on hold, but he says he'll revisit the idea at the end of the year.
So for now, pancake lovers and those in search of eggs Benedict will simply have to trek to Lohr Circle.
Nick's Original House of Pancakes
3030 Lohr Cir.
Daily 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
Pancakes, Belgian waffles, and French toast $7.49-$14.99; eggs, omelets, and skillets $6.99-$12.69.
[Originally published in August, 2020.]
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