GENESEO – Like countless other prospective SUNY Geneseo students over the years, Joanna Sydow’s first introduction to the college and surrounding community included a walk along Main Street and a bite to eat at the Geneseo Family Restaurant.
“When I first looked at Geneseo in 2014, my parents and I went to lunch at GFR,” said Sydow, who graduated in 2019 and now lives in the Albany area. “Looking back, GFR and Geneseo’s Main Street in general was one of the main reasons I chose Geneseo. While in college, it served as a way to meet with friends after a night out (while piecing together the night before), a place to grab a celebratory lunch after your last final of the semester, and a place to just take a breath.”
Sydow’s story is not unique. Nor are her fond memories of the popular Main Street diner, which is known as GFR to students and locals. Hers is one of many such stories graduates of the college and longtime residents alike have shared after news broke last week that the restaurant was closing effective Feb. 22, after 23 years in business.
Like Sydow, Zack Laird’s first meal at Geneseo took place at a table at 105 Main St.
“Me and my uncle, who graduated from Geneseo in 1976, shared a meal while looking for apartments,” said Laird, a senior communications major. “It was a very friendly atmosphere and very welcoming and great affordable food. The breakfast hit differently on the weekends. (You) could fill up for only a few bucks.”
Owner Teddy Tsoukalos announced last week he was closing GFR, which had been a staple of Main Street since its founding in February 1998. It’s last day of business was Sunday.
“I just want to say goodbye to my customers. I loved everyone,” said Tsoukalos.
Saying goodbye on the last day was the hardest.
“It is like losing a parent. This was my life,” said Tsoukalos.
Tsoukalos said that being forced to close for three months at the outset of the pandemic last year and the indoor dining restrictions put in place after he was allowed to reopen made running his business very difficult.
“It’s the pandemic that got me,” he said. “I do not take no loans and I thought I could pull out of it but I just can’t... ever since the pandemic hit, it has been downhill.”
Tsoukalos said the village’s strict parking enforcement exacerbated an already challenging time.
“If there is one car on Main Street and you are getting a ticket from a customer eating a $5 breakfast and they are getting a $15 ticket, they are not coming back,” he said. “They (customers) have told me that and it is sad.”
The decision was tough of Tsoukalos - “I pretty much cried myself to sleep last night,” he said.
“It has been 23 years of my life right here. I have spent a quarter of my life here,” he said. “It just hurts.”
Tsoukalos said he wants his customers to know how much their patronage has meant to him and his staff over the years.
“They are more than customers, they are like family,” he said. “It is a family.”
Nicole Meisenzahl, who’s waitressed at the restaurant for the past 13 years, agreed.
“It has just been part of my family. Teddy has watched my daughter grow up and my granddaughter grow up. They were all part of my wedding,” she said with tears in her eyes last week. “It is heartbreaking.”
Without GFR, Meisenzahl said Geneseo has lost a piece of itself
“The heartbeat is going to stop when the restaurant closes. We have made so many friends and family here. They are family to us,” she said. “It has just become a huge family to us and now it is like we are having that family ripped away.”
Tsoukalos said he’ll most likely spend the next chapter of his life doing electrical work. That’s what he went to school for before decided to take a break to serve up quality food at affordable prices in Geneseo.
“I always kept my prices as low as I could not only for the community but also for the college kids,” he said. “My prices were probably the cheapest in Livingston County. You could come here and spend $6 and get all this food.”
Meisenzahl said she has no idea what will be next for her as she says goodbye to a job and a community that she loved so much.
“I am going to keep in touch with those that I can. I don’t know what to do, she said. “With the customers, it will be very bittersweet. I have seen some of their kids grow up.”
Members of the SUNY Geneseo’s swim team traveled to Geneseo Family Restaurant one last time Sunday before the restaurant closed permanently. The restaurant played frequent host to the team before away meets, said Kris Tsoukalos, wife to owner Teddy Tsoukalos.
“For many years, before every away game they would call in an order, show up at 8 a.m., Ted would have it cooked and ready for them by the time the sat down and then they would be gone by 9 a.m.,” said Kris Tsoukalos.
In the days before the restaurant’s closure, current and former team members made donations to Tsoukalos and his staff.
Fundraiser softens blow
After learning last week that GFR was closing, SUNY Geneseo alumna Caroline Gill sprung into action to help send Tsoukalos, Meisenzahl and GFR’s other employees off to the next chapters of their lives with some cash in their pockets.
Gill graduated from the college in 2020 with a degree in sociology. During her time in Geneseo, Gill spent many a morning in at the diner.
“I would usually go to GFR on the weekends after a night out with friends, but also found so many other occasions that called for a GFR meal,” said Gill, whose go-to order was the Mexican frittata with white toast. “...It was always a great, affordable, convenient and tasty place to gather with friends.”
Gill was at work last Thursday when she saw on Instagram the restaurant was closing. She immediately when into her father’s office – they work at the same company – to break the news.
“My parents both attended Geneseo, and that’s where they met. I (literally) wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Geneseo,” she said. “I also texted my younger sister, a prospective Geneseo student, and two of my best friends to share the news. They were equally as shocked and saddened as I was.”
On the drive home from work that day, Gill started kicking around the idea of a fundraiser for the restaurant’s owner and staff.
“As soon as I got home, I reached out to GFR through their Facebook account and offered to run the GoFundMe on their behalf. I think they were reluctant to agree to the offer of help at first but, after discussing it, agreed,” Gill said. “...(Owner) Ted (Tsoukalos) has been extremely concerned about his staff. While the idea of help might initially have been uncomfortable, it is my understanding that Ted and his family made the decision mostly for the benefit of their dedicated employees. With their permission, I shared the page and within a few minutes, the donations started pouring in.”
Among Gill’s hopes for the fundraiser were, obviously, that it raised funds to help Tsoukalos and his staff weather the immediate future.
“I worked in food service from age 16 to 20 and understand how even a slow day or weekend can impact your pay (not to mention an entire year). I cannot begin to imagine the stress that food service workers and business owners have endured over the past year,” Gill wrote. “Finding a job (in the middle of a pandemic, nonetheless) is difficult. I hope that the money raised can provide some financial stability for Ted, Lauren, Lucy and Nicole while they begin the next step of their journey.”
Beyond the money, Gill hoped the fundraiser would show how much the restaurant, and the people that worked there, meant to those who frequented it over its more than two decades in business.
The restaurant featured prominently in many of Gill’s most memorable experiences at the college. Her most recent trip to the restaurant in December 2019 was, perhaps, her most meaningful.
“My grandfather passed away in 2018, and loved chocolate more than anything. When his birthday came, I realized I didn’t have any chocolate to enjoy and celebrate him with, said Gill. “I drove up to GFR and, sitting in the display case was a piece of chocolate cake - his favorite. I told the waitress why I had come and as she was packaging up the desert, she asked me about him. As I walked out, customers in line told me ‘Happy birthday’ for him. I’m realizing now that this was my last experience at GFR before they closed. This is possibly my favorite memory, as I was able to remember my grandfather and share a story of him on a day that was important to me.”
Gill’s GoFundMe campaign, which stopped accepting new donations Sunday afternoon, raised $7,325, which Gill said will be divided among Tsoukalos and his staff.
Some donors who were also SUNY Geneseo alumni shared memories of the special times they had at the restaurant.
“GFR was a staple of my Geneseo experience,” commented Olivia Wolfram, who gave $20 to the campaign.
“Thanks for all the great meals when I was a Geneseo student,” wrote Brittany Hartnett, who also gave $20. “My family loved coming to GFR when they visited as well. Wishing you all the best.”
“Such fond memories here as a college student,” added Rebecca Hauck, who gave $50. “Sending love and hope!”
While Gill was happy the campaign was successful, it was a bittersweet happiness tempered by the understanding that future SUNY Geneseo students won’t have the restaurant as a place to make special memories they’ll look back on fondly years in the future, as she does.
“With GFR closing, students will lose a place to meet up with friends and talk about the night before. They will lose a place for first dates, dinner before a game, meals with visiting family, and take out lunches. 23 years of Geneseo students will lose a place to return to where memories were made,” Gill said. “The larger Geneseo community will lose a place to share coffee, to have celebrations, and to run into neighbors. They will lose the familiar and smiling faces of the staff that made GFR feel like home. The college and community will lose a place where the two groups came together, not always intentionally, but always by design.”