An iconic family restaurant in southern New Brunswick is celebrating 45 years of business this year.
Vito’s first opened as a small pizza shop in Saint John in April 1972 by four Greek immigrant brothers, Costa, Peter, Nick and Demetri Georgoudis.
Today the business has three full restaurant locations in the Greater Saint John area that are run by their sons, Mike Georgoudis and the three Georges: “Big” George, “Medium” George and “Little” George Georgoudis.
“Our fathers emigrated to Montreal during the 50’s and 60’s,” says “Big” George Georgoudis. “Eventually as a family they recognized that working for labour hours was not going to cut it if you want to succeed in this world. So they said ‘We’ve got to get into business for ourselves.’”
The Georgoudis got involved with the Mister Doughnut franchise in Montreal, but during their seasonal deer hunting trips to New Brunswick they discovered another opportunity.
“On their way through [New Brunswick] … one of the towns they drove through was Grand Falls and there was a little pizza place in Grand Falls that was busy. It was lined up actually. It piqued their interest. [They recognized] the demand there and yet there was not much in New Brunswick for pizza,” says “Big” George.
“So when they got back to Montreal, Uncle Costa had a friend who was in the pizza business and they worked together and they opened up Vito’s in Moncton in ‘69, which was the original Vito’s.”
Not long after, the other brothers moved to New Brunswick from Montreal to open the first Saint John Vito’s location on Russell Street. Today the Moncton location is operated separately from Saint John locations but is still part of the brand.
“Big” George says when the first Vito’s locations opened, they were more like takeout than the full dine-in restaurants they are known for today. It was old-school.
“Both restaurants started with five tables and take out … and in those days you would stretch the [dough] and flip it in the air. The story goes that it was getting to the point where customers were not leaving. They would eat and sit around and watch and there was a lineup for people to come in to eat and they wouldn’t leave the tables,” says “Big” George, “So they put up a glass partition so you couldn’t see them stretching pizza anymore so the customers could eat and go and they could turn around tables a little quicker.”
“It was very simple. Very economical, the setup. But today you can’t do that. You have to almost build it right from the start,” says “Big” George. “Pizza was new to New Brunswick [back then]. It was like what Thai food is today. It was still fairly new to a lot of people back in the 70’s, so people were trying it for the first time.”
In 2017, it would be pretty hard to find someone who lives in the Greater Saint John Area that hasn’t had Vito’s pizza at least once, with a location in uptown Saint John, on city’s east side on Rothesay Avenue and in the Kennebecasis Valley.
One of the things the Georgoudis family credits Vito’s longevity to is the fact that the business has remained consistent with many of its offerings, sourcing local ingredients whenever possible. “Big” George says most of Vito’s sauces are the same recipes used in 1972.
“A key to our success, I believe, is that a lot of our main sauces … there [aren’t] too many hands touching it,” he says. “They say too many chefs spoil the broth. We the owners are involved with it every day. “
The Georgoudis’s continuous hands-on involvement in the business is perhaps another factor for Vito’s endurance. They don’t just sit in an office all day. They take pride in the fact that they’re often found helping in the kitchen, or on the floor making sure everything’s running smoothly.
“In this restaurant business, you’ve got to be here. That’s the difference. Our fathers were here every day. Now we joined in and we’re still a part of the equation from morning until night,” says “Little” George. “There’s always one of the family owners involved and being a part of the equation in all aspects. I think that’s maybe one of the reasons we’ve continued to be where we are today.”
Yet, like many restaurants in Saint John, Vito’s hasn’t been immune to the impact of a stagnant economy in recent years, but “Big” George says he’s confident in the direction things are going.
“2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 were challenging years. But we’re coming around. We’re refocusing,” he says. “I think the city is coming along a little bit better now. But I like the direction we’re going to be going here in the next few years.”
Though staying consistent is what helped get Vito’s to where it is today, the company has no plans on being stagnant. In the near future, they plan to renovate their uptown Saint John location and enhance their menu. But with any changes they make, “Big” George says they remain true to their mission of being a family restaurant.
“Right now we’re focusing on our menu, how we present our food on the menu. Those are areas we are focusing on right now. We’re going to put a lot more emphasis on server training,” he says. “But at the same time, our core is staying in the middle of the market, not being too high-end. Recognizing that we are home-cooked. A lot of our menu is made from scratch. Lots of recipes are unique to us and unique to the community.”