IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS: Family businesses grow like trees, and survive, in Bensonhurst
A profile of six success stories
By Liana Secondino
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a resilient neighborhood just a 15-mile drive outside of Manhattan, is populated with corner stores and restaurants that supported generations of families and shaped the neighborhood history.
Meet Steve Campanella, owner of the unintentionally accessorized, 80-year-old Bensonhurst Statue House located on 85 Street and 21 Avenue. Born and raised in Sunset Park, 73-year-old Campanella served in the Marine Corps. for four years, was a two-time deli owner for over 10 years, was a disco, Latin, and ballroom dancer, and is a father of four girls. Campanella also owned a C-town, a bagel store, and ran a cookie route in Queens.
According to Campanella, he was searching for a garage large enough to store his passion for cars. After consulting a real estate agent more than two decades ago, Campanella moved out of his one-bedroom apartment with his wife to a 12 car garage with a 16 foot ceiling and a home that now serves as an homage to his childhood. His wife hated the house at first sight, according to Campanella.
The collection started when Campanella was working his usual cookie route in Queens and noticed a statue outside of a house that reminded him of Fonzie from Happy Days. Campanella attempted to purchase the statue, when the reluctant homeowner directed him to a pet food store up the street where he purchased a statue similar to the one he saw. There are now about 32 statues throughout the driveway and garage, including Campanella’s collection of six custom-made cars in the garage. Then later on, as a housewarming gift, Campanella says he received a 50’s cookie jar and eventually opened up his boxes full of trains he had as a kid, which led to his hobby of accumulating childhood memorabilia, an exhibit of pop art he didn’t intend for.
“I started collecting everything that pertained to me as a young man and as a young teenager growing up in Brooklyn,” Campanella said.
Campanella is already planning ahead as he is leaving his eldest daughter in charge of what to do with his collection.
“My girls have no interest in anything,” Campanella says. “They will pick and choose a few things and probably sell the rest.”
Meet Sophia Ko, owner of the White Mountain Farm Grocery Deli & Store on 84 Street and 20 Avenue. Ko was born in Japan after her father fled Korea during the Korean war and later moved back to where Ko grew up on Jeju island. When Ko came to the United States in 1985, she was waitressing in a Korean-Japanese restaurant in Manhattan while her husband was studying at Wagner College. Ko later obtained her green card in 1990. According to Ko, jobs weren’t plentiful at the time, until her friend, a Bensonhurst store owner, inspired her. Ko’s friend pointed out a Korean owned grocery store that was looking for English speaking owners and in October 1990, the previous owners gave Ko a loan that would support her business for up to 32 years.
Ko also has two daughters, Nancy and Susie Ko. Ko’s daughter Susie is now a dentist and Nancy studied Eastern European History at Harvard and Oxford, and now is studying at Columbia for her PhD while fluent in over six languages. After Ko’s father passed away in 2010 only three months before her husband’s sudden, overnight death from a brain aneurysm, Ko was ready to sell her store until her accountant refused to sign closing papers and discouraged her from selling the store.
“I gotta live in my life,” Ko said. “I gotta be standing with my children.”
During the pandemic, Ko was open every day and since the store opened, she continues to work 13-14 hours a day. According to Ko, she tries to act as a role model for her kids.
“I show up, I show them how to work hard,” Ko said. “Never give up.”
Meet Andrea Guarrella, owner of the Grotta Azzurra Pizzeria on 85 Street and 21 Avenue. In 1973, Guarrella came to the United States from Sicily. He always wanted to open up his own pizzeria according to Guarrella and opened Grotta Azzurra in 1987. Married to his wife of 43 years, Guarrella has four kids, two of which are a school teacher and physician’s assistant. According to Guarrella, the pizzeria is named after the blue caves in Naples, the hometown of his wife. Although business declined throughout the pandemic, Guarrella continues to make a living and prepares Grotta Azurra’s very own homemade french fries and baby pizzas.
Meet Peter and Mike Maurro, owners of their father’s business Maurro & Son’s Plumbing and Heating on 17 Avenue between 82 Street and 83 Street. Born in Bensonhurst and raised in Queens, Peter and Mike’s father Mike Maurro opened up the business in 1980 with his brother after their grandfather sold a previous plumbing supply business on 86 Street, but just two weeks before the grand opening, their grandfather passed away from a heart attack.
According to Peter, school wasn’t his strong suit, so he started helping out his dad on the weekends since he was 18 years old alongside his brother, who started working full time when he was 30 years old. Peter eventually became married and moved to Long Island where the rest of the Maurro family settled. Mike attended Queensborough college as well as Queens college and later became a label manager of his own Brookside Records company where he remixes and produces music. He is now married and has a 15-year-old son.
Mr. Maurro did right by a lot of people, according to Peter. He created a job for their Aunt Cathy when she became divorced, put a desk and a phone in the store for a friend who was struggling with his business, and threw Christmas parties at the store every year since the 80s, celebrating the neighborhood and customers alike. However, after their father died from heart complications in 2021, Peter says the ‘feeling’ in the business has changed.
“You know, I always was supposed to have certain responsibilities,” Peter said. “But you know, when he was here, I would always defer to him. I’m 44 and I have a brother here that’s older and I still have a hard time with the concept of this responsibility.”
The business and the legacy of Mr. Maurro lives on in Peter’s atypical knowledge about an 18-year-old toilet bowl, a rare inquiry made by a customer. According to Peter, he never minds coming to work and throughout the pandemic, Peter and Mike continued to work Monday through Saturday to keep the business running, but plan to keep the business until they retire.
Meet Lee Moudatsos, owner of Mike’s Diner on 86 Street and 14 Avenue and Mike’s Royal Diner in Bay Ridge. Born and raised in Staten Island, Moudatsos’s father Mike Moudatsos came to the U.S. from Greece in 1971, and started as a dishwasher working 20 hours a day. Mike Moudatsos opened up Mike and Jimmy’s diner, his first diner with his brother in 1974. Mr. Moudatsos then opened up his own place in 1980 called Mike’s Place on New Dorp Lane in Staten Island and eventually reopened another Mike’s Place on Highland Boulevard. Later on, the Moudatsos family bought the A&W franchise and sought out businesses that weren’t successful and were in need of remodeling, according to Moudatsos.
From the age of five, Moudatsos’s career debuted as he stood on a milkcrate next to his grandmother handling cash, and straight out of high school, Moudatsos was running the original Mike’s place and has been running diners ever since. Now, Lee owns three diners, Mike’s Diner on 86 Street, newly opened Mike’s Royal Diner in Bay Ridge, and Yolks on You Diner in Sea Bright, New Jersey. According to Moudatsos, the family itself owns between 12 and 15 businesses. Lee Moudatsos comes from a large family of six kids, later having four children with his wife Samantha, and later opened his home to his two nieces after adopting them in 2018. Julie Moudatsos, the eldest, helps run Mike’s Diner on 86 Street.
In 2013, Lee bought and remodeled the iconic Hinsch’s in Bay Ridge into Stewart’s and sold the property. Moudatsos later was offered a position of Director of Operations for Stewart’s and has successfully opened 25 of them across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. He also handles all computer programming for his online menus and websites. Later in 2016, Moudatsos took over the Puritan Diner and turned it into Mike’s Diner on 86 Street in Dyker Heights. According to Lee, he has helped open around 56 restaurants in his lifetime.
Lee says that running businesses are difficult and will eventually sell his properties as he encourages his kids to pursue something they love. Up until now, Moudatsos still works 12 hour days but has learned to step back and spend time with his family.
“I learned from my mistake [doing] everything myself because I want everything [to be] perfect…I had to learn to step back…it was hard for me to do that,” Moudatsos said.
In an effort to expand business further, the diners’ white sauce widely known as Tzatziki sauce was ready to be sold in supermarkets since it’s always been a hit, according to Moudatsos, but the product’s debut was halted by outside circumstances. People traveled all the way from Florida just to buy pints of the sauce, according to Moudatsos, but one day, he’d love to sell his famous white sauce.
Meet Jimmy Ruan, owner of New Ruan’s Chinese restaurant on 86 Street and 19 Avenue. In 1982, the Ruan family moved to the U.S. from China when Jimmy was only 13. Born and raised in Bensonhurst, Ruan grew up in a family of chefs. His father cheffed in restaurants in Manhattan and had always dreamed of opening up his own business, according to Ruan. His father later opened up the original Ruan’s restaurant in 1991 also on 2347 86 Street, but when the lease was up, the landlord doubled their rent and had forced the business out. Looking for another place, the Ruan family found another spot on 86 Street, a building completely burnt to the ground, which later became home to New Ruan’s after building the restaurant from scratch.
According to Jimmy, he fell into the family business and worked 13-14 hours a day before he became married. When New Ruan’s debuted, Jimmy was a student at Baruch College while his sister was a student at New York University. Since it was hard to find someone to run the business, his sister took a semester off school to help run the business and Jimmy later did the same, but didn’t have the opportunity to finish school as he was running the business, according to Ruan.
Jimmy, who now has two kids, a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son, continues to work so he can put his kids through college and says the business plans to stay open.
“I don’t know if I had a better life in college or what but I know it’s very hard to work in the restaurant business,” Ruan said.
According to Jimmy, when New Ruan’s first opened, there were lines outside the restaurant, but now business has subsided. Ruan says it’s due in part to the neighborhood changing and losing customers who have either passed away or moved elsewhere. Throughout the pandemic, business declined and hasn’t been the same as Ruan is now raising prices on the menu in quarter amounts due to the inflated economy. Although business is slow, Ruan’s dad, at the age of 82, still shows up to the restaurant everyday after retiring just two years ago, according to Ruan.
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