Covington Chili's new owner uses skills learned as politician to run longtime diner
Garin Pirnia | WCPO contributor
4:00 PM, Oct 19, 2016
11:51 AM, Oct 20, 2016
COVINGTON -- Little did Madisonville’s Greg Harris know that his experience in running for Congress in 2004 and briefly being appointed to Cincinnati’s City Council in 2009 would come in handy as a business owner years later.
In August, he bought Covington Chili, an 80-year-old diner located across the street from Madison Theater. The former politician said he thinks his background has helped his new business endeavor.
“With politics, you campaign all the time, you meet people,” he said. “So I just started meeting all varieties of people and learned how to listen better and relate better. I don’t think I would have the instincts I have now to get to know my customers and listen to them. The customers here, what’s cool is they love to share their stories.”
Before Harris purchased the diner from George Stamatakos, many regulars thought the place had closed, because Stamatakos didn’t advertise on social media — or anywhere else.
Harris immediately implemented changes: He added an iPad point-of-sale system, created a Facebook page, started accepting credit cards instead of cash only and tinkered with the menu.
“I came here anonymously as a customer and loved the chili and did a little research and decided to go for it,” Harris said, sitting in one of the diner’s old-fashioned tan-leather booths. He had been looking for a Tucker’s- or Camp Washington Chili-like diner for a few years and finally stumbled upon Covington Chili.
“I always had a desire to own a restaurant -- I just wanted a simple diner,” he said. “I was trying to find a place with a tradition and history to it.”
The restaurant industry is in his blood; his grandfather owned a prominent deli in Chicago called Frenkel’s. Harris also worked as a pit master at Depot Barbecue in Madeira to gain more experience before taking over the Covington diner.
So far, regulars and “old timers” like what Harris has done to the place. Harris and chef Angel Andino have revamped the menu, removing a dinner section and adding one or two made-from-scratch specials every day. Some things stayed intact, though: Harris kept the all-day breakfast and didn’t tweak the secret chili recipe.
“A lot of the chili around here is sweeter; ours is more spicy and meatier,” he said.
Harris and Andino are currently testing a vegetarian chili, deli sandwiches such as pastrami and a Reuben, meatballs, a Philly cheesesteak and a chicken Parmesan sandwich. Harris also said he tries to source locally, including from neighborhood butcher Heringer Meats and Glier’s Goetta. While the food will be higher quality going forward, though, don’t expect grass-fed burgers.
“I can’t sell a $7 hamburger right now -- ours is only $2.75,” Harris said. “I can’t make it too yuppie; I’ll lose my base.”
A South Jersey native and an avid cook of Italian cuisine, Andino is a huge part of the equation in the reformation of the menu. He worked at Covington Chili from 2007-2010, then returned in March. (He also has done stints at The Palace and Grandview Tavern.)
“Greg lets me be creative,” Andino said. “I look forward to coming to work compared to the same old chili and burgers and stuff like that. It’s a more pleasant atmosphere. It was just a little slower before Greg took it over, like the ‘Twilight Zone.’ It’s a big difference.”
The consensus among employees seems to be that Harris has drastically improved team morale. Noelle Huffman, who has been a server at Covington Chili for three years, said she’s much happier with Harris in charge.
“With Greg, it’s like we have more fun now,” Huffman said. “If you need anything, Greg tries to accommodate you and he takes what you say to heart.”
She said her tips have improved, and people no longer ask about the status of the diner.
“When I’d say, ‘Well, I work at Covington Chili,’ they were like, ‘They’re still open?’ I think all of the changes he’s making is for the better.”
Harris hopes to lure in customers from Gateway College, the Madison, Hotel Covington and other new businesses. However, he wants Covington Chili to remain a special destination for customers who have been coming for decades, as well as for the new faces.
“I'd like to get that feeling of when I take my kids to Tucker’s and Sugar ‘n’ Spice,” he said. “It’s food, but it’s an experience, and I want everyone to feel that way.”