Huntley restaurateur learns one place at a time

Niko Kanakaris in the dining room of Niko's Red Mill Tavern in Woodstock. Kanakaris opened his first restaurant at age 23, and has invested in several restaurants over the years. He plans  to open a new one in Marengo. The Huntley resident comes from a family of restaurateurs.
Niko Kanakaris in the dining room of Niko's Red Mill Tavern in Woodstock. Kanakaris opened his first restaurant at age 23, and has invested in several restaurants over the years. He plans to open a new one in Marengo. The Huntley resident comes from a family of restaurateurs.

Associated Press writing style dictates that a person’s full name be used on first reference, and the last name on subsequent ones.

But that rule just won’t fly when writing about restaurateur Niko Kanakaris, who got his start working for his parents’ Huntley restaurant, Papa G’s. To legions of hungry McHenry County residents, he’s just plain Niko.

That’s because his name has graced many area eateries, turning them from struggling establishments to dining destinations. Niko, 38, has sold many of them, but plans to keep Niko’s Red Mill Tavern in Woodstock, which he bought in 2011, and he’s opening another one in Marengo later this summer.

He’s stayed in Huntley, where he moved at age 15, and is finishing his second term on the Huntley Village Board. He intends to seek a third next year.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver sat down with Niko at the Red Mill, 1040 Lake Ave., as the lunch crowd filled the dining room, to talk about what works in McHenry County and what doesn’t.

Craver: How many restaurants have you owned?

Niko: We’ll count them out together. First was the Red Ox in Hampshire. The second one I opened was Niko’s Grill and Pub in Huntley. Third one was Montarra Grill in Algonquin. Then we opened up the Thirsty Whale [in Algonquin], then Red Mill, and then Niko’s Lodge in Algonquin.

Wait, I forgot one. After Niko’s Grill and Pub, I opened up Niko’s Lodge in Wasco.

[Niko also leased and operated the restaurant at Pinecrest Golf Course for the Huntley Park District for five years.]

Craver: And you’ve sold most of them?

Niko: My plan back then was to get them up and running four to six months to a year and then sell them. But then the economy took a turn, so we kind of downsized to the Red Mill, and we’ve kept it small now. Smaller is better.

Now we’ve got three boys, and I try to spend more time with them, especially since they’re in sports and all that. I’m probably going to just stick to [Red Mill] and the new Marengo location.

Craver: I remember that Niko’s Grill and Pub closed. It was always packed when I went there. What happened?

Niko: The only problem was financing. We were on a five-year loan with the bank, and it was appraised for less than what it was worth, so we shut it down. If the value wasn’t going down, it would still be open now.

Craver: I’ve written stories about the fact that two-thirds of McHenry County residents commute to other counties to work. That obviously affects lunch. What are the county’s strengths and challenges when it comes to restaurants?

Niko: I think Woodstock and Huntley have a great business base. Algonquin, for example, we had no lunch business because there were no offices or industry. Those places we’d just open for dinner.

My biggest challenge is starting a new restaurant and doing my thing, my menu, my decor, my whole concept, pretty much.

Craver: What did you learn starting out at your parents’ restaurant?

Niko: A lot. I was a cook, busboy, dishwasher, and learned every aspect of the business. Best school you can possibly have – hands-on.

Craver: When it comes to food and decor, what works around here?

Niko: The best concept is my first, the Red Ox, which I duplicate. Warm, cozy, lots of wood, nice bar, burgers, sandwiches, great fish fry, cold beer.

Craver: Can’t go wrong in McHenry County with a fish fry.

Niko: We sell about 150 pounds of cod every Friday [at Red Mill].

Craver: The Red Mill wasn’t doing very well when you bought it.

Niko: When I took over, we’d seat maybe 10, 12 people a day. We closed it for a month and a half, changed everything, added an outdoor deck, reopened, and business has been booming ever since. We’ve extended our parking lot three times. Three times.

Craver: Tell me about the new Marengo restaurant.

Niko: It will be called Niko’s Pointers Saloon – “pointers” like a deer rack. We’re doing the same thing; cozy feeling, simple menu. [It’s at] 106 S. State St. It used to be Kings Court.

Craver: Costs are going up for food, as you know. How tough is it to keep a lid on expenses?

Niko: Very tough. You have to keep your prices fair to bring in the customers or you price yourself out of the market. Our liquor sales are very good, and that gives me a way to keep food prices lower. The price of beef alone has gone up tremendously.

Craver: What about the push in Illinois for a higher minimum wage?

Niko: That would hurt a lot of small business owners. We’d have to raise all of our food and drink prices and price ourselves right out of the market.

Craver: Even if that increase is imposed on everybody?

Niko: The corporate restaurants can fall back on better sales in other states.


Who is he? Niko Kanakaris, McHenry County restaurateur

Family? Wife, Chandra, three sons, 6, 4, and 3

Favorite appetizer? Homemade Reuben egg rolls

Favorite sandwich? The Pig Shack: Ham, bacon, pulled pork, with coleslaw on a pretzel roll.


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