A food institution born in Forest Hills continues to sprout in Queens and beyond.
Restaurateurs Peter Kambitsis and Elias Kalogiros know how to do healthy-meets-trendy, and they brought their vision to Forest Hills with a friendly face, enticing the taste buds and minds of neighborhood residents since 2008.
Ripe Juice Bar & Grill opened at 70-13 Austin Street in April 2008, and its success was followed with the opening of Exo Café at 70-20 Austin Street in March 2011, adding much-needed food fare, entertainment, and character to the diverse village-like stretch of Austin Street.
The owners were approached by investors in 2011, and the 35-year business partners, who have been close friends since high school, will likely unveil their first corporate franchise during the first half of 2013.
Freshark Juice Bar & Grill will give New Yorkers “Healthy Food You Can Sink Your Teeth Into,” and will offer a similar menu to Ripe Juice Bar & Grill. Astoria, the Lower East Side, Midtown, or the Upper West Side may be home to the first Freshark, while other franchises are under negotiation in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Peter Kambitsis, a Bayside resident who previously lived in Forest Hills, stated, “Being in the restaurant business was my passion since age 11,” said Kambitsis, a former Forest Hills resident who now calls Bayside home. “Uncle Elias Andreatos was my favorite person on the planet. I worked for him at a tourist café on the beach in Kefalonia, Greece, as a server and would translate orders.”
He gives much credit to his late uncle for his success in running a business, and demonstrating the ethics behind customer service and employee interaction. Meanwhile, Kalogiros, whose family is from Volos, Greece, give credit for his success to his parents, referring to them as his “greatest inspiration.”
As high school classmates, the pair would prepare food in their backyards, as well as work in Key Food as stock boys, patronize Forest Hills mom-and-pop shops, and eat at popular spots such as Biu Bello.
In 2007, Kalogiros approached Kambitsis about opening a restaurant in Forest Hills. Over dinner at the restaurant Mardi Gras, which is now Exo Café, they met the landlord of the would-be Ripe Juice Bar & Grill, and signed a lease that December.
“We conducted research and learned there was no healthy eatery on Austin Street, and felt it would be a good starting point in a bright, accessible, and historic neighborhood,” said Kambitsis.
With “Eat Ripe...Feel Great!” as their slogan, Ripe serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week in a quirky bright orange-and-green space with tropical décor. In a 1,000-square-foot space, diners sit on steel chairs alongside old school fruit-themed artwork and under glass fruits suspended from traditional brass fixtures.
The upbeat atmosphere, primarily designed by Kalogiros’ wife Vaitsa, is complemented by dance music.
“Almost every person wants to eat something healthy, smart, and fresh,” explained Kambitsis. “We have customers of all ages, from children to great-grandparents, and even have a kids' menu.”
Ripe has also caught the attention of celebrities. Late singing star Donna Summer was spotted at least twice. Sid Bernstein, a music producer and promoter accredited with bringing The Beatles to America, appeared at Ripe for a Songs of Love Foundation fundraiser, and Judah Friedlander of 30 Rock paid a visit, too.
In summer 2010, the owners became aware of Mardi Gras’ slated closure, which led to its acquisition for Exo Café. With the expertise of Kambitsis’ brother’s company, Greco Roman Construction & Remodeling, the 2,500-square-foot restaurant came to fruition in five months.
“Our plan was a casual and trendy hotspot with a modern Manhattan European ambiance, where friends can catch up, people can bring a first date, and private parties can be held,” said Kambitsis. “Our average customer is age 25 through 45; those who want to be in the scene.”
The design concept is three levels with a wrap-around central bar with five flat screens and unique areas for privacy, while maintaining an open lofty space with picture windows overlooking Ripe. Red-and-gray walls provide contrast to the stone walls, and are embellished with a geometric mirror and Roman numeral clock wheels.
Exo Café’s food is American with an international touch. The menu features tapas and starters, Belgian fries, salads, Ciabatta Handwiches, smoked burgers, and entrees, desserts, and hot or iced specialty coffees.
Adam Stonehill of Forest Hills is a regular. “It is a welcoming upscale sports bar and more, with friendly patrons and staff,” he said. “My favorites are the Grilled Salmon with Mango Salsa and the Rocky Road Walnut Sundae.”
The owners value their rapport with the community, and have befriended their customers. Some employees have been with both restaurants since their opening, attesting to the loyalty of the owners and patrons.
Bartender Mark Kryshtalsky previously worked at Mardi Gras for 14 years. Now he takes pride in serving drinks at Exo Café.
“People come in good spirits, and we prepare everything from our large selection of liquors to our signature drinks,” he said. “We rotate some too, and always have a seasonal beer.”
On a cold weekend afternoon, Eric Paez of Medford, NY, joined his two friends of 15 years, Omar and Eddie Delecio, at the bar.
“We’ve been coming since 2011,” said Paez. “One of our favorites is the Chimichurri Handwich. You can sit, enjoy a beer, and feel safe and relaxed.”
“We guarantee our food,” Kambitsis said. “It’s your choice, you pick. If you don’t like it, we change it.”
In addition to fulfilling his mission with Ripe Juice Bar & Grill and Exo Café with many thanks to the residents of Forest Hills, Kambitsis predicted, “I see Freshark being the number one healthy concept franchise in the country.”