Keeping It in the Family: A Chat With Restaurateur Corina Livanos

Business reinvention can seem like the name of the success game today, but what if you’re already part of a family legacy? How about expanding that?

The restaurant industry is notoriously difficult, but for Corina Livanos, there was never a doubt that the family business was the one for her. When her father immigrated to the U.S. from Greece in 1957, he began his restaurant career by washing dishes at his uncle’s Manhattan restaurant. Now, between Corina, her father and her two older brothers, the Livanos own and manage six restaurants in New York.

Running front of house for both Oceana in NYC and Moderne Barn in Armonk, Corina has been key to keeping the restaurant group growing while also preserving the family’s commitment to hospitality and welcoming every guest as if they’re dining in the Livanos home. In short, they kind of are.

We asked Corina how she keeps family at the heart of business:

Darling Magazine: What was it about watching your father and brothers in the kitchen that made you want to follow in their footsteps?

CL: We all grew up watching our father in the business. From the time we were little kids, our dad would take us to work and we would help in any capacity we could. It’s in our blood.

Watching my brothers graduate college and continue their education in culinary school, then proceed to help my dad grow and expand the business, was so exciting. When we ventured into new territory opening multiple restaurants in NYC, that’s when I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

DM: The restaurant business is notoriously difficult to start and succeed in. What do you think has contributed to your family’s longevity and success in the industry?

CL: I truly believe it’s because we are “hands on” as owners. We currently have six restaurants, and while we can’t be in each location at all times, we all try our best to be involved with the day-to-day operations.

The hours are grueling, but upon every restaurant opening we are there side-by-side with are management and crew.

We are very fortunate to have committed chefs and managers that have worked and grown with us for years, which truly make our restaurants a more “family-run company.”

DM: Did you ever have a moment where you thought about quitting or shifting gears completely? How did you press forward or pivot to evolve?

CL: Ha!! I’m the youngest sibling in a Greek family. We’re not wired that way!

Early in my career, I thought I wanted to pursue event planning in corporate America. When I talked to a close family friend in that field she said, “Why would you ever leave your own family business to work for someone else?” That resonated with me.

At that moment I made the decision to continue to work with my family. It was an exciting time in the NYC dining scene in the 90s, and I loved everything about it. With each passing year we do our best to evolve in our restaurants, always trying to keep customers happy, while adapting with the times.

The restaurant business will always be a learning experience if you want to stay afloat.

Moderne Barn

DM: Running front of house at both Oceana and Moderne Barn, do you have an overarching vision for creating a memorable first impression? And how do you communicate that to your staff?

CL: I want every guest that walks in that door to feel comfortable and at home. Hospitality to me is equally as important as the food and beverage we are serving.

I hope the interactions I have with our guests translates to our front of the house staff—I believe it does, because we are so fortunate to have regular customers returning weekly, some daily, to both restaurants. Our guests have become family.

‘Why would you ever leave your own family business to work for someone else?’ That resonated with me.

DM: Your family is in the business and now you have a family yourself, do you feel that work is something you need to compartmentalize, or have you found a comfortable rhythm between work and rest?

CL: I think every working mom struggles with guilt. I wish I could be at the restaurants more, but it kills me that I’m not home more with my two sons. Fortunately, being in a family business means I can tell my brothers I need to take off for a school event or baseball game or whatever it might be. My brothers completely understand—each having four kids of their own—and I’m lucky my husband’s schedule complements mine. I have found a comfortable rhythm, but in this business you’re truly working 24/7.

DM: Do you have any plans to expand restaurants beyond NY, or has it been a purposeful choice to stay in one region?

CL: We have considered cities like Washington D.C., Miami, Las Vegas, but for now our hearts are in New York. All our locations in NYC are in walking distance to one another and our Westchester restaurants are close to our homes. For now, that’s what makes sense for us.

DM: For anyone who dreams of opening their own restaurant one day and may not know where to start, what’s some practical advice you could offer?

CL: Before opening a restaurant, emerge yourself in the business beforehand, and work as much as you can in every part of the restaurant. If you have the chance to work in the back of the house — do it. Understand every nuance of the restaurant. And when you have an amazing employee — recognize it and be good to them!

Visit Oceana in New York City and Moderne Barn in Armonk as well as the rest of the Livanos’ restaurants in New York!

Portraits courtesy of Corina Livanos. Restaurant images courtesy of Paul Johnson.

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Melanie Loon is the Editorial Assistant at Darling, bridging content across print, online and art. For print, she manages relationships with artists from over 60 cities worldwide who contribute to the magazine. As a writer and artist, her work centers on communication, emotion and movement. She’s always tempted to pack too many books.

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