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'Personal Touch' Helps Family Eatery Thrive

  • Deborah Block

Young customers enjoy a meal at Primo Family Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia.

Young customers enjoy a meal at Primo Family Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia.

Many small, family-owned businesses in the United States are struggling to survive because, along with the sluggish economy, they face stiff competition from well-known chain stores and restaurants.

However, one small, family-owned restaurant just outside of Washington, D.C., is not only surviving, it's thriving.

The Primo Family Restaurant has been a popular dining spot in Alexandria, Virginia, for more than 25 years. Customer C.A. Savoy comes here because he doesn't like the atmosphere or food at the chain restaurants.

“Everything in here is home cooking," Savoy says. "It’s all fresh food and delicious.”

Server Tina Mitrakas has worked at Primo’s since it opened. “I like my customers. Everybody is friendly. I like the people I work with. It’s like my second home.”

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Lynne Sepple's son Nick is here, celebrating his birthday. “My son has been here since he was six days old. He’s been here once a week since then and now he’s 10.”

Mary Wise, who often stops by after work, says Primo’s feels comfortable. “It is a place where you can consistently have good food, not too expensive. You know you’re never going to be confronted with something that’s a surprise. I think people like that.”

Another appeal, she says, is owner Jim Nicopoulos who is often seen mingling with patrons in the dining room.

“I like to get involved with my clients," he says. "I find out about them. I touch them. I have to be involved with my customers and my staff at the same time.”

Everyone calls him Jimmy, including Savoy and his wife who are long-time patrons.

“We’ve become part of Jimmy’s family now," Savoy says. "He refers to Joyce and I as his mother and father.”

Nicopoulos bought Primo’s five years ago, and it is truly a family business, from the old photos of relatives on the wall, to the dining area, where his father-in-law seats patrons, to the kitchen, where his cousin Spiro Routoulas prepares Greek specialties.

“He’s a funny guy," Routoulas says. "He comes inside the kitchen and tastes what I make. Oh, it’s fun.”

Besides the food and friendliness, Nicopoulos believes Primo’s has another appeal over the chain restaurants.

“Chain restaurants have to go through a process of buying their food from large industries and distributors," he says. "We can get our produce local and our meats.”

Elizabeth Bessel notices the difference. That's why she stays away from the nearby chains.

“I don’t find the food [there] to be that great," she says. "When I eat here, Jimmy will come to the table and tell us that he got that produce from somebody’s farm.”

Nicopoulos thinks there’s room in the neighborhood for both family and chain restaurants.

Customer C.A. Savoy agrees. “It’s been here for 25 years and I see it being here for 25 more years.”