As the inaugural March Munchies progressed, and the field narrowed by the week, Nicholas Komandis paid increasingly more attention to the competition.
The owner of Hansel n’ Griddle, one of the 32 restaurants competing in the contest held by the Daily Targum to determine the best eatery in the Rutgers—New Brunswick area, began calling his old fraternity brothers, friends, family — anyone he could get — to let them know about the competition.
His restaurant began advertising the competition on napkins both in-store and on deliveries, informing customers of its existence without encouraging them to vote either way.
“It was fun,” Komandis said. “I was confident about us, (but) I’m always confident about us. I think we make good food.”
The confidence and persistence paid off in the competition’s fifth and final week, when his Easton Avenue eatery beat out fellow finalist Destination Dogs to earn the first ever March Munchies title.
“Everyone here was really happy,” Komandis said in an interview after receiving a certificate commemorating the win. “My employees, especially management or the ones that have been here for a while, they take pride in working here. For them, it also mattered, which was really nice for us to win. ... I was really proud of us. I was really proud of them.”
But it wasn’t the few weeks of advertising on napkins and through word of mouth alone that won the award.
Hansel 'n Griddle has grown into an iconic restaurant on campus, with love garnered over the 13 years it's been owned by Komandis.
After graduating from Rutgers in 2004 with a degree in economics, Komandis bought the restaurant from its original owner with some financial backing from his parents. It was, as Komandis admitted, a big gamble at the time.
“In hindsight, I can’t believe (my parents) did it, knowing what I know now,” Komandis said.
The first few years of his ownership, back when the restaurant was still located in a small building on Mine Street, consisted of 7-day work weeks between a short staff of six: Komandis, his mother, his chef and a rotation of three friends.
Komandis would work double shifts from the moment it opened at 10 in the morning until it closed at 11 at night, delivering food in the morning and afternoon and working the cash register at night. His mother would work the register during the day for free. Delfino, a chef who still works at Hansel to this day, would work from opening until closing every day of the week. The delivery driver during the night shift was whichever of Komandis’ three friends who wasn’t busy with class.
“There were plenty of times where I slept on the floor at the Mine Street location (to make sure I’d wake up in time for work),” Komandis said.
Born to two Greek parents, Komandis fulfilled the stereotype of his people that no one in his family had never done before — he’s a lifer in the restaurant business, he said.
His first job was at a Burger King when he was 14. During his five years at Rutgers, he bartended at Scarlet Pub and worked at Evelyn Restaurant on the side. From there, he bought Hansel and built it to where it is today.
“(They say) all Greek people own diners — no one in my family is in the restaurant business,” he said. “My father was an engineer. My mom and dad always told me not to get into the restaurant business. It’s in the blood, I guess.”
The persistence and hard work of the grind eventually paid off. The business his restaurant was attracting would eventually outgrow the small space he had on Mine Street, so he invested in a location on Church Street in Downtown New Brunswick. It allowed him to cater events and provided a seating area for customers that wasn’t available on Mine Street.
But the big breakthrough, Komandis said, came four years ago when Hansel moved to its current location on Easton Avenue.
By then, the menu had grown to the size it is today, large enough to intimidate those who aren’t regulars at the establishment.
To combat this, Komandis created the 'Hit List' section of the menu, where newcomers can find the items that separate Hansel from other places. Many of these specialty items were weekly specials that received enough positive feedback to stick around, according to Komandis. Among them are many of the items on the Top 20, a selection chosen by customers who participated in surveys throughout the years.
Among the selections on the Top 20 are the two things the restaurant is most well-known for and that are, according to Komandis, the most commonly ordered — the popcorn buffalo chicken crisp, the restaurant's version of a quesadilla, and a banana flip, a smoothie consisting of banana, peanut butter and fat-free vanilla yogurt.
For those of different tastes, there are plenty of other options, including hamburgers made from scratch every day, wraps, salads, a breakfast menu served all day, buffalo wings, award-winning chili and homemade soup.
And when Hansel says homemade, it means homemade — the daily soup specials are still made from scratch by Komandis’ mother at her home before she brings them to the restaurant.
The restaurant has expanded to four other locations, all in New Jersey — first to Somerville, then Red Bank, Hoboken and, most recently, Denville. The menu is reduced in those locations in order to avoid intimidating new customers, but the homemade feel remains.
The recipes, many of which created by Komadis’ mother, remain the same. The four locations are split among three owners — Somerville and Denville are owned by the same person — all of which are Rutgers graduates who worked their way up from cashiers and delivery boys to owners.
The process of expansion has ramped up in the recent history of the establishment and Komandis has no plans of stopping.
“I want to grow this to be, one day, a national franchise,” he said. “That is my goal … this year.”
But regardless of how far the restaurant expands and how many people across the country get to experience the intense flavor of a popcorn buffalo chicken crisp and the thick, creaminess of a banana flip, its origins remain in the same place as Komandis’.
A native of South Brunswick, he’s lived in New Brunswick for the past 17 years, beginning when he enrolled in college until the present day where he lives with his wife.
He’s a self-proclaimed Rutgers guy, a loyal son who has received countless gestures of love back from the community throughout his time as the owner of Hansel ‘n Griddle. Winning March Munchies is the latest example, but it certainly won’t be the last.
“We’ve been lucky,” Komandis said. “Rutgers treated us really well.”
Brian Fonseca is a staff writer for The Daily Targum and a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. Follow him on Twitter @briannnnf for more.