Where mother once sewed, daughter now cooks tapas

By Alysha Khan

When Nia Asimis lost her job in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, she didn’t bother looking for another one. Instead, she saw opportunity in her mother’s former tailor shop space.

Asimis, 42, opened a restaurant, drawing from her Greek heritage. She called it Nia Mediterranean Tapas. Seven years later, she averages between 2,000 and 3,000 customers a month, $50 per check, and last year, earned $300,00.

Asimis said her success rests on the support she received from her family, and her ability to tailor her food to her customers’ tastes.

Opening the Doors

The building that houses Nia Mediterranean Tapas  has belonged to the Asimis family for decades.
The building that houses Nia Mediterranean Tapas has belonged to the Asimis family for decades. (Nia Asimis/Courtesy)

803 W. Randolph St. in Chicago’s West Loop belonged to the Asimis family long before Nia Asimis opened her restaurant there. Her mother’s dry cleaning and tailoring shop operated there from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.

By the time Nia Asimis lost her job, her mother had closed shop. But Asimis had no intention of reviving her mother’s business.

“My mother was a classically trained tailor,” Asimis said. “There was no way I could do that.”

Instead, Asimis drew inspiration from the other side of her family. Her father, Nickolaus Asimis, 71, has run a wholesale business supplying restaurants since the late 1970s.

Together, the father and daughter developed her restaurant’s recipes and Nickolaus Asimis supplied his daughter with the goods and produce she needed.

Nia Asimis said being able to tap into her father’s knowledge and supply chain was critical to her success, allowing her to keep costs down.

“If you don’t have any of that knowledge, you fail,” she said.

Building the Menu

One of the most popular dishes at Nia Mediterranean Tapas is bacon wrapped dates.
One of the most popular dishes at Nia Mediterranean Tapas is bacon wrapped dates.(Nia Asimis/Courtesy)

Opening the doors of the restaurant was only the beginning. Nia Asimis wanted her ingredients to come from local sources. But this philosophy had its limitations.

“There’s only so many things that grow in the Midwest in the dead of winter,” she said.

In the end, Asimis said, it was her customers who helped her build the menu.

“You get to know people,” she said. “They are the ones that guide you.”

Asimis now has a primary menu, which she customizes based on the season. She said the restaurant has taken on a personality of its own as the menu evolves to reflect her customers’ desires.

“People come in longing for something,” she said. “That’s what you want, people longing for your food.” Her most popular dishes include bacon wrapped dates, beef brochettes, and crab cakes.

Chicago Gourmets, a food and wine society, recently hosted one of its weekly events at Nia. Founder Don Newcomb said the dinner attracted more than 40 members, a high turnout for the group. He said the society plans to hold another event at the restaurant in August.

“The lamb chops are to die for,” he said. “Everything was just very special.”

Serving the Customers

Beyond the menu, Asimis said, customer service is essential to keep diners coming back. She cooks each dish to order and works with her patrons to customize a dish to their tastes, for example, changing the dish to make it gluten free or dairy free.

She also said it’s important to hire staff who connect with your work culture. Asimis originally started the restaurant with a chef but eventually fired him because they didn’t “see eye to eye.” She now runs the kitchen herself.

“Your staff are a reflection of who you are,” she said. “I surround myself with great help.”

Newcomb said part of the restaurant’s appeal is Nia’s personal approach to customer service.

“Nia could not be a sweeter, more talented person,” he said.

“People come in longing for something. That’s what you want, people longing for your food.”

– Nia Asimis, owner of Nia Mediterranean Tapas

Interacting with customers is also part of the reason why Nickolaus Asimis continues to help his daughter run the restaurant.

“Every day, you find somebody to talk to,” he said. “New ideas, new people, young, old.”

Nickolaus Asimis added that he helps out also because he has “nothing else to do” and it helps “kill time.”

Looking to the Future

It took about three years for the restaurant to start turning a profit. If Asimis could do it again, she said, she would set aside a budget for marketing. Initially, Asimis said she didn’t factor in marketing costs but now, she budgets time and dollars for social media marketing.

“A lot of money goes back into the restaurant,” she said.

Asimis added that capital is key to running any business. She puts aside money every month to deal with any unexpected expenses.

“A boiler can go, a dishwasher can go, surprises come up all the time,” she said.

For now, Asimis plans on running her restaurant for the foreseeable future, juggling all the different roles she plays every day – chef, hostess, accountant, marketer, and entrepreneur.

“There is so much minutia that goes into your business,” she said. “You can’t drop the ball.”

Photo at top:Nia Mediterranean Tapas is located at 803 W. Randolph St. in Chicago’s West Loop.(Nia Asimis/Courtesy)