By Miharu Sugie, News Staff
At his small restaurant near the Jackson Square MBTA station in Jamaica Plain, Themistocles “Lakis” Vlahoulis, owner of Il Panino, excitedly explained new installations including a gelato and smoothie take-out station. As Vlahoulis pointed to the takeout window and showed off his wife’s artwork on the walls, he gave a small boy a free scoop of tiramisu gelato. That flavor is his favorite, Vlahoulis said.
Il Panino Cafe & Grill reopened this January with the help of four Northeastern business students: junior Michael Berkhofer, sophomores Angel DeJong and George Boukouvalas and middler Ayush Relan. They were chosen by Professor Kimberly Eddleston, their adviser for a small business growth and management course, to help improve the local restaurant’s business.
Vlahoulis said he heard from a group of Northeastern students who dined at the cafe that Eddleston was a highly-accomplished professor. Hearing that, Vlahoulis said he thought, “God sent this lady to me.”
Berkhofer, DeJong and the other students have created a new website for Il Panino Cafe & Grill. During spring break, the students created pages for Il Panino Cafe & Grill on Yelp, Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.
“The restaurants that are the most successful are the ones that have the whole social media game going,” Berkhofer said. “They’re on Facebook, they’re on Twitter, they’re on Foursquare, they have great Yelp reviews, they’re on Urbanspoon. They’re literally getting in touch with their customers in so many more ways than just sending out menus or being in the phone book or having a website, which are all important, but [Vlahoulis is] having trouble in the marketing side and that’s where we are helping him.”
So far, the students have had some success on the Internet. The Eater.com page for Boston, Hiddenboston.com and Chowhound featured the reopening of Vlahoulis’s restaurant.
The connection between Vlahoulis and Northeastern dates back several months. The restaurant was previously Gail’s Cafe and Grill from last April to January, but Vlahoulis said he struggled with the business.
In hopes of gaining more customers, he contacted Esther Chewning, a Northeastern co-op advisor. Daniel Lee, a senior interested in restaurant industry at the time, joined Vlahoulis as manager of the cafe.
Vlahoulis and Lee became close — the elder referred to the student as being “like my own son” — and Lee helped the restaurant grow. He established an online presence and an organized schedule for the cafe’s employees. He introduced the idea of accepting Husky dollars and dining dollars at the cafe.
After Lee ended his co-op term, Vlahoulis happened to meet with Frank DePasquale, a long-time friend from his teenage years and owner of multiple North End restaurants. Upon hearing Vlahoulis say that his business was not prospering as much as he wanted it to, DePasquale offered to give Vlahoulis five of his best chefs at his first restaurant, Il Panino Express in the North End, along with its menu and its name. One of the Il Panino Express cooks, Manager Chef Victor Jose Serrano, was sent to Il Panino Cafe and Grill. Ever since then, Serrano has been the “heart and soul of this business,” Vlahoulis said.
“From the moment that people found out [our affiliation with Il Panino], the name is so well-known, we starting having new people coming,” Vlahoulis said.
In fact, Vlahoulis said he noticed that there was a 35 to 40 percent increase in business since the restaurant’s reopening and rebranding.
“What the restaurant is offering right now is an opportunity to have North End-quality Italian food without spending a fortune,” Berkhofer said.
Still, Vlahoulis found more help with establishing his business in Eddleston’s class.
“What we’re really trying to do is get the Northeastern community involved,” Berkhofer said. “We’ve been emailing literally every single organization that we can to try to cater their meetings with food from Il Panino.”
Aside from catering, Berkofer and DeJong said they hope to host fundraising events with sororities and fraternities to generate funds for charity and exposure for the restaurant.
Any Northeastern student organizations that would like to cater from Il Panino Cafe & Grill or schedule a fundraising project together are welcome, Berkhofer said. Vlahoulis said he is currently considering offering discounts to Northeastern faculty and students.
“It’s more than just the typical business group project though because it’s a real business and in the past all of my projects have been about taking a company that already existed and you’re just pretending to help them or some fake scenario, but this is a real business that needs help,” DeJong said.
She said that her team also plans to set up a table outside the Jackson Square MBTA station and let passersby try samples, in addition to performing financial analysis to determine the most popular menu items.
One of the cafe’s most apparently popular dishes — especially for students — is pizza.
Previously, Gail’s Cafe and Grill focused on American cuisine with a Greek flair, but it did not have pizza.
“Everyone was telling me you should get pizza here,” Vlahoulis said. “This is a pizza town. Students love to order pizza.”
DeJong, who has tried numerous meals at the cafe, said that the dishes Vlahoulis serves are “like a piece of art.” Vlahoulis said he seeks to use only fresh, high-quality ingredients.
While the Northeastern students focus on the social media marketing for Vlahoulis, Main Street Partners, a non-profit organization that helps improve small businesses for free, assists with catering.
The students said they are hoping to build a lasting foundation for the restaurant online that survives even after they leave.
“Those forms of advertising are only good if you’re constantly putting up Facebook posts or constantly sending Twitter messages,” Berkhofer said. “If we can get the restaurant to actively connect to social media, it’ll help them draw in the Northeastern crowd. We want to build a sense of community.”
Vlahoulis said he gets goosebumps thinking about how the students have helped him to reach out to the community. He said he went to church two Sundays ago and prayed for the people who have revitalized his restaurant.
“I am grateful to them, I will never forget them for what they did. I’m at a loss for words,” Vlahoulis said. “To meet such wonderful people who took care of a total stranger, to be so kind to me, to be so human and to be so wonderful. Northeastern is my school now.”
For the students, Berkhofer said, the project has been so rewarding that the academic outcome almost does not even matter.
“We’re constantly thinking about ways to help. It’s really more of an experience than just a project,” he said. “Whatever grade we get is fine, whatever, but if we make a difference in a guy’s life, that’s all that matters really.”