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Veganism, Twitter and 105 Years of Food Defines St. John's of 12th St.

By Elizabeth Barber | May 5, 2013 9:19am | Updated on May 6, 2013 2:42pm
 Nick Sitnycky has owned the restaurant for 40 of its 105 years.
Nick Sitnycky has owned the restaurant for 40 of its 105 years.
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Elizabeth Barber/DNAinfo

EAST VILLAGE — First came the vegan menu. Next came the Twitter feed to promote it. And then came the spike in business — up 20 percent since the restaurant began luring East Village twenty-somethings with promises of vegan wine and cannoli.

A lot has changed in 105 years.

A fixture at 302 E. 12th St since 1908, John’s of 12th Street is a microcosm of the ever-changing neighborhood it feeds, at once paying homage to its old-world beginnings and trying to keep pace with the whims of the modern East Villager.

“You have to keep your ear to the ground, your eyes open, and one foot forward,” said Nick Sitnycky, 68, who bought the restaurant with partner Mike Alpert, 71, 40 years ago.

“As a 105-year-old restaurant, you have to be constantly innovating, otherwise you get stale,” he said. “You have to appreciate the changing times. You have to be current.”

When founder John Ducciatti opened the place in 1908, it was a newcomer to what was already an old Italian block, with roots dating back at least a hundred years earlier, said Sitnycky.

Sitnycky and Alpert bought the restaurant in 1973 from John’s son, and since then they have barely changed the physical setting — beyond adding new photographs to a wall collection that seems to measure time by a slow parade of celebrity patrons.

The fluorescent sign out front — “John’s,” done in aggressively orange cursive — dates back to the 1920s. A fridge-sized air conditioner from 1950 still cools the place in the summer.

But there are additions. Two years ago, the owners added placards on each table advertising a full vegan menu responsive to the neighborhood’s changing demographics. A year later, they added a Twitter feed, which focuses on promoting the vegan and gluten-free offerings, often with the hashtags #vegan and #gf.

Now, this is a place where “vegans and the rest of us can get along and stuff our faces,” writes one Twitter user. Another, a self-described “uncompromising vegan and radical,” praises the restaurant for its “social-conscious menu.”

“We were hoping to attract a younger crowd,” Sitnycky said. "In the East Village, there are many young people who are vegan."

Since adding the menu, with its offerings including vegan ravioli paired with tomatoes, spinach, and tofu, business has been revved up almost 20 percent, Sitnycky said. While the uptick can be partially attributed to appearances on the Food Network and PBS last year, the rest can be attributed to the menu changes, he said.

“The growth is in the younger population — people in their 20s and 30s,” said Sitnycky, who added that the menu has also won fans among older restaurant-goers as well.

New restaurants pop up all the time in the East Village, but Sitnycky isn’t worried about competition — primarily because he owns the building, so soaring rent prices aren’t an issue. And he also argues that each additional restaurant only emphasizes John’s of 12th Street’s uniqueness.

“Our atmosphere, our identity, our history — we don’t have competition,” he said.

It also helps that John’s has become a pop cultural landmark, memorialized in cameos on hit T.V. shows like the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” and the 2001 film "A Beautiful Mind."

Late on a Tuesday afternoon, two location scouts stepped into the restaurant hoping to book the place for an upcoming remake of "Annie."

“Whatever you need. The restaurant will be available to you 24-hours-a-day,” said Sitnycky, heartily agreeing to the scouts’ request. He has seen it all before, after all.

“Great, I’ll email you,” said one scout.

“Oh no, I don’t have an email address,” Sitnycky said. “I prefer to talk to people. Just come by. I’ll be here.”