What do you get when you combine multicultural citizenry, a legendary love of food and an entrepreneurial streak? Well, you get New Jersey—and its abundance of specialty markets devoted to mother countries’ cuisines.
The Greek Store in Kenilworth, family owned for three generations, proudly sells the delectable traditional foods of its homeland: pita bread, feta cheese, moussaka, baklava, olives and so much more.
Below, we chat with Lia Diamandas, who spent a hearty chunk of her childhood in her father and grandfather’s shop, which she now owns.
NJM: We’ll start from the beginning. When did your grandfather, who founded The Greek Store, come to the U.S.?
Lia Diamandas: My paternal grandfather, Nicholas Diamandas, emigrated from Greece in 1910 at age 15. Along with his brother Anthony, he came through Ellis Island at a time when thousands of Greeks were doing the same. The brothers headed to Manhattan, where they had a friend from their village. They both got right to work.
What did they do?
Nicholas and Anthony did anything that paid! Construction, gardening and, yes, restaurant work. That was what the brothers liked most. They both got full-time jobs cooking in a branch of Childs, the first chain restaurant in the U.S. One brother worked the day shift and the other, the night shift, so they could each get some sleep in their cramped apartment. They did this for a number of years.
When does your grandmother enter the picture?
Another brother who had stayed in Greece sent word to Nicholas that the family had found the perfect bride for him. He went back to Greece and agreed. The two got married, and she joined him in New York in 1927. They had a baby the following year and another in 1931. That was my father, Stelianos, who was known as the more American “Steve.”
How did the Diamandases’ New Jersey chapter begin?
There was a strong Greek community in Newark, and that’s where Nicholas and Anthony moved in 1934, so their families could have a more comfortable life while they worked at Childs in the city. For additional income, the brothers opened a corner grocery store, sort of a forerunner to today’s bodegas. On Anthony’s part, he moved back to Greece.
Your grandfather Nicholas had a lot on his hands.
He did! But the store was so busy that he was able to quit his job at Childs. Newark’s Greek community was thriving, and he started carrying Greek products in his store. He supported his family this way. But a heart attack in 1959 slammed on the brakes. That’s when my dad got involved.
So by this time, your dad Steve is in his late twenties. Had he started another career?
Yes, he had studied mechanical engineering at Newark College of Engineering, which later became New Jersey Institute of Technology. Still, my dad had no choice but to step into running the store. Later on, he’d say that at the time, he figured he’d build up the business and then sell it. But it turned out he liked it too much.
When did The Greek Store move out of Newark?
In 1961, my dad moved to Irvington, a little ways out of Newark, and reopened as a bigger store with more of a Greek emphasis. He called it The Greek Store. He married my mom two years later, and they moved to Clark in southern Union County two years after that.
When did you make your debut, Lia?
I was born in 1970 and pretty much grew up in the store. First in Irvington, then in Kenilworth, where my dad had moved the store again, to its current location. The store is just a few miles north of where we lived in Clark. I still live in our house.
My mom would pick me up from school and drop me off at the store. She’d go home and I’d do my homework. My desk was the butcher block behind the counter. I loved being there.
Did you already know you wanted to run the store someday?
Not yet. I wanted to be a teacher. When I graduated from Rutgers, I had a free semester before a master’s in education program in the fall, and it made sense to spend those months working in the store.
And guess what? I still loved just being there. Everything about it: chatting with customers, working alongside my dad, and being immersed in the Greek community. I felt very rooted, very purposeful, there.
Did you eventually go back to school for the education degree?
No. I realized that the store was my ideal career. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like I was living my life amidst a big, multigenerational Greek family. That’s always been the mood at The Greek Store, for us and our customers.
How long have you been involved in managing The Greek Store?
Since that time over 30 years ago! My dad was my mentor, my boss, my business partner, my best friend. We shared management—buying, ordering, bookkeeping, selling, hiring and training employees, supervising big orders for private events.
My dad was the marketing department. It seemed that every Greek in the state knew who he was, and every customer knew him personally. He was so positive, so warm and welcoming, and a natural storyteller.
It sounds like the store served as a Greek-American clubhouse.
It did and it still does! My dad brought Greek-Americans together. He was a pillar of our community. He passed in 2020, but his loving presence is still felt at The Greek Store.
I share his pride that our shop keeps our Greek traditions alive. People come here to speak Greek, to buy the foods they were brought up with, to talk about their Greek holiday meals and who’s getting married or having kids or grandkids. Often, people meet or re-meet in our store. I’ve watched customers who were friends long ago run into each other and rekindle the friendship.Has the store changed much over the years?
We pack a lot into our 2,000 square feet of selling space. Sometimes we have pop-up events, like talks with authors or chefs. And these days, all kinds of people come to stock up for their Mediterranean diet. Our products are healthy—not mass-produced or laden with chemicals. They taste like the real thing because they are the real thing. What we sell is either imported from Greece, or produced by family-owned Greek-American businesses, or made right here in the store.
Our selection of Greek specialties is complete and very reasonably priced. We carry a dizzying array of Greek cheese, pita bread, olive oil, house-made dips and house-baked treats like tsoureki, braided Easter bread. We carry three dozen olive varieties, fresh and bursting with flavor. If you’ve only ever eaten olives from a can or jar, these olives will change your life.
How do you stay current with Greek food trends?
I try to get to Greece regularly to check out the food scene and scout new tastes and products. I like to support Greece’s creative artisans putting their own stamp on cheese, honey and olive oil. I also buy from Greek-American entrepreneurs like chef Sophia Manatakis, who imports her own PHIA brand of small-batch olive oil.
Do you sell online and/or ship products?
No, because food is perishable and shipping costs are prohibitive. But for our customers, coming to The Greek Store is a regular ritual. And since we’re right off the Garden State Parkway, we get out-of-town shoppers who load up on their way north or south.
Lia, what does the future hold for you and The Greek Store?
Everything comes into focus when customers tell me things like, “Please never close your store, Lia. We need you to keep the Greek alive in us.” My passion for all things Greek will never waver, and I’m planning to keep going as long as I can. My dad made this hub of Greek-American culture his life’s mission, and so have I.
The Greek Store, 612 Boulevard, Kenilworth; 908-272-2550
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