Humans of New York System
Meet the faces in line and behind the counter at the iconic Olneyville New York System wiener joint.
There’s no place on the planet quite like Olneyville New York System.
No one ever forgets the aroma of fresh ground onions and simmering meat sauce wafting out the door and hot wieners grilled on a griddle of grease that would singe your skin with just one wrong flip of the metal spatula. The original bright yellow and orange Formica Boomerang-style tables, matching vinyl booths and fiberglass ceiling tiles haven’t changed much since 1954, though the people and the prices have. The lingo’s always the same: shouts from behind the counter of “four up,” “two coffee milks” and “Subway!” are part of the charm.
No matter the time of day, noon-time to late-night, it’s the type of place where people from all walks of life, cultural backgrounds and opposing political beliefs come together for a meal of hot wieners served all the way, and preferably up the arm. “There’s no animosity when it comes to good food,” says one late-night customer. The one thing everyone has in common is they all smell the same when they leave. Take food to go, and your car will remind you of the System for weeks. If you’re visiting home from out of town, you probably want it that way. In fact, when the System posted an April Fool’s photo of a hot wiener-scented candle, customers showed demand for it even though it was a joke.
If you don’t know what all-the-way means, you must be new here. Let us explain: A hot wiener is lifted off the grill, nestled in a steamed split roll baked by East Providence’s Homestead Baking Company (in business for more than eighty years), slathered with bran mustard, smothered with proprietary meat sauce, sprinkled with onion and dusted with celery salt. Open wide: You can have all this and more for $2.49 each (prices of wieners almost always correspond with gas prices). Add on a coffee milk from Munroe Dairy and cheese fries and you have yourself a well-rounded meal with all four food groups. When it’s really busy, the guy on the grill in the corner lines up ten wieners snug in buns along his arm, from the knuckles to the bend in his elbow.
That ketchup over there? Don’t even think about it. People who put ketchup on hot wieners go straight to wiener hell. There’s a sign on the wall to confirm it, so don’t question it. Ketchup is for hot dogs and these are wieners. Grab a bottle and suffer the wrath. That’s part of the fun. We dare you to try it.
Made locally at Rhode Island Provision in Johnston out of a mixture of beef, pork and veal in natural casing, the wieners are federally inspected and delivered in ten-pound paper-wrapped packages of one long “rope” that is then measured and handcut to the perfect sizes to tuck into buns. Kitchen prep guy Joey Gill portions up to 180 pounds of wieners and peels and chops up to five fifty-pound bags of onions a day. He doesn’t cry. What’s the key? “I’m used it,” he says with a laugh. Subject yourself to enough agony, and soon, you too, will barely even notice.
The founders of Olneyville New York System, the Stevens family, moved from Brooklyn to Providence after immigrating to the United States from Greece in the 1930s. “Originally we were Stavrianakos,” says Olneyville New York System’s fourth-generation co-owner Greg Stevens. “It was changed to Stevens along the way.”
The whole thing in Providence started with the Pappas family, the cousins of Greg Stevens’s great-grandfather, Anthony Stavrianakos. The Pappas family opened the Original New York System in 1927, which still exists on Smith Street near the State House. When the father of the business became ill, he called on Anthony and (Greg’s grandfather), Nicholas Stavrianakos, who were running a similar restaurant in Brooklyn, and the father and son moved to Providence to help out. They worked at Smith Street for a short time, then branched out on their own in 1946 and opened their own restaurant, Olneyville New York System.
That location was at 8 Olneyville Square at first, and it served the famous hot wieners and other diner staples. The restaurant moved to 18 Plainfield Street in 1954, where the original iconic neon sign still lights up the night on weekends until 3 a.m. Greg’s great-grandfather and grandfather died a year apart in the late-fifties, so Greg’s dad, Peter, took over at the young age of twenty-six, alongside his brother, Anthony, even though Peter had graduated from Providence College’s pre-law school with other intentions.
“He intended on being an attorney, and this happened and he kind of stayed here, ultimately, with no regrets at all,” says Greg Stevens. “In the late-sixties, my dad’s brother chose to move to Florida, and it was just my dad. In the late-’70s, I came into it. I was seventeen or eighteen and I could have gone to college, but I chose to do this, also with no regrets.” Greg worked alongside his dad until his death seven years ago, and he continues to run Olneyville New York System with his sister, Stephanie Stevens-Turini. She handles the back end of the business, including the books, while Greg oversees the day-to-day operations. They also opened a second location at 1012 Reservoir Avenue in Cranston in 1981.
“Olneyville was mostly a mill town and it’s evolved over the years. Some of the mills and jewelry factories have moved away, and the ethnic background of the neighborhood has changed, but Olneyville is still thriving,” says Greg Stevens. “I’ve been here for forty-two years. I’ve seen a lot, and I still love doing this.”
Over its seventy-plus years, the restaurant has earned all kinds of accolades, including appearances on “Man v. Food,” “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and it even won the James Beard Foundation’s 2014 America’s Classics Award given to iconic American businesses. Framed photos of the restaurant’s historical moments and celebrity guests fill the upper wall along the counter: The New England Patriots’ Gronk, Guy Fieri, Andrew Zimmern and Kevin James from “King of Queens,” right next to signs that say, “No one’s ugly after 2 a.m.” and “This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way. You take it my way. Or you don’t get the damn thing.”
After 2 a.m. on weekends, the main restaurant door is locked, and wieners are served right out the window until 3 a.m. In line, you might see kids getting out from clubs, nurses and doctors grabbing food after work, bouncers, aspiring MMA fighters, punk rockers, hipsters and thugs all waiting next to each other without a care in the world while reggaeton blares from a car parked and running on the side of the street and police cars whiz past on their way to the latest bust. A picnic table is shared by all people no matter their background, who sit down together and eat.
“People ask, ‘What’s your demographic?’ It’s everyone. The whole spectrum. You can sit here and look out the window and see every layer of Rhode Island; young, old, white, Hispanic, African American, you name it. Poor or homeless, panhandlers, the affluent, a guy with a Bentley. There was a guy who rode around for a few years with an Olneyville bumper sticker on his Bentley,” says Greg Stevens with a laugh. “I truly believe food brings people together. It seems like everyone comes in here and judgmental attitudes don’t exist.”
For this story, we visited Olneyville New York System in Providence at two different times of day, lunchtime and late-night, to meet the employees, regulars and customers who make this place what it is today.
Here are their stories: Day-Time
9:15 a.m. George Saccoccio, employee
George Saccoccio is the self-proclaimed “world’s foremost weeniologist” and a science fiction writer, who worked at Olneyville New York System in 1973 until 1982. He returned to work there again about six years ago after leaving the mortgage business and the ambulance company he worked for went out of business. Returning to the System brought back all kinds of memories.
“I started here in ’73. I was fourteen. I was washing dishes at the time on Saturdays. I made my first date with my wife on the telephone they took out of here when I came back in October of 1974. Back then, there were all these mill buildings that are now condos. Providence was recognized as the costume jewelry capital of the planet. Imagine all these buildings around here filled with workers. My first day here, they said, we’re going to get busy at lunch hour. At twelve noon, the place was absolutely jammed. It was like someone flipped a switch. This place, no exaggeration, every single stool, every single booth, was filled, and during the day, the line out the window wrapped around Benny’s, which was right next door, before it was turned into the parking lot. And then at one o’clock, it was like someone flipped that switch off again.
We are still a busy place. I like to think that even our humdrum days are the envy of small businesses. There’s something to be said about working in a place that’s world-renowned with people you’ve known all your life.
From time to time, you’ll hear staff shout out, ‘Subway!’ It comes from New York. In the ’20s, ’30s or ’40s at Yankee Stadium, when a beer was 20 cents, the blokes would most often toss the guy a quarter. At the same time, a subway ride was a nickel, so to indicate the difference in the tip, he’d yell out ‘Subway!’ Last summer, sure enough, a guy leaves a tip here, and we yell out ‘Subway!’ and the guy says we made his whole afternoon. He hadn’t heard that save for a deli he goes to in Brooklyn. In the city, you’ll still find guys that call a tip ‘subway.’”
9:40 a.m. Nicholas Barros, employee
“It’s like a party in here. You have hiccups here and there but everyone’s friendly. You can scream, yell, say whatever you want. People give it right back to you. It’s a different type of place. This restaurant is not normal. You get to come to work and have fun. We get every different walk of life in here. That’s what I like. I am not affiliated with no party and I have my own beliefs. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Unless you have facts to back it up, that’s it, but if you ain’t got numbers and facts, then it’s an opinion.”
10 a.m. Rita Downing, long-time customer
“I am eighty-two. I come in twice a day, almost every day. I have my own key too. They don’t open till eleven so I let myself in. I come in at 9:45 or 10:30 in the morning till twelve or 12:30. I have my own seat [right next to the register] and everyone knows it’s my seat.
As soon as I get here, they make me breakfast. Now there’s no breakfast served, but if I get here early enough, they’ll throw it on. Only because I bitch. When I am cheating, I have an egg, a piece of ham and two slices of Italian toast. Or I bring my own oatmeal and an orange. I haven’t had hot wieners in years. The cheeseburger deluxe is unbelievable, but I am trying to be good. For dinner, they will make me a salad. Or I go back there myself and I make it. I really come here for the people. I like to come socialize every day. If I don’t show up, they’ll call my house.
I actually bring them food. This week I had five trays of food I cooked, leftover from a family party. I brought in five big containers, barbecue chicken, baked beans, Italian potatoes, macaroni salad, white and red chowders. Rather than throw it out.
I lived on Dike Street for thirteen years, and I started coming in here when I was eight. I would come in with my mom. I used to be on the swim team over here at Olneyville Boys Club. I got sixty-nine medals to prove it on the swim team. Now I live in western Cranston.
They put that stupid sign up there [at the back of the restaurant, flying above the Brooklyn Bridge]. It’s a picture of me on a broom. One day, I was in here, and Greg said, ‘We have your transportation. It just came in today.’ I said, ‘What?’ He says, ‘a broom.’ I posed for that picture and they put it up there.
One morning I came in and there was a sign in the parking lot [It was a five-foot moon with a witch on a broom underneath it] that said, ‘Parking only for Rita,’ but someone complained, so they had to take it down and put a handicapped one in.
I stopped coming here when I got married, and my husband passed away sixteen years ago. We were married forty-seven years. I had seven kids. My husband has been dead for sixteen years on January 4, so I started coming here again. He was a health freak and he would never eat this stuff.
After my husband died, I said I am not going to sit around watching TV all day, and my kids are all grown.
When you come in here it’s like family. Greg is absolutely wonderful. His sister, Stephanie, as well. These guys that work here torture the hell out of me, but I give it right back.”
An exchange between Nick and Rita
Nick: She’s a hundred and eight. She’s the first woman at the Last Supper.
Rita: I love Nick. He’s my black son. They’ve all been to my house. Nick, do you watch out for me? If I don’t come in, they call my house. I am not lying. You know you love me.
Nick: Thank you. Can I borrow some money now?
Rita: I got two words for you and it ain’t Merry Christmas.
Nick: Whatever. I am not talking to you now. She used to come here on a horse and buggy. That’s how old she is.
11:03 a.m. Daryl Craig and Larry Bates
“Listen man, this is a Rhode Island monument right here. You know what I mean? I come here sometimes and there’s people who moved out of town and when they come back they come right here and say, ‘I gotta go over to the System.’ I’ve been coming here since the ’70s. I am going to tell my age.” —Daryl
11:13 a.m. Milton Riggins
“I’ve been coming here fifteen years. I’m local and I pop in twice a month. I get weenies, or a cheeseburger deluxe. It’s people friendly. Everyone is very hospitable, they chat you up and make you feel very welcome.”
11:36 a.m. Brian Kellett
“I’ve been coming here fifty years. Best wieners around. It’s a very traditional Rhode Island thing, and so many traditional Rhode Island things have disappeared.
Olneyville is still here. I got my tattoo three years ago. I am a born and raised Rhode Islander, but I moved to Connecticut, so this is just a Rhode Island nostalgia thing for me.”