Still Cooking

Kozy Korner celebrates a century of feeding Wilmington

By Matt Morrissette

In the grueling and fickle restaurant industry, a 10-year run is a significant achievement by any measure. But for the Wilmington diner Kozy Korner, what’s another decade in the fabled, 100-year history of the family-run business? 

Opened in 1922 by John Vouras at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Washington Street, the original location of the diner was a downtown Wilmington favorite during a simpler era for the city. In 1964, the diner passed to John’s son, Nicholas. The location continued to thrive for another 20 years until the building was demolished to make way for a high-rise hotel.

After an eight-year absence, Nicholas resurrected the family business at its current location at 906 North Union Street in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood. In 2002, the diner was passed to Nicholas’ son, John, the current owner and the third generation of the Vouras family to run the eatery.

Over the past two decades, the diner has faced the obvious challenges of a changing cityscape, shifting trends in eating habits, and the unique struggles of being a family business.

“Working with family has a lot of up- and downsides, that’s for sure,” says John Vouras II. “Being third generation, I’ve tried to focus on keeping the reputation of quality food and good service. The trick is to change with the times, but not to change so much that our regulars are upset. It can be hard to find the balance.”

Krissy Murphy, a server at the current location since 1994, has worked at the restaurant through the tenures of both Nicholas and his son, John. Being on the frontline of the business for so long has given her a unique perspective on Kozy Korner.

“Nothing much has changed,” she says. “Every server that works here has been doing so for at least 10 years and many of us for 20 or more. As regulars from when I first started move away or pass, a new crop of faces replaces them, and it’s often their friends or relatives. No matter what happens or how much things seem to change, we still have a line out of the door on Sundays after church.”

With nearly a century of longevity, Kozy Korner is in the rare position of having customers who came with their parents to the old location and today bring their own kids to the Little Italy spot. One such regular is John Williams, a well-known personal attorney and lifelong Wilmington resident. 

“I have fond memories of the downtown location and I still have lunch at Kozy Korner once or twice a week. The people who work there are like family and the food gives me a lot of comfort.

“I have so much history with the Vouras family. Nicholas helped me get the loan for the first house I ever purchased, and his grandson, Nick, has guest-lectured at a hospitality course that I’m involved in at the University of Delaware.” 

Over the past couple of years, Kozy Korner has faced the additional harsh reality of being a small, independent business during Covid. 

“Surviving Covid was a serious challenge,” says Vouras. “I had to lay off the entire staff, and once restrictions were lifted, I brought them back slowly. Thankfully, my two sons, Nick and Alex, helped me a great deal through the pandemic. 

“They were there when needed, refusing to be paid. Also, I had to cut back the hours of operation due to the staff shortage, and I simplified the menu for lunch which was almost non-existent.”

With business returning to somewhat normal as Covid seemingly winds down, the diner has experienced surprising success with the recent introduction of Detroit-style pizza (a thick, square-cut variation on Sicilian pizza) to the food repertoire. The brainchild of John’s son, Nick, the ever-expanding pizza menu has earned rave reviews and caused quite a local stir as word spread through Nick’s use of drool-inducing pictures on the restaurant’s increasingly active social media presence. Additionally, Kozy Korner hosts periodic pop-up nights where Nick teams with other local chefs and friends to offer an evening of interesting options on top of Nick’s pizza varieties.

Though Wilmington is chock full of choices when it comes to pizza, Detroit-style is a tougher find and has allowed Nick to find a niche quickly. 

 “It’s cool to provide something unique,” Nick says. “Not a lot of people are familiar with the Detroit style and if places around here even offer it, it’s not on the menu or it’s maybe on the last page in the fine print. It’s exciting to put it front and center and see people’s reactions to trying something they turn out to love for the first time.” 

After a century of providing comfort and community to the city of Wilmington, the future of Kozy Korner is both bright and unclear. Alex and Nick (who’s currently looking for his own brick and mortar site to take his pizza to the next level) have their own goals and interests outside of the family business. 

But if the third generation turns out to be the last for the Vouras family at Kozy Korner, it’s been quite a run. And they’re not going anywhere any time soon.