Nick Drivas might own the distinction for being the youngest busboy ever.
He was 5—perhaps fresh off learning the difference between a triangle and a rectangle in kindergarten—when he first cleared tables for his father/boss, Aris, at Aris’s restaurant in the Chicago neighborhood Edison Park.
Promotions followed. Drivas waited tables; Drivas handled money as a cashier; Drivas worked in the kitchen.
“I grew up in the restaurant business,” says Drivas, now 46, the owner of two restaurants (Backyard Grill in Highland Park and Grill House in Northbrook), and no doubt sharp enough to teach an advanced geometry class. “When I got in trouble at work, I had to peel the onions.
“But I only had to do that once.”
What grown-up Nick Drivas will never be accused of doing just once: giving. To schools. To nonprofits. To first responders.
To churches and synagogues. To students.
It took the pandemic for Drivas to learn students in Northbrook and surrounding suburbs relied on subsidized lunches during the school year. The fact shocked him and saddened him. So, Nick Drivas being Saint Nick, did something about it, contacting local school districts and eventually providing 100 $10 gift cards to students—forced to learn remotely for most of 2020—who had qualified for assisted-meal programs when schools were open.
One of Drivas’s Dine and Donate initiatives works like this: on a designated day, a student—say, from Edgewood Middle School in Highland Park—enters one of Drivas’s restaurants and orders a meal. The student mentions their school. Drivas then donates 20 percent of the bill to Edgewood.
“My parents, Aris and Marina, moved to Northbrook because of the village’s education system,” says Drivas, a 1993 Glenbrook North High School graduate. “Education was an important part of my upbringing. A strong school district strengthens the community.
“I can’t think of anything better than doing what you love to do for a living and also being able to give back to the community. It’s important to give. We all need to do our part.”
Among the beneficiaries of Drivas’s chronic generosity: Autism Speaks; Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation; Alzheimer’s Association; Bernie’s Book Bank in Lake Bluff; Youth Services of Northbrook and Glenview; first responders every 9-11, when they receive free lunches; cancer organizations; Hadassah, an American Jewish volunteer women’s organization; and school districts in Northbrook, Glenview, Highland Park, and Deerfield.
Drivas played right wing for Glenbrook North’s hockey club and relished every period of every Chicago Blackhawks game he attended with his father at the old Chicago Stadium. Drivas enrolled at North Park University in Chicago, where he majored in marketing. He worked briefly in computer sales shortly after graduating, knowing the tug of a career in the restaurant industry would be impossible to resist. He essentially earned his Ph.D. in running a restaurant at Nick’s (an eatery named after his grandfather) in Elk Grove Village from ages 22-26.
“I learned so much there,” says Drivas, who has two younger brothers, one (Gus) who works with him and one (John) who’s a banker. “What a good, valuable experience that was for me in a number of ways, especially seeing what goes on behind the scenes. You need a good work ethic in this field, something I learned at a young age. The days … they’re long ones at times. But I still find the job gratifying.”
Drivas opened Backyard Grill in 2014, and welcomed his first diner at Grill House in 2017. Backyard Grill offers burgers and gyros and a slew of other hearty eats, plus salads that rival the creativity found at most art museums. Grill House features a wide range of comfort foods and salads and Drivas’s favorite menu item, Roasted Greek Chicken—quality poultry that’s herb- and spice-brined for 30 hours.
Homemade recipes from way back in 1979 still sate in 2021 at Drivas’s restaurants.
“It was tough throughout 2020, not being able to see customers eating in our restaurants because of the pandemic,” Drivas says. “We offered a lot of family deals early on and introduced a text program to reach out to members in the community. The text program not only helped our restaurants; we also used it to alert customers on the days we had designated to aid a certain organization.
“One of the many rewards of owning a restaurant is seeing a diner sit down in your restaurant and enjoy that first bite,” adds Drivas, who lives in Northbrook with his wife, Washington Elementary School teacher Ria, and their three children, ages 13, 12, and 10. “I missed that familiarity at work; we all did. We also missed the routine of interacting indoors with our customers. We’re grateful that most of what was normal in 2019 is gradually returning.”
Grateful for Highland Park and Northbrook and their dwellers, too. Drivas shudders at what would have happened to his eateries without their support.
“I can’t think of better towns to be in than in Northbrook and Highland Park,” Drivas says. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to give back to communities that treat you as well as those two do? The entire North Shore is a wonderful, caring area. When you need something, anything, the North Shore is there for you.”
Northbrook native Ian Braverman was there for Drivas and several other local restaurateurs during the holiday season late last year. Drivas and his employees were having a rough day when Braverman entered Grill House with a bulky envelope. The restaurant’s sprinkler system had malfunctioned.
“Water was everywhere,” Drivas recalls.
Braverman navigated around the indoor ponds and handed the envelope to Drivas. Inside: $600, in cash. Braverman’s friendly order to Drivas: “Spend it any way you want to spend it.” The 30-something Braverman had raised the money through his “Northbrook Restaurant Support” GoFundMe campaign.
“Our day got better, right away,” Drivas says.
“What Ian did made our day.”
Drivas didn’t spend a cent of the gift. He gave it all away, surprising absolutely nobody.
“I paid it forward,” Drivas says.
Priceless gesture from a priceless man.
Backyard Grill, 847-681-8400 is located at 1825 2nd Street in Highland Park; Grill House, 847-205-2200, stands at 3061 Dundee Road in Northbrook.