Tina’s Novelty T-Shirts Are Selling Like Hotcakes at Beloved Bushwick Diner

Mathew Silver

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Tina’s Place is a Bushwick diner known for its low prices and early opening hours. The breakfast special (eggs, potatoes, and toast) costs $4.50. On weekdays, the greasy spoon opens at 3:30 a.m., catering to the truck drivers, factory workers, and nighthawks that populate the neighborhood. But recently, Tina’s discovered an unexpected source of revenue: novelty t-shirts.

“Everybody’s been asking for them,” said Athina (Tina) Skermo, during a recent interview at her no-frills eatery. “It’s good for business. Advertising, too.”

Skermo, 68, was surprised by the popularity of the $12 t-shirts. After all, they were meant to be sold as a novelty item. The restaurant hawked an older version from the 1990s until 2014. Those first-generation tops were less sought-after. When their old supplier went out of business, the restaurant decided to update the look with a Virginia-based company called Custom Ink. Since then, they’ve sold more than 2,100 of the second-generation shirts.

Locals and tourists love the “vintage” look, according to Tina’s son, Raymond Skermo, who helped design the latest batch. Tina has proudly spotted people wearing the shirts in Bushwick and Ridgewood. You can imagine the shirts have an almost ironic local appeal, while tourists would be interested in having something from an authentic American diner. At the restaurant, the t-shirts are part of the staff uniform, so when Tina sees a customer wearing them, she jokes that she might tell them to get behind the grill.

“I tell them, ‘I might put you to work if you wear the shirt all the time,’” she said with a chuckle.

Tina Skermo holding the novelty t-shirt.

The maroon-colored shirts are simple. Across the back, Tina’s Place is spelled in “House-a-Rama League Night” font, with the restaurant’s address and contact information underneath. On the left breast, there’s a depiction of a young Tina wearing a classic diner uniform. Beside that it reads “Food You’ll Enjoy.”

Tina has owned and operated the restaurant for 50 years. At 16, Tina came to America from Crete, Greece. In 1969, she purchased the restaurant from her uncle for $12,000, and, a year later, purchased the building for $13,000. The fact that she owns the building allows Tina to keep food prices low.

The restaurant’s old-school diner aesthetic makes it desirable for filming movies and TV. Tina’s appeared in The Deuce, a well-regarded HBO drama about the 1970s New York sex trade. That was another boon for business: they received $88,000 to film at the diner for 11 days, according to Tina. Just a few days ago, Tina was approached by someone from Law & Order to film for a future episode.

Though she estimates the property is now worth millions, Tina has no plans to cash out, and hopes the business can stay within her family.

“I’m scared to retire. I won’t know what to do with myself,” she said. “I’m used to the people. You can’t change overnight.” Tina’s only regret is that she didn’t scoop up more property in Bushwick, back when properties cost less than $15,000. She’ll just have to sell a lot more novelty t-shirts to make up for it. 

Photos by Mathew Silver for Bushwick Daily.

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