The Madoff Victims Who Came to Dinner

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Call it the fine art of giving to get. Last December, shortly after Bernard Madoff, the master of all Ponzi schemes, was arrested, Nino Selimaj, 51, one of New York City's colorful and successful restaurateurs, came up with a novel promotional idea involving the king of the con men. In brief, he offered Madoff's victims free meals for an entire week at one of his seven city Nino's restaurants where the average dinner check, with wine, runs between $85 and $95 per person.

To partake of the free food and booze, all a Madoff victim had to do was to show up with a copy of their account (and proven losses). These investors were then given several options. They could come alone, bring their girl or boy friends or their wives or husbands. And if they'd like, they could even bring the kids.

The Nino's restaurant used in this promotion, Nino's 208, was one of the newer ones, located on Manhattan's east side at 58th street near the corner of Third Avenue, and about four blocks from Madoff's offices. All told, between 50 to 75 Madoff victims took advantage of the promotion each day (the restaurant is open seven days a week), and only one couple came twice. Figuring his average $85-$95 check per-person, including drinks, Nino's roughly blew about $400,000 in lost sales.

"I wanted to bring some smiles to an ugly situation," says Selimaj, who knows first hand what losing big bucks in the stock market is all about. In 2000, the era of the dot-com craze, his Merrill Lynch broker encouraged him to buy lots of Internet stocks on margin. It wasn't Merrill's finest moment. Selimaj lost $2,950,000 and almost went broke.

A shining example of an immigrant who achieved the American dream, Yugoslovian-born Selimaj figures his idea of offering free food to investors ripped off by Madoff, turned out to be a promotional winner and a good business decision. Aside from the good will it created, a number of the Madoff victims, about 20% of whom he knew when they came into the restaurant, have now become steadies at Nino's, he says. One, he observes, recently told him "I'll never forget what you did."

The slew of Madoff victims -- nearly 16,000 have filed claims seeking a share of any recovered money -- are estimated to have suffered net losses of about $13 billion.

On average, this year's revenues at New York City restaurants, almost all of which were hard hit by the recession, leading in turn to a sizable number of failures, are said to be running about 20% to 40% behind last year's volume.

As of about three weeks ago, sales at Nino's seven restaurants -- whose prices have been slashed some 25% across-the-board -- were down this year about 17%, Selimaj tells me. But thanks to what he refers to as "a substantial rebound" in recent weeks, his figures, he says, are now running normal with last year's numbers. "Thank God it's positive again," he observes.

How come? Because people seem to be becoming less fearful, they're spending again and the jump in the stock market, I'm sure, has been a big help, he says.

Selimaj, who came to the U.S. in 1978 and opened his first Nino's in 1991 on Manhattan's upper east side, started out as a busboy and dishwasher when he arrived here. His seven Nino's -- which are all 100% owned by Selimaj -- currently generate an aggregate annual volume of about $10 million. His goal is to increase the annual sales of each Nino's to between $3 million and $5 million and to eventually add additional Nino's in the city, though not before things get considerably better.

Promotionally-minded, Selimaj, a modern-day reincarnation of Beau Brummel, for some five years, has run a TV ad compaign featuring himself in which he performs a variety of different chores at Nino's, such as cooking food in the chicken and serving customers. Now, no more TV. "There's not enough money to continue to support that effort," he says. In that TV promotion, the key phrase was "Nino's can't be everywhere, or can he?" Given his outpouring of restaurants, he's proved that he can be.

Interestingly, one of the dining rivals of Nino's 208 is Club A, a steakhouse owned by his brother, Bruno (both are located on the same block). When the very first Nino's opened, Bruno told me his brother was going to be a big deal on the city's restaurant scene. He was dead on.

Write Dan Dorfman at