By Sara Pokorny, Photos by Dominic Perri
Nick Malfas struck buttery yellow gold when he began peddling popcorn from a cart on the streets of Holyoke in 1921. What began as a one-snack operation grew into a brick-and-mortar establishment on Northampton Street. The menu also expanded, offering everything from potato salad to soft serve to bacon cheese fries to loaded hot dogs, all alongside the still-enduring popcorn.
With its red and yellow awning, counter-style window seating dotted with jukeboxes, and 1950 Chicago Coins bandbox, Nick’s Nest is a haven for nostalgia. It’s also a family business, having stayed in the Malfas family for three generations until 2005, when Jenn and Kevin Chateauneuf bought it. Despite the last name change, the family vibe is there, extending outward from the kitchen to the customers. There’s a good chance that at least one person eating at Nick’s at any given moment has been going there since they were a child.
Jeff Ferreira of Chicopee is one such guy. On a busy Saturday morning, when the line is already out the door an hour after opening, he sits at the counter eating lunch. He’s come to Nick’s since he was a kid and can remember the smaller menu. Though the hot dogs are his favorite, he’s tried everything Nick’s has to offer and has never been disappointed.
“They’ve got everything here, and it’s all good,” he says. “Also, they’ve always been really good people, so it’s easy to come back.”
Malfas added hot dogs to his cart in 1922, and that other All-American food would prove to be an even bigger draw than the popcorn. In 1927, he opened a stand on Route 5, and in 1948 he moved into the location Nick’s occupies today. His son Nick took over, and then his grandson Charlie, before the Chateauneufs.
“We added to the menu gradually to bring in a fresh change,” Jenn says, “but at the same time not take away from the hot dogs.” The hot dog recipe remains: They’re steamed and sit in a light brown secret sauce until served. Mustard and relish were once the only topping options (as evidenced by a placard affixed to the counter), but now diners can get onions, cheese, ketchup, and more.
The popcorn is as simply made as the dogs. The modern kettle is tucked away into an older-style cabinet to keep a vintage air. Popcorn packs are roughly the size of a half sheet of paper, dual-sided with one half containing butter-flavored coconut oil and the other kernels lightly dusted in spices. One pack yields approximately three large buckets and, of course, there is butter to spare. Kept in a small metal pitcher near the kettle, the “extra butter” is a fan favorite.
Abby Griffin, an employee at Nick’s for 14 years and a customer since she was a kid, is all too familiar with the buttery appeal.
“One customer we had, I would know by the weight of the container it had enough butter in it for him.”
Built on kernels and dogs slung from a cart, Nick’s has thrived over the years thanks to this familiar food, and customers’ need to find comfort in it. Nick’s, as a place, has become just as comforting, and Jenn understands this.
“Our customers love us because it’s a ma and pa place. In the world of corporate, people appreciate that there are still small places like ours around.”