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Queens Chronicle


Though tested, the quintessential Queens store is still down the block

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Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2013 10:30 am

They’re small, independent, and, to many in the community, irreplaceable.

Mom-and-pop-type shops have seemingly forever lined Main Streets everywhere and, today, despite threats from hard economic times, unsympathetic whippings from Mother Nature and the domineering presence of big-box stores, some with employees numbering in the millions and net incomes in the billions, they continue to thrive.

Of course, most no longer fit the picture of what a typical mom-and-pop used to be, what with computerization, websites and the like. Still, they provide, as they always did, jobs - often for the young and unskilled in particular - along with a welcome lift to a neighborhood, both spiritual as well as financial.

Is it the exceptional service they tend to offer? Or, perhaps, the ability of shopkeepers to make a customer feel like family?

For the past six years, Egyptian-born Ayman Alim and his Malaysian-born wife, Winnie, have run J&J Super Star, a deli and grocery store on Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park.

“ It’s good for the neighborhood. Big stores are for weekly shopping. Small stores are for hourly shopping,” Alim said.

“It’s nearby. You don’t have to drive to a big supermarket. If you get stuck at night, it’s just around the corner.”

And nearby workers stop in on a regular basis.

Lisa Vasquez, a frequent customer who works in a radiology office next door walks in and immediately Alim tries to engage her in some good-natured flirting. When he persists, she finally says to him, “I feel sorry for your wife,” who, at that moment, just happens to be serving her at the deli counter.

In the past, Alim had employed four or five workers. Now he has several part-time helpers, students mostly, who extend the store’s international flavor: one is Jamaican, another Mexican, a third Russian.

The Alims’ son, Joseph, also pitches in, as does a cousin. And, Alim said, sometimes friends stop by for coffee and end up helping out in the store.

That kind of close relationship with the community has its pluses and minuses.

“I have girls broke all the time who ask, ‘Can I have credit?’” Alim said. Does he give it? “Of course,” he answered, as if everybody would. “Half of this block owes me money.”

Always considering his next move, but unsure as to what his next business venture might be, Alim is certain about one thing. He doesn’t plan to work for anyone else.

“I used to work for a lot of companies,” he said. But “working for other people you make them money.”

He’s not a job taker, he’s a job creator.

Meanwhile, the store, which bills itself as the “Home of the Best Made Sandwiches,” continues to serve up everything from crab meat salad on a roll and falafel on pita, to Caesar salads and full party heros and platters. Delivery service is available. And free ... of course!

Over in Howard Beach, several family-owned businesses which were temporarily interrupted by Hurricane Sandy’s devastation are up and running, among them Cross Bay Travel Service on Cross Bay Boulevard.

Now in its 36th year, the store was “closed because of water damage like everybody else,” said Nicholas Gramenides, whose family owns the business.

He attributes the store’s longevity to “the personalization and relative closeness that everybody has for one another and connections between our friends and our families and long-time friendships.”

Gramenides, whose son Peter arrived by bicycle and promptly took his position at the desk closest to the entryway, said he currently employs two additional workers, a number which has remained constant over the years.

During the refurbishing, the business operated out of a satellite office in Ozone Park, Gramenides said. Now, it’s back to business as usual for Gramenides, who said he “pretty much knows everybody who comes in the door.

“Once people fix their homes, people want to get back to their lives,” he said. “We’re a worldwide travel agency. You pick the place, we’ll send you there.”

The agency books all cruise lines and handles all tour, destination wedding, honeymoon, family vacation, and plane ticket arrangements.

Just a few blocks away is Claudine & Co., a beauty salon that provides haircuts, hair extensions, hair removal, hair straightening, spray tanning, manicures and pedicures and other treatments for those wanting to look their best.

This family-owned business suffered extensive damage from Sandy, according to patriarch Vincent Punzi, who runs the business with his wife, Terri, and their daughter, for whom the salon is named.

“We’re the nucleus of the business,” Punzi said. “We’re here since 1987. We took over this place from someone else. We changed the image.”

The storm caused at least $50,000 in damage, Punzi estimated. “We didn’t get any money, absolutely nothing,” he added. “We applied but got turned down.”

Punzi said the shop was under 30 inches of water. “We had to completely renovate,” he said. “We had to redo the floor. We replaced all the equipment. The only thing not touched was the second level.”

Sandy was the second disaster for Claudine’s, which faced a fire two and a half years prior.

Besides the family, Punzi said he currently employs eight full-time workers, plus “a few part-time shampoo girls.”

Even during the renovation process, “We couldn’t really close. We’re a landmark,” Punzi said. “We made it palatable, but it’s hard to work that way. We got it together right away. We were open for Christmas.”

He said people seem to like the mom-and-pop feel of the place. “We know some of these people since they grew up,” he said. “It’s like family. You come in, you know everybody.”

One customer who came by last weekend, Kenn Brown, said he has been having his hair cut by Punzi since 1971 and still comes to him from his home in upstate Saratoga Springs.

“You might say we have a relationship,” joked Punzi, who said he’s looking forward to another 25 years in the business.

A long-popular destination in the Rego Park area is Ben’s Best, a gourmet delicatessen restaurant and caterer where, as the cover of the menu says, “Quality speaks for itself.”

The Ben after whom it was named founded the establishment 68 years ago. Today, as it has been for the past 33 years, it is run by his son, Jay Parker, who takes obvious pride in the long family history.

“This is my life,” he said. “This supported three generations of Parkers. This is a living and breathing family organ.”

Of his father, he said, “It was important to him that everything was to his satisfaction,” and now the son is left to carry on the legacy.

“The Kosher sign in the window marries us to the community,” he said. “We were always the extension of the family table.”

Ben’s has a lot of return customers, Parker said. “I know everybody personally, if not by name then by face. A lot of our customers are proud they’ve been eating here for so many years,” he said.

A new customer stopped by recently to celebrate a special honor: Arvind Mahankali, winner of the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The Bayside Hills resident won with the word “knaidel,” a small mass of leavened dough most commonly found in dumplings. Ben’s knaidels will hereafter be named for him.

According to Parker, Ben’s is one of only 16 kosher delis remaining throughout the five boroughs, a fraction of what there used to be. The number of employees at Ben’s has remained constant, he said, around 30 full- and part-timers.

But the business has evolved over the years to the point where Parker said, “It’s a different mom-and-pop. They’re gone. No way could they have kept up with the bureaucracy. This is an incredulous thing to navigate. You need lawyers, accountants. Single proprietors remain, but it’s bizarro-land!”

˝own in neighboring Forest Hills, anyone who stops in at Twist It Top It, a self-serve frozen yogurt shop on Metropolitan Avenue, is likely to encounter two of its regulars, Dom Allegro and Teri Basile, either at a table inside or on the chairs out front.

Allegro, who lives atop the recently opened store, said he comes down every morning for some chocolate yogurt with fresh strawberries. And he enjoys the personal touch provided by one of the owners, Angelo Gurino.

“I want him to do well. He’s the nicest person,” he said.

In fact, Allegro appreciates all the local mom-and-pop stores. “I don’t go to CVS,” he said. “I go to my friend Norman” in the local pharmacy.

Basile, who owns the shop next door, Art World, a fixture in the neighborhood that provides custom framing and home furnishings, said, “We all eat the yogurt. We love Angelo.” She said his move into the space is “very good for the avenue. He’s brought a lot of business. We need more retail stores. He brought life and color.”

Basile employs five full-time workers in her store, but said, “The owners run their own stores.” She rattled off the names of half a dozen storeowners on the block. “We have workers,” she said, “but we work with the customers.”

Just as the mom-and-pop shop in Queens always has.

Welcome to the discussion.