Name a food-related TV show and odds are that Ben’s Best Deli at 96-40 Queens Blvd. in Rego Park has been featured on it.
Popular restauranteur Guy Fieri once sampled owner Jay Parker’s famed pastrami on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” in 2011. Last year, it was Travel Channel’s “Food Paradise” that highlighted the deli. The eatery was even featured in the 2016 film “The Comedian,” starring Robert De Niro and Danny DeVito.
Take one look at the walls of the establishment and you’ll see photos of Parker meeting all sorts of celebrities — there’s even a shot of him and Pope John Paul II.
With the advent of food-based television networks and social media, the 72-year-old deli has become something of a tourist attraction, with guests coming from all across the globe to munch on the authentic kosher cuisine.
So why at 6 p.m. on a recent, rain-free Friday night was the eatery almost entirely empty, save for one couple?
According to Parker, the answer is painted green just a few feet outside.
“The bike lanes aren’t hurting us, they’re murdering us,” Parker told the Chronicle. “This is our busy season. If things don’t turn around, you could expect layoffs in January or February. I can promise you that.”
After about a year of planning, the Department of Transportation laid down a bike lane in August on both the eastbound and westbound Queens Boulevard service roads between Eliot Avenue in Rego Park and Yellowstone Boulevard in Forest Hills.
To make room for the cycling path, the city removed 198 parking spaces along the 1.3-mile stretch while also adding curbside delivery-only zones, which ban parking from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day except Sunday.
That removal of parking, Parker said, has left customers circling the area for up to an hour looking for a spot. And after months of going through the same aggravating process over and over, some have given up visiting the deli entirely.
“We’re down 17 percent and this is my busy time,” he told the Chronicle last Friday. “I’m spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing to get people to come here. But my city is inconveniencing them and they’re going to go somewhere else.”
That sole couple dining in the deli? They had gotten a $95 parking ticket minutes earlier for stopping in a deliveries-only zone.
“This is why people don’t come back,” said Mary, a Maspeth resident who declined to give her last name. “It’s confusing. We’re afraid to park here now.”
In his discussion with the Chronicle, Parker placed the blame for his eatery’s struggle at the feet of Mayor de Blasio, a man he called an “idealogue” and a “tyrant” who thinks more about his national political ambitions than city businesses he should be helping.
He also slammed the DOT for ramming the bike lanes down the collective throats of residents who won’t utilize them.
“Look at the demographics of Rego Park and Forest Hills. People here don’t own bikes, don’t ride bikes and don’t use them for transportation,” Parker said. “The only bicycles I see in the community belong to the kids who chain them up at Starbucks and spend the whole day there. Do you think someone is putting on a three-piece suit and riding into Manhattan?
“This is an assault on the motor vehicle. This is social conditioning,” he continued. “The mayor is experimenting with our lives, our money and our jobs.”
A similar sentiment was uttered by Gary Taylor, the owner of Tropix Bar and Lounge at 95-32 Queens Blvd., where business sharply dropped once the bike lanes were installed.
Specifically, Taylor said he experienced an 11 percent loss in September and a 10 percent drop in October compared to the same months last year — adding up to thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
And that was after posting modest gains in the spring and early summer.
“All of a sudden, we got this slap in the face,” Taylor told the Chronicle last Friday. “Was it the hurricanes? North Korea? We were trying to figure out what happened.”
While Taylor emphatically said Tropix was in no danger of shutting down, he has had to cut back on staff hours and raise his prices slightly to make up for the lost revenue caused by parking problems.
And should he see fewer and fewer people stop in for a drink or two after work over the coming months, he worries he may have to take more drastic action.
“I’ve been here 13 years and I can’t remember anything as bad as this,” he said.
In recent weeks, Taylor has made a habit of reviewing his outdoor security camera footage from the day before to count the number of cyclists using the bike lane.
Last Thursday morning between 6 a.m. and 12 p.m., he said he counted just 48 cyclists — eight an hour.
In the 30 minutes observing the section of the bike lane nearest 63rd Drive on Friday evening, a Chronicle reporter saw just one cyclist ride by. Also utilizing the strip was an SUV and a man on a scooter, while a city bus driver drove partially in the lane for a brief time.
While Taylor said he appreciates the effort to keep cyclists safe on what had become known as the Boulevard of Death, he questioned whether the city had to sacrifice numerous small businesses to do so.
“Bikers aren’t dying but people’s businesses and livelihoods are,” he said.
Unlike Parker, who said DOT representatives “in leotards and manbuns” tried to gauge his interest in a bike lane last year, Taylor said no one from the city ever visited him to inform him of the pending project.
Arthur Adams, the owner of Expo Furniture at 95-40 Queens Blvd., said the same thing in an interview with the Chronicle.
“No one came by. No one cared about s--t,” Adams said. “It’s terrible.”
While he declined to say exactly how much business he had lost, he said it was in line with what Tropix has experienced.
“They’ve killed our business,” the owner said, pointing to his empty store. “You can see it plain as day.”
At the Domino’s Pizza next door, a manager named Alamgir, who declined to provide his last name, said seven of the chain’s 22 delivery drivers have quit since August.
The reason? They were tired of getting tickets for parking in the new deliveries-only zone.
“I’m starting to look for bike riders to deliver the pizza now,” Alamgir said. “We only have 15 drivers now. It’s awful.”
With a lone couple eating at a table in his expansive dining room, Yasin Cabuk, the owner of the Turkish restaurant Black Sea at 95-36 Queens Blvd., said the lack of parking is all his customers want to talk about now — that is, when people actually make it inside for dinner.
“They tell us they can’t find parking. They drive around in circles looking for a spot for an hour,” Cabuk said. “You can say we’re down about 10 to 15 percent.”
With just a half-dozen employees, the eatery owner said it would be hard for a business his size to survive for very long should revenues continue to fall.
“Not yet. We’re trying to find a solution,” Cabuk said when asked if he’s had to cut back on hours or raise prices. “But if business keeps dropping, how will we keep paying our employees?”
In an interview with the Chronicle last week, Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) echoed past sentiments about being concerned with what the lack of parking could mean for area establishments, but said she has yet to hear from frustrated businesses aside from Ben’s Best.
“I know Ben’s Best is very upset, but that’s it really,” she said. “I’ve heard more from constituents about maneuvering on Queens Boulevard than business owners.”
In a follow-up discussion on Monday, Taylor told the newspaper that he and Parker had discussed forming some sort of neighborhood business group to collectively see if there was a way — potentially through legal action — to address the bike lane issue as one unit.
When reached for comment on Wednesday, a DOT spokesperson said street ambassadors conducted “extensive outreach” to businesses along the section of the boulevard where Ben’s Best and Tropix are located in 2016.
“For the 2017 phase of the Queens Boulevard redesign, DOT’s street ambassadors engaged 89 businesses, including Ben’s Best, early in the planning process to learn more about individual business operations to inform how we moved forward with the project,” the spokesperson said. “The new delivery zones are based on information provided by those businesses and our observations about how we could best meet delivery needs at the curb to prevent double-parking.”