Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sunnyside Restaurants Feel Pinch as Residents Cut Back

When politicians blame Wall Street greed for the financial crisis wreaking havoc on Main Streets across the country, news watchers may think of New York City as synonymous with high-flying corporate executives. 

Within 30 minutes of boarding a subway train at the Wall Street station, however, riders can find Main Streets throughout New York itself.  The elevated 7 train runs above one of these streets, Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside, Queens. Here, Korean, Colombian, Irish, Mexican, Romanian and Turkish restaurants are squeezed between fast-food chains, banks and barbershops.

Made up of working and middle-class residents, Sunnyside is not a community filled with people losing financial sector jobs. Nevertheless, restaurant owners throughout the neighborhood attest to a sharp drop in business over the last two weeks.

“People hear news about how bad the economy is right now and they don’t want to go out,” said Bruno Robles, 32, owner of Moment’s Steakhouse & Lounge on Greenpoint Avenue. “Business has been slower than usual since March, but in the last few weeks it has been even worse.”

Even proprietors who felt their restaurants were thriving earlier this year say their businesses hit a wall in late September as Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual and other national firms began collapsing in what felt like rapid succession.

“I haven’t seen it this bad in the whole time I’ve been open,” said Aziz Dogan, 32, owner of the five-year-old Turkish Grill on Queens Boulevard, where entrees cost between $10 and $16.50. “In the last two weeks our sales have dropped about 20 percent.”

A few blocks away on 42nd Street, Dorina Suciu, the owner of Transylvania Restaurant reports a similar sharp decline in business.

“We had a very good August,” said Suciu. “Now business has dropped a lot, probably about 30 percent from last month.”

Diners who are still eating out are likely to be cutting back.

“Now our busy days are less predictable,” said Tim Chen, 42, who owns Skillman Avenue’s Quaint where entrees range between $11 and $21. “And, instead of ordering an appetizer, entrée and dessert people will just get the entrée or skip the dessert.”

While frugal residents might be expected to spend more money at the neighborhood’s grocery stores, Leo Gutierrez, manager of the Associated Supermarket on Greenpoint Avenue, said his store at least has not seen any evidence of residents stocking up to eat at home.

“We’ve had sales decrease about 10% in the last two months,” said Gutierrez, 42. “Prices are increasing on everything and we have seen people cut back all year, even on cheaper items. Last year we sold 10 trailers of rice, so far this year we’ve only sold two.”

Sunnyside is hardly the only neighborhood in the city where restaurants are feeling the pinch of cost-cutting customers. According to E. Charles Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, eating out is one of the first things budgeting consumers cut back on.

“If you want to buy a pair of shoes, even if the shoes are too expensive, it is unlikely you have the ability to make the shoes at home instead,” said Hunt. “If someone can’t afford to eat out, they have the ability to make meals in their homes.”

At Turkish Grill, fewer diners for the foreseeable future means cutting back and putting plans on hold.

“We’ve cut down on labor and are trying to buy in bulk to cut down on other costs,” said Dogan, who until recently had plans to expand his business into Manhattan by opening a second restaurant there. “We applied for a loan to but haven’t received word about whether we’ll get it. Now, with the way things are going, I don’t think we are going to hear anything.”

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