He might as well have been a pilgrim heading to the Promised Land.
Jason Farber trudged up the subway stairs onto the south side of Queens Boulevard in Rego Park at lunchtime last Friday, turned right, walked passed the Zagat 4.3 rating poster and Bethpage Federal Credit Union “Best of the Boro” sign and kosher certificate in the window of Ben’s Best kosher deli, stepped inside the restaurant and placed his order.
“One and a half pounds of brisket, a half-pound of corned beef.” Lean, please.
For Farber, a native of Rego Park and public relations veteran, the order was standard, but his trip to the deli wasn’t. He came up from Langhorne, Pa., near Philadelphia, where he has lived for a decade.
Farber, 46, had heard on the TV news two days earlier that Ben’s Best — a staple in the neighborhood since 1945 — was about to close, and he wanted a final taste of its cold cuts. He arranged a doctor’s appointment in the neighborhood in order to get his brisket and corned beef, which he took home in a cooler on the subway and New Jersey Transit train.
“I made it my business to get here,” he said as he waited for his order. “Ben’s has made [the food for] some of the key moments of my life.” Like family holiday meals and simchas. And it’s where Farber had the first date with his future wife.
Jay Parker, the second-generation owner of Ben’s Best, son of Benjamin Parker for whom the restaurant is named, announced recently that — barring a last-minute reprieve — his deli will close on June 30, a casualty of the bike lanes the city’s Department of Transportation installed last summer on both sides of a 1.3-mile stretch of Queens Boulevard.
The DOT move took away 198 parking spaces. And, said Parker, it took away about 20 percent of his business.
“If you come here for a sandwich and you get a $95 ticket,” you’re not coming back,” said Marty, who has worked behind the counter 39 years and didn’t want to give his last name.
Ben’s Best, no relation to the other Ben’s kosher delis in Manhattan, Queens and Long Island, is “a destination restaurant,” a place to which customers drive from out of the borough or from out of town, Parker said. “I don’t depend on the local people.”
No parking, no customers.
“If you don’t live here, you can’t eat here because you can’t park here,” he said on Friday, taking a break from slicing pastrami and placing some phone orders and schmoozing with customers, many of whom tried to console him on the imminent closing of the 73-year-old deli where he has worked for nearly 40 years.
One man, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who gave his age at “about 100,” came in just to give Parker a hug. A middle-aged woman, in tears, told Parker that her sister, terminally ill with cancer, asked for “a last hot dog” from Ben’s Best before she dies. “A lot of people,” said Lee Sherman, a long-time customer, “are crying. Everyone is going to miss it.”
At one table, Norma Weiner and her daughter Gail ordered their bowls of matzah ball soup and talked about what the loss of their favorite deli would mean. “One guy,” Gail said, “was going to chain himself to the deli on the last day.”
Ben’s Best is the classic heimish eatery, a venue of knishes and chopped liver. It offers the typical salamis hanging in the window, as well as a row of custom-made silk Ben’s Best ties hanging over the counter. And there’s the menu, which features items named for some of its noted customers: the “Dr. Ruth Westheimer” (brisket of beef, breast of turkey, lettuce, tomato and Russian dressing) and the “Congressman Gary Ackerman Special” (open-faced corned beef, breast of turkey, sliced Bermuda onion, Russian dressing).
“While not health food, the smoked and cured meats on fresh bread were hearty and satisfying and reminiscent of a bygone era in New York,” Caroline Lagnado wrote on The Jewish Week food blog last week. “It is ironic, of course, that bike lanes, an effort to make New Yorkers healthier, are what killed this meaty restaurant.”
Over a few hours last Friday, not a single biker was seen on the bike lanes, which have become de facto loading zones for trucks alongside the now-narrower space for vehicles.
Parker said he has instituted some cost-saving measures to save his business, hired a marketing firm, paid for customers’ parking at a nearby garage, and begun curbside pick-up service for people who place their orders in advance. He hasn’t replaced employees who retired or left for other reasons.
“I’ve cut everything to the bone,” he said.
It wasn’t enough.
Other Queens Boulevard businesses near Ben’s Best have also seen major losses in the last year, since the bike lanes appeared. “It’s killing business all over,” said Yusuf Kholdarov, owner of the B’Khol Dor & Co. clothing store. “Everyone is suffering,” said Eli Shalmov, owner of Rego Pita.
Michael Perlman, a longtime resident of neighboring Forest Hills who serves as chair of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council, is looking for a buyer to take over the deli.
Perlman, in an email interview, called Ben’s Best “one of the last mom & pop style kosher delis citywide … an ultimate public institution where you can enjoy classics.
“I am hoping to find a new owner ASAP, one who will preserve Ben’s Best traditions and the ambiance, as well as retain the hard-working and soulful staff members who become an extended family,” Perlman said. (He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Perlman and Parker have had discussions with a few people interested in buying the restaurant, they said, but so far have no firm offers.
A Jewish deli, Parker said, “is part of the culture.”
In a city that in the 1930s was home to some 1,500 kosher and kosher-style delis, the closing of one that has reached landmark status, frequented by celebrities and featured in documentary films, would be “a huge loss,” said David Sax, author of “Save the Deli” (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).
“Ben’s Best is one of the last remaining old school kosher delis left in New York, the last one in Queens, and also just one of the best and tastiest delis anywhere,” Sax said.
“Kosher deli in the outer boroughs is a dying breed,” said Ted Merwin, author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” (NYU Press, 2015). “There isn’t much of a customer base — secular Jews who want to eat that kind of food.”
And yet, Ben’s Best was deeply embedded in the Rego Park community. It sponsored a Little League team for decades; restaurant staffers tell of Parker quietly paying for children to attend summer camp, and giving food away for free to the indigent.
The bike lanes were put in by DOT as a way to reduce traffic deaths; the road had earned the title of “The Boulevard of Death” for the large number of fatal accidents along it in recent decades. The Department has stated that Queens Boulevard has become safer since the bike lanes were put in, but did not answer a request for a comment on the topic from The Jewish Week.
For Parker and his customers, the name of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who pushed the idea of the bike lanes, is treifer than a BLT. Parker said he has invited the mayor to pass out the final paychecks of Ben’s Best 22 employees on the deli’s last day.
De Blasio has not responded to the invitation, Parker said.
In recent weeks Parker has informed vendors of the deli’s likely closing, and tried to line up jobs for his workers. Parker said moving to another location in the area is not an option because the cost of renting and outfitting another site would be prohibitive.
He’s taken some final catering orders, and kept enough food on hand to last until he shuts the deli’s doors. “We’re going to serve the customers till the last day.”