BY JON CRONIN
Ben’s Best Kosher Delicatessen is closing its doors on June 30 after 73 years of serving Rego Park, and Queens’ kosher-deli–loving community.
Jay Parker, the owner of Ben’s, pointed to a map of the United States in the dining room of the deli with pins representing where his customers come from across the country to try his famous New York fare.
“We’ve always been a destination restaurant,” said Parker, 66, sitting in the dining area of the deli within view of a portrait of his father, Ben, who opened the deli 73 years ago. “I always thought being the best, we would be a magnet. I still ask my father the same question every morning: ‘Why not real estate?’”
He recalls that the last time the deli had the customer traffic it required to stay open was in the summer of 2017. Now that bike lanes have come to Queens Boulevard, Parker said there is no easy parking for his customers, adding that people who come to his deli from Westchester are not going to drive around to look for parking after a long drive.
“Before the bike lanes, I was fat, dumb and happy,” Parker said.“I’ve been doing a lot of handwringing for months.”
“We have great reviews on Yelp,” he noted, adding that he hired a public relations firm to help with marketing, “but we couldn’t move the needle.There is no other deli in Zagat with a 4.3 rating.”
He said that he had wanted to send off his longtime employees with a check that could sustain them. Parker feels that right now the restaurant is in “hospice mode.”
“This is a family,” he said. “I pay my staff exceptionally well.”
Parker said he told other deli and restaurant owners that his employees were looking for work.
“They just said, ‘Send them over,’ cause they know I hire the best,” he said.
Parker pulled each employee aside individually to tell him/her that the deli would close.
“They thought this was another problem I would solve,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
Parker said that one of his most loyal employees, Richy Meseika, who has worked at Ben’s for 33 years, is two years away from getting the full benefit of his Social Security payments, but the business couldn’t hold out that long. Meseika, who has been traveling to Queens from Suffolk County for three decades, said that he plans to move to one of the Carolinas, where the cost of living is more affordable.
Parker believes that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero program has divided the city. He said that the city’s Department of Transportation would have to return 200 parking spaces for him to keep the deli open. He added that he invited the mayor and the DOT to hand out the final 22 paychecks on June 30 because he doesn’t want to do it.
The deli is filled with history, but Parker said that it is difficult to discuss. His father ran the business for 33 years, and Parker has operated it for the past 40 years. He doesn’t have to say much. Any customer can look at the walls of photographs and see the storied history. Parker has catered for and rubbed elbows with two popes, Hollywood elite and politicos, from city councilmen to U.S. presidents.
He noted that George W. Bush had a second helping of Ben’s Best’s chopped liver, and was told by a presidential aide that Bush never has seconds. Parker held a rally for former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that was attended by hundreds and blocked portions of Queens Boulevard.
For 32 years, Ben’s Best also catered a fundraiser for former U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman in Washington, D.C. Parker said that the event drew more than 600 participants. He added that other congressmen would call Ackerman to make sure their fundraisers were not scheduled on the same day because they knew no one else would attend. Parker flew to D.C. in his private twin- engine plane out of Republic Airport in Suffolk County as trucks filled with meat and New York City water drove to the nation’s capital.
“Do you remember when we used to fly together?” Parker asked Meseika.
Meseika smiled and said, “I remember.”
Parker also enjoyed being part of the community. He was honored twice by the Rego Park Jewish Center, where he was board president twice.
George Pataki held a rally outside Ben’s Best when he ran for governor. When Pataki called him afterwards and asked what he could do for Parker, Parker told the newly elected governor, “Just do what you told everyone outside [my restaurant].”
Michael Perlman, of the Rego-Forest Park Preservation Council, is attempting to find a new owner for the deli before the clock runs out.
Asked if he thinks it will happen, Parker said, “I believe in the impossible. Why not?”