Almost exactly two years ago, I posted a picture of myself on Instagram with two neighborhood corner deli friends. W42ST asked me to write an article about these bodega pals for their October 2018 Hell’s Kitchen Heroes issue. I’ve watched these guys, Wally (Wahlid) and Hamza grow up behind the counter of their family’s corner store – from standing on milk crates to reach the cash register to now branching out as adults to build and open their own delis in the city. I interviewed them again to get an update on life in their corner stores during the pandemic.
Tom: Two years ago when we last talked at length about your experiences living and working in the NYC deli business – back in early fall of 2018 – you were both still working out of the Skyline on 49th & Tenth and the Seven Brothers deli on 49th and Ninth. Wally, I know that you and your six brothers and two sisters all grew up in rental apartments above the deli on Tenth Avenue. Ham, I know you and Wally are cousins, but can you remind me where you grew up and what your path was to working in the family deli business here in NYC.
Hamza: My father came here originally in the 1980s, he used to live in the Hell’s Kitchen area on 48th street, mom got pregnant, he decided to make a move, he didn’t like where the neighborhood was at, at the time, to raise kids so he moved us out to the Central Valley in California and that’s where my sister was born and the rest of us were born. Then we moved out here in 2010 / 2011 to just see what we could do because the economy was slowing up out there, so I came out here working for my cousin, learn the business. And when I got enough experience after 7 or 8 years they decided to branch out and they wanted to include me in that. So that’s when we made the decision to acquire Superior (deli) and take a shot.
T: Back when we sat down in 2018, you two were just beginning plans for your own new venture together, to buy, build-out from scratch, own and run your own deli …and now two years later, we’re sitting in that new deli – Superior Gourmet Market at 555 Tenth Ave. at 41st St. Can you give us a glimpse into how this opportunity came about and what it takes to venture out on your own and open a brand new deli in NYC?
Wally: So, you know, I’ve always wanted to continue to do business & work together with Hamza – and I always wanted to open a deli with him. So he called me and told me there’s a spot for rent on 18th St. and Tenth Ave, so we took a look at it, we contacted the landlord and tried to get that space, but it wasn’t possible. So we were driving up Tenth Avenue one time right after that incident, and we catch a new development on our left side which is 41st Street and we’re like – ok there’s going to be a new building there, we should inquire to see if there is any retail space available for rent. So we did some investigation and we found out there was going to be a retail space and we contacted the broker. The broker contacted the listing agent to 555 Tenth Ave., and from there it was history, we got the lease and we started building our deli.
H: it’s not as easy as he makes it seem. It took about a year and a half of back-and-forth and you have to have your financials in order, you have to have great credit, you have to have great references, and you have to have a history of business. They’re just not going to take a – now it was easier to get delis back in the day because it was just cash: you’d talk to the landlord, “hey give me your spot,” and that was it. But now when we’re talking about credit checks, they want you to propose a business plan and you have to come up with figures that you have to get in the next couple of years. You have to come up with a full portfolio – they’re just not going to give it to any person off of the street. You have to know what you’re doing. I think it’s easier to get retail spaces in walk-up spaces where some of the owners are regular people. When you’re dealing with a 555 Tenth it’s an Extell building, high rise building, there are a lot more qualifications that you need to get a retail space from them than you would in some of these walk-ups and that’s what we learned when we first started to venture out and do some bidding.
W: Just to kind of add to that real quick, Tom, I just wanted to give a shout-out to Extell, they’re the development and management for 555 Tenth Avenue, really good people, and they’ve been very helpful during this pandemic as well, to us.
H: Yes – we’re lucky to have them and Gary Barnett, they’ve been very, very helpful…
W: Aaron is amazing, very helpful, he’s a very nice guy and very helpful through this whole process – we just want to give Extell a nice shout out.
T: Two years ago, the world was essentially as we had known it our entire lives, in terms of the way people worked and traveled and recreated and shopped and lived. Then coronavirus happened here – and really hit New York hard before almost anywhere else in the country last winter, in early March. What have been the main challenges you’ve dealt with running this kind of business in the time of COVID-19?
W: The real challenge you know is the health and well-being of us, as people, our employees.
T: Yes – I know you lost an employee to coronavirus at Skyline this past spring…
W: We lost an employee.
T: A young guy from…
W: From Mexico. He was in his early 40’s.
H: He had no family here, was the single breadwinner for his family, had a son back home and a wife and a mother. He had no siblings. It was tough, because, I mean that’s the worst possible situation, when you’re the one that’s like the hero for the family and you go down. It was nuts.
W: Very, very nice man. His name was Juan. He was our chef, our overnight cook. He was a great man, his attendance was unbelievable – he never missed a day. He was a very good man, very honest…
T: What was his shift?
W: From 9:00 PM to 7:00 AM, so he would do a lot of the prepping. Lot of the drunks when they come at night – he would feed ‘em.
T: How many years did he work with you?
W: For like ten years.
T: I really am so sorry to hear this. I saw that you had put up a GoFundMe or similar.
W: Correct. Customers liked him so much they decided we would do a GoFundMe appeal and we managed to kind of fund a lot of money for that.
T: Any other general challenges – in addition to the health and well being of yourselves and employees and your families?
W: Another thing is, it’s a challenge to keep everything clean, keep people kind of apart from each other, to keep telling people to put their mask on, it’s kind of difficult – and we’re scared, we don’t know what to expect, you know?
H: Yeah, there are some people that have common sense and they’re understanding, and there are some people they get very violent, and they don’t want to be told to put a mask on.
T: Do you ask them to leave if they don’t, or…?
H: You kindly ask them to leave if they don’t, but then you gotta walk on eggshells because lately we’ve been getting a lot of people threatening us, we’ve had a couple of employees who’ve had knives pulled out on them.
T: About the mask thing?
W: About things in general.
H: Everybody’s on edge. Like you know, if you’re telling people what to do and there are people who are not ready to take orders – even though it’s not orders, it’s a health and safety issue and if we do not enforce it we get ticketed.
T: Ham, I heard that you came down with COVID-19 back in early spring. Do you want to talk about it?
H: I stayed out for two months. I stayed at home and I was designated to a room. I was tested about six times and the last two times I tested negative.
T: When did this all happen?
H: This happened the night of March 29th, I called Wally and I told him: “Listen, I don’t feel too good.” Wally came over with a mask and said “I’ll take you home.” I said, “What do you think about going to the hospital?” And then he said, “Let’s get you home, we’ll designate you to a room and then we’ll go from there.” And what we did was, I would call this service where they come to the home and bring like a vitamin drip, a physician’s assistant would come over and give me that, and I would feel a lot better. But it was scary, mentally, because you see a lot of people dying, so you’re scared to go to a hospital, you’re scared to do anything because you don’t know the outcome.
T: Did you go to the hospital?
H: No, I just stayed at home, in a room, and got my food delivered to me at the doorstep.
T: So how did you get tested or seen by a doctor?
H: The people, the physician’s assistant would come and test me.
W: There’s a website where you would contact the physician.
H: The website is leaa.io – they work in the New York area.
T: OK, what did it feel like?
H: The first symptom was a congestion feeling that turned later worse into what felt like tiny rocks in your lungs. I had a fever for the first three days, that went away. Experienced some diarrhea. Then I got excruciating pain throughout my body, which started in my back and then would go down my left leg and my left leg would go numb. That happened for about four days. And listen, I never take medicine, but I was popping Tylenol like crazy and that pain didn’t want to go away. Didn’t want to subside. After two weeks of that, the pain went away, but my chest and coughing would linger, you know? It would be triggered by little things – a breeze if I opened the window, and stuff like that. But I always felt better when I would get the vitamin drip.
T: And you have a wife and – how many kids?
H: Yeah, a wife and kids, three daughters. That’s the hardest part. We were apart for two months.
T: Did they stay healthy?
H: Yeah, they never contracted the coronavirus at all.
T: And when did you recover from it and come back to work?
H: I tried to be fair so I tested negative twice and I think I came back on June 28 or 29.
T: So like four months ago. Unbelievable. You and I had been out of touch for a while during COVID and I’m just so glad you’re well again.
T: In a normal year, more than 65 million tourists come to NYC, which has been suddenly wiped out by the pandemic. Last spring, the City’s Department of Homeless Services worked with the Hotel Association of New York City to relocate homeless New Yorkers from homeless shelters – which posed a serious health threat to them due to coronavirus – into some of the many empty hotels temporarily, for their safety. Of the once busy and now mostly empty 700+ hotels in NYC, about 20% of them are providing housing for around 13,000 homeless New Yorkers. An especially high concentration of this temporary housing solution is in-place in midtown Manhattan hotels, including several in this neighborhood. In that connection, Skyline deli is kitty-corner from Skyline Hotel, and here at Superior Deli you’re across the street from Yotel. What percentage of your business do you think had been tourists from nearby hotels in the past?
H: We get like 30 – 40% in a normal time.
W: Skyline you can say like 40%. It’s a big part of our business. We named our deli Skyline because of the Skyline Hotel. Because of the appreciation we have for the hotel. It’s been a very good kind of marriage. There’ve been people who when they stay at the hotel they write comments, you know, they would always say we like the Skyline Deli. So we lost a lot of business.
T: On that subject, have you interacted with some of the transplanted homeless New Yorkers from nearby hotels and if so, what have those interactions been like for your delis?
W: It’s been very challenging as of late.
T: This started back in April, May? I remember initially there was a broken door?
W: Yeah, my door was broken a few times, there’s been a lot of people stealing, a lot of vandalism going on. It’s been very challenging. But you know, it’s New York, we’re New Yorkers, we’re tough-skinned people, so. You know, we’ve dealt with it.
T: You feel compassion for these kinds of people who are in a tough situation. It made sense in a lot of ways, right, because you have all these empty hotels. Homeless New Yorkers are in shelters with numerous people sleeping and eating in large common areas where coronavirus can potentially spread very easily. At the same time, neighborhoods didn’t really know what was going to happen, the City maybe didn’t really communicate the plan to the neighborhoods, and then suddenly there’s this impact.
H: It’s like a culture shock, yeah. Both for the community and for the people moving in, I’m pretty sure they weren’t ready to move into a nice neighborhood like the one we have and they had to get accustomed to it. And there’s human nature on both sides. Like, for them they see people who are better off, and they feel a certain way. And for us, we might feel a certain way because they’re not assimilating to our neighborhood the way they should be. But then again, there is no time, especially during a pandemic right now, for us to sit there and be negative. We have to come to a common ground and try to find a solution.
W: I feel for the people that have restaurants and bars too because they’re forced to have outdoor seating, and when people are sitting outside, you know, a lot of the homeless people – they kind of like interacting with them and it’s very uncomfortable for them. It’s been hurting a lot of the business, especially the bars and restaurants around Hell’s Kitchen. It’s been tough.
T: Have you experienced any positive stories or perspectives during the pandemic?
W: The positive I can see is that – we’ve witnessed people put their lives on the line. It’s very special to see. Like health workers, essential workers, people that have to go out and work and provide food and stuff for people. Just like us, I believe we’re essential workers, you know. At one point in our deli, in the middle of the pandemic, it was very hard to get merchandise. And if we did get merchandise, it was almost double the price of what you would normally pay for it. So there are these consumer affairs officials going around the city, especially to delis and stuff, to see if we were like jacking-up prices. But the reason was that we’re getting hand sanitizers, that we’re trying to get for people to be able to keep themselves clean and we’re paying more than double the price. We don’t want to lose money, but we want to provide the hand sanitizers and alcohol to the consumers. But other than that, I really appreciate the health workers, the essential workers, you know they put their lives on the line every single day and that’s very special, man, you know?
H: The one positive I think I got from it is – I see the people that really loved each other and care about each other got closer – and during this time you kind of figured like, you know, maybe I wasn’t living the right way health-wise. People started caring about how they eat, what they’re putting in their bodies, how to stay healthy, getting the right things in their body to boost their immune systems. To fight viruses like this, you know? Also, we’re in a time where I think everybody cares about where the state of the country is going to be at in the next election. You see a lot of patriotism on both sides, and we want to see where it’s going to go.
T: That’s a good segue to my next question. People outside of NYC may not know that of the more than 10,000 delis (a.k.a. bodegas) in the city, as many as half of those, 5,000 or more, are owned by Yemeni families. Yemeni-Americans have owned and operated delis in the U.S. for over half a century.
T: Also over the past two years we’ve seen global events like the war in Yemen become increasingly devastating there, and here in the U.S. we’ve seen the Trump administration call for all Muslims to be barred from entering the United States which has expanded over the past three years into a complex system of travel and immigration restrictions for something like 7% of the world’s population. Have these situations impacted you and your families?
H: We have extended family in Yemen, and it is a humanitarian crisis because the stuff we take for granted like general medicine to fight the common cold, they don’t have that there, so there’s a shortage. And with all this going on, at one point there was like a child dying every ten minutes. So that does take effect on you mentally. Second, sometimes you walk around in this city and people hear news like that, and then they kind of single you out and say “go back to your country” – even though you’re born and raised here.
T: Wait a minute – you occasionally get that? Here in the deli or elsewhere?
H: Yeah, sometimes you get that, elsewhere, walking or if I’m taking public transportation.
T: Even in New York City.
H: Even in New York City. Like Port Authority. It’s fine, because you get accustomed to it. You know they’re lacking mentally.
T: You guys are both born in the United States, right.
T: Can you remind the readers where all of your stores are?
H: OK, well Wally & family have stores on 49th St. and Tenth Avenue: Skyline Gourmet Deli. And 49th and Ninth: Seven Brothers.
T: And then, for you two, you and Wally together…
H: And then we have 41st and Tenth: Superior Gourmet Marketplace and 106th and Broadway: Six Corners Marketplace.
T: And that’s a really new recent one, right – like, what during this past summer?
W: No right during the pandemic!
T: Right during the pandemic, you got word about a deli there for sale?
W: No it was actually a KFC!
T: So now it’s a deli, you had to build it out and do all that, open during the pandemic?
H: It opened in January and it was going smooth until the first week of March.
T: And is it recovering now?
W: It’s OK. You know, you can say that in all our businesses, we lost more than 50% of our business. But we’re surviving, we can’t complain.
H: You gotta understand, like, we’re very lucky we have landlords that are very, very nice.
T: On 106th as well?
W: Oh yeah, they’re very good people as well.
T: What about on 49th and Ninth? And 49th and Tenth?
W: We own the buildings – we own the properties.
T: Your family owns both of those buildings now? Unbelievable!
W: Yeah! I’m a landlord. I’ve been very nice too! I’ve been giving my partners a break. Because the business has not been making money, so… It pays a lot of bills, but…
T: And the one on 48th and Tenth is your…?
T: There’s another family relative on 51st and Ninth?
W: There’s one on 51st and Ninth. They’re like far cousins.
H: 43rd and Tenth. 45th and Tenth. And 47th and Tenth. There’s a lot.
T: I want to mention those because I want to encourage people to go to all of them. Now – this is a more light topic. Standing here in your sparkling new Superior Gourmet Marketplace deli – I’m reminded that two years ago when I interviewed you you said you planned “green and gold decor” for this store. Can you share for the public the significance of that color combo?
H: Yeah, that color scheme is because we like to show people what big Packer fans we are. So we want to throw that in there (and down their throats) because we love the Packers. We’ve off to a great season, you know, 4 – 0. And that helps during this time, you know, a little bit of positive news, and sometimes you need to step out of reality, and it’s good for your mental health. We love football and we love our team.
W: We love the Packers. We love Aaron Rodgers.
T: I’m a bit older than you guys – but similar to you, I’ve spent a long time here in NYC – about 35 years. It has changed a lot since I first lived in Hell’s Kitchen back in 1984 (see the movie “Taxi Driver” for reference). The city has been through ups and downs in the past: 911, Hurricane Sandy, major electrical blackouts. Nothing as bad as COVID-19 though. What is your prediction for NYC going forward? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
H: If you remember, when 9/11 happened, people thought the city was over. They didn’t know it was going to rebound that quick, within a couple of years. I think what’s disheartening this time is, with the election so close and everybody either being too left or too right – you know the proudest thing about 9/11 everyone came together. Hurricane Sandy everybody came together. And it seems that everyone is slow to come together during the pandemic, which is – it’s the old saying – united we stand, divided we fall. As soon as we get together and start working on a plan…
W: …We can overcome anything.
W: And it’s very challenging now, like Hamza said, with the election now, people are going left or going right and we don’t need that right now.
T: I’ve never seen it this bad.
H: We see the interaction between our customers where they get in a full-blown argument and we have to turn into referees and say like “listen – hey!”
T: Really? About political stuff?
W: Of course. There’s a lot of Trump supporters. There’s a lot of non-Trump supporters. Sometimes they get together and it’s a mess.
H: It’s just a recipe for disaster.
W: We’re like in the middle of it, we’re like: “Hey guys, calm down, we’re all one.”
T: So are you optimistic or pessimistic about New York?
W: I’m always optimistic about New York. We always rebound. We’re New Yorkers.
H: And a lot of the transplants have bailed out on us and the true New Yorkers are still here, and we’re going to lace up those boots, tie ‘em tight, and we’re going to get back to work.
W: We’re going to get back to it.
T: NYC’s strength is in its diversity. It is a true, successful melting pot – there are some 640 languages spoken here. It is the living, breathing proof that The American Dream exists and is attainable. I’m a 3rd generation Wisconsinite who’s Italian grandparents and Dutch and German great grandparents all first arrived in New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, went through Ellis Island, and then on to the midwest in their case. Your family’s story is essentially the same as any American’s, past and present. Would you still encourage people in other parts of the world to come to the U.S.? And would you recommend NYC to them?
H: I think if you come to New York City – as bad as our country is right now – a lot of other countries are worse – countries where they don’t even have normal medicines to treat common colds. And I feel if you come here and you have like that fire in the belly, you can do anything – from selling socks on the corner or selling hot dogs until you can make enough to send back to your family.
T: What about to come from other countries to start a new life in other parts of the United States, outside of New York?
W: Yeah, there’s a lot of opportunities everywhere, California, Texas, there’s always opportunity.
H: But I think the difference in California or Texas is you have to know someone there. New York City though is the only place where you can come and you can set up shop on the corner or anywhere and become successful.
T: Any last words for now you’d like to share with the readers of W42ST?
W: I want them to know we all need to unite to overcome any obstacle that’s in our way, and also we want them to pay attention to our lovely Green Bay Packers this year because I think we’re going to do something special.
H: And I would like to thank the loyal customers that we have, they don’t know how much we appreciate them. Not only for us but for our employees you got to understand – you see the unemployment rate – and we’re proud to have our employees still employed.
T: How many employees do you have at each store?
H: We have twelve here.
W: You could say every store we have, we have an average of ten employees.
T: Unbelievable. Remind me how old you two guys are?
W: We’re 32 years old.
H: 1988 boys – born the same year, love the same teams!
T: I’m very proud of and for you guys, and love you very much.
W: Love you too, Tom.