Pre COVID-19, was there any ritual more New York than Sunday brunch? Breaking bread (and eggs) with our fellow humans – washed down with bottomless bloody marys?

It was an essential part of Henry Johnson and Jeff Karliner’s week – though they’ve adapted like rock stars, and are getting creative at home. “I’ve been cooking for 40 years,” says Jeff, “so each night I switch cuisines. My two kitchen gods/goddesses (after my mom) are Manjula and Melissa Clark of the NYT.”

And, at the weekend he’ll mix up a Bloody Mary – his brunch tradition. “Though, after sending Mario a pic, he guilted me and said I needed to give it a garnish.”

Mario Perez was their favorite brunch server – nominated for a Hell’s Hero award for his ready smile and determined work ethic.

“We’d go out every single Sunday for brunch,” says Henry, “and we started to go to The Distillery. We asked to be seated in the front bar area, at one of the high top tables, and that’s how we met him.”

It became a regular thing … and they always asked for Mario. “He was just very friendly and polite and nice. His warm, personable nature, friendly, positive energy, and smile are contagious. And we kind of got to know him.”

“We became his favorite customers,” laughs Jeff.

They found out that the 23-year-old is a full-time student at John Jay College, while also working a full-time job at The Distillery. He’s due to graduate this spring, and has applied for law school.

“He lives in an apartment in Hamilton Heights with his fiancée and four-month-old child,” says Henry. “I am amazed at how he keeps it all together and still has a friendly comment and an infectious smile for everyone.”

“When you get customers that are very open, that want to talk to you, it makes your job a little more fun,” says Mario. “It was surprising, but also very comforting, to see two people who wanted to talk to you as much. And who kept coming back as well. You know, it’s always a good time when people come back.”

Keeping busy is his key to staying positive. “I’m enjoying the journey. I don’t see it as a burden. I like staying busy, I like doing things. And I know that it’s not just for myself – now it’s for two more individuals, right?”

“Truly,” says Henry, “Mario, a young man who can be a successful full-time student, work full time, give financial support to and nurture his new family, must be the perfect candidate for the W42ST Hell’s Hero award.”

But how does Mario feel about being called a hero?

“Very flattered,” he says. “I don’t think I’m a hero. Heroes are more out of the ordinary. But when I see other people who are doing a lot of things, I admire that, so I could see why people would look at me and think I’m doing a lot.

“But, in a weird way, I don’t think it would be possible without living in New York. In any other place, I would have to sacrifice one of the things that I’m doing. In New York, you’re able to do a lot of things at the same time.”


Since we spoke in early March, Mario has lost his two jobs, and his fiancée has lost her part-time job. “At this point, we’re both home with our four-month-old baby, spending lots of quality family time together. Classes are being held online, keeping us busy, and – most important – there is no fear of missing out on class credits or, worse, graduation.

“We are watching many movies with our son and playing many games together, trying our best to stimulate his brain at this vital time of his development. Thankfully, my partner and I are both avid savers, and therefore are not in desperate need of income, as I’m sure many New Yorkers currently are. With that said, we yearn for things to return to its normality in order to continue to build and improve our lives for ourselves and our son.”

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