Places that Matter
B&H Dairy Kosher Restaurant
Place Matters Profile
Fawzy Abdelwahed became a B&H devotee with his first sip of soup. “I eventually discovered the omelets and bialys,” he says with a blush, “but the first menu item I fell in love with was the vegetarian matzo ball.” Fawzy, who arrived from Port Said, Egypt in 1996, also became a New Yorker upon contact. “The day I got here, I decided to stay. I came for a better future, to start a new life,” he says. “For the American Dream. This is everybody’s dream—to be here.” Not only has Fawzy remained in the city for nearly 20 years, but his entire local professional life has been centered on the west side of Second Avenue, between East 7th Street and St. Marks Place.
With extensive experience in restaurant and cruise ship hospitality, Fawzy set roots in the block by first staffing, then owning, Cinderella Falafel at 129 Second Avenue, directly next door to B&H Dairy. He soon became a B&H regular, drawn to the lunch counter not merely by its proximity, but by its old world charm, its people, and its all-vegetarian comfort food bill of fare. “It was the only dairy-vegetarian restaurant in the neighborhood. This was the thing that got my first attention. And the second attention was that it’s a very unique place. The food, the service, the employees, the customers—everything. This place you cannot find no where else.”
When B&H owners Ziggy and Kay asked him to take over their business in 2003, Fawzy never considered altering the elements that first made him a fan. “The menu, the décor, the counter, this is all original,” he claims with pride. Fawzy has also happily maintained B&H’s employee roster, which includes Leonardo, who has logged 26 years behind the counter; Rafaelo who claims 19; Bernardo, 18 (who prepares salads, and orange juice for breakfast); Ola (Fawzy’s life and business partner) and Hugo, who each claim 10; Mike (on the grill) and Bogusia (who daily makes the fluffy, buttery challah from scratch using the original B&H recipe), with 9 and 8 respectively, and Abdelwahed himself, who has been on board since he took the restaurant’s reins.
According to B&H customer and advocate Andy Reynolds, “you’ll be in here and you’ll hear English, Egyptian, Polish, and Spanish, all at the same time, in the same sentence.” It’s a classic New York melting pot, set against a backdrop of pots, pans, and pierogies. Indeed, B&H’s T-shirts read, “Challah, por favor!”
Such staff loyalty and camaraderie are not new for the 77-year-old eatery. The annals will show that B&H family members usually retire late, having duly earned their “long-standing” epithets, and not just because they serve seventeen hours a day, seven days a week. But as of March 26, 2015, B&H employees have not been able to work a single day, and the restaurant has not been able to sell as much as a cup of coffee to anyone at any hour.
On the afternoon of March 26th, a gas explosion on the southwest side of the block toppled three buildings, destroyed four eateries, and claimed two lives. Numerous neighborhood businesses are still recovering economically from the tragedy, but B&H is not one of them. The beloved lunch counter has been shuttered for over 100 consecutive days, with its gas turned off, its counter empty, and its extended family of staff and clientele struggling to understand why B&H is the exception.
As of July 2015, B&H is the only surviving restaurant affected by the explosion to remain closed. Initially Fawzy and Ola believed that they would be back up and running within a matter of weeks. The fire department inspected the eatery shortly after the incident, but Con Edison has not restored B&H’s gas supply. “The place has been here since 1939, and nothing ever happened here,” Fawzy laments. “I don’t even have that much cooking equipment. I have just the stove and the grill. There should not be any problem. I don’t know why they give us a hard time, and they give the building a hard time. I don’t understand why it’s only us. Still today I’m closed.”
With no income, Fawzy, Ola, and B&H supporters have been scrambling to find approximately $25,000 each month just to keep the business in place. In April, the East Village Community Coalition, Fourth Arts Block, and miLES created a SmallKnot crowd-funding campaign that raised $26,500 in a matter of days. Unfortunately, B&H has been closed for months since then, and Fawzy is now facing a $28,000 update for the restaurant’s exhaust and fire suppression systems, on top of his regular bills. Just as of early July, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the installation of the new system (the building is located in the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, and thus subject to the agency’s review), and the Department of Buildings issued a permit for the work. However, time and money are running short.
Persistent advocacy campaigns from the neighbor Andy Reynolds, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, Save NYC, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, EV Grieve, and NY1 have helped to focus attention on B&H’s plight, but the restaurant is locked in a financial pressure cooker. The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City pledged fiscal support to victims of the explosion, and Fawzy submitted his application this week. Bernadette Nation of the city’s Small Business Services agency is helping Fawzy to navigate the municipal red tape, and Manhattan’s Community Board 3 is also working through the system on the restaurant’s behalf. But if bread and butter are B&H’s only bread and butter, it must reopen within the next several weeks or risk closing for good after 77 years of service to the city.
As Andy Reynolds explains, “The thing is that it’s just taken so long for some of these permits. You have to apply, and then you have to wait, and then you have to get it, and then you have to do the upgrades. And then those upgrades have to be inspected, and then you have to get approved. And there’s weeks between each step. So what seemed like it was going to be a month has turned into four, and that’s where the pain is.” Before Fawzy can reopen, he must also be reapproved by the Department of Health. Prior to the explosion, B&H had an A rating.
One of the last of its kind, B&H Dairy was founded in 1938 by Mr. Bergson and Mr. Heller. 77 years later, the eatery serves the same kosher soul food with the same soulful spirit, and a generous side of butter. Psychologically if not physically, this combination undoubtedly leads to “Better Health,” as the sign over the door suggests. Decades ago, the “B” and the “H” stood for family names. Today, “B&H” is synonymous with family.
As Andy Reynolds puts it, “I love the food, but I come several times a week because I love the people. They always recognize you, and they know you by name. And it’s just like home cooking, you know? So many people can’t go home to their parents, so they come here. It’ a comfortable, familiar, nurturing place. Maybe even a little too nurturing! A few years ago, I had a little problem, because I would come in when Raoul was behind the counter, and we wouldn’t say a word. I’d just smile and sit, and he would put down coffee and challah. Then he would put down a cheddar cheese omelet with home fries. That was happening on a daily basis, and I gained a bit of weight. It got to the point where my doctor said, ‘you gotta cut that out.’ Now I’ve cut back to the one egg, the cheese the bialy, so you’ve got all those flavors. Kind of a small version that’s manageable! Raoul was with B&H for 42 years, so I figured I’d better change habits ways so I can be, too!”
Given that the limbo has lingered so long, B&H current staff members have been forced to take temporary jobs elsewhere. But all are committed to returning. “It’s a family, this is our family,” Fawzy says definitively. Upstairs neighbors and those from across the city—even the building’s landlord—have lent support through letters, cards, and social media, as well as a few scattered donations. With a sigh, Fawzy states plainly, ”at this point I’m accepting everything. I want to open B&H. One thing I want to say. Forget about me. I’m here or I’m not here. I want this place to be open because it’s New York history. We’re the only dairy left in the city. We have had patience, but please, we need to open.”
Because so many have written B&H asking how they can donate money, B&H just launched a second crowd-funding campaign, which pulled in $2000 in its first day. Please consider donating at www.youcaring.com/SaveBandH
UPDATE: After nearly five months out of business, B&H reopened on August 14, 2015, and was welcomed back by hundreds of loyal patrons who helped to pick the eatery up right where they left off.