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Kew Gardens deli feels impact of terrorist attack

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Customers used to come for his famous grilled chicken sandwich. Now they can’t wait to get their hands on his cardboard boxes.

In a sign of how widespread the effects of the terrorist attacks have been, business at Julio Alba’s family-owned delicatessen on Metropolitan Avenue in Kew Gardens has dropped 30 percent in the weeks since the Sept. 11 disaster.

“We rely heavily on the airline workers for business,” said Alba, who estimated about 50 percent of his sales are to pilots and flight attendants who live in Kew Gardens during their New York layovers.

The residential neighborhood of winding streets and Tudor-style homes has long been a favorite of airline workers who have taken advantage of relaxed leases and furnished apartments to create what they call a “commuter community.”

With thousands of New York area aviation workers laid off following the Sept. 11 suicide mission, Kew Gardens businesses like Alba’s are suffering.

“Most people wouldn’t think a small deli in Queens would be affected by what happened, but we have been,” said Alba. Like the health club, cleaners, Chinese restaurant and laundromat that share his block, Alba’s deli has experienced a steep drop in business because of the widespread layoffs.

“They’d come for a sandwich and a soda late at night or to buy beer,” Alba said. “Now they’re coming to me looking for boxes to pack their things.”

Local realtors say many area apartments are empty as furloughed aviation workers unable to pay their rent have been forced to move back to their homes.

“You see the people who have lost their jobs and you feel bad,” Alba said.

Having lost a large portion of his customers, Alba, whose business is about to turn 20 years old, has been reminded of the early days of the delicatessen he started with his brother Willy in 1982.

“We found this vacant store and decided to do something about it,” Alba said.

The Alba brothers, originally from the Dominican Republic, took out loans and Willy even sold his car to raise cash to get the Metropolitan Avenue business going. In what was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, Alba said he and his brother had lots of doubters when they first opened.

“Most people thought we couldn’t make it,” he said. “The neighborhood was all Jewish and people didn’t think two Dominican brothers would make it.”

But up until Sept. 11, the Alba brothers had quelled all doubts. “As the years went by, we gradually built our business,” Alba said. “The best thing is the attention we give. From New York they expect tough talk, but we treat everyone like they are family.”

The Alba brothers had planned a celebration to mark their deli’s Nov. 24 anniversary, but they decided to cancel it.

“There were going to be 300 people. Everything was going to be free,” Alba said. “But we decided to give the funds to the Red Cross instead.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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