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Whitestone shops, popular diner damaged by fire

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A fast−moving fire roared through the Whitestone Shopping Center early Sunday morning, damaging several businesses and gutting a neighborhood institution: the Lollipops Diner.

Seven businesses and two vacant stores sustained damage in the blaze, which fire officials said started at around 1 a.m. Sunday morning at the shopping center on the Cross Island Parkway service road and quickly spread across a large awning that spans each of the storefronts.

While many store owners were optimistic Monday that they would reopen quickly following the fire, the 30−year−old Lollipops Diner was severely damaged in the blaze.

“I’m shocked,” said Marty Cholewa, a regular customer for decades who went to the diner to get lunch Monday. “It’s so sad. It’s a great diner. The irony of it all is the only one that’s totally knocked out is [Lollipops]. Such a shame. The owner’s such a nice guy.”

A liquor store, a General Nutrition Center, NY Print Center, an Astoria Federal Savings bank, a Chase bank and a Chinese restaurant called King’s Chef also sustained damage in the blaze.

Workers at NY Print Center and King’s Chef said they were fortunate to have suffered only smoke and water damage in the fire and believed thick walls dividing each of the stores may have spared them more devastating damage.

Fire officials said the cause of the fire was still under investigation Tuesday, but it appeared to have started either in the diner or the liquor store next door.

The owners of the Lollipops Diner could not be reached for comment. Several workers cleaning up storefronts Monday afternoon said the owners of the Whitestone eatery were extremely distraught over the loss of the business.

Dozens of shoppers at the busy strip mall strode past the charred storefronts Monday, holding their hands to their mouths as some traded fire stories and others said simply, “I can’t believe it.”

Though each of the stores affected by the fire was a popular location for shoppers in the area, many who surveyed the damage were taken aback by the loss of the Lollipops Diner.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard,” said Whitestone resident Bob Barrett. “My wife and I just ate here a few days ago. I come here two or three times a week.”

He added: “I only hope that they get the place opened again. Their clientele will definitely come right back. Their business was so good. You saw the same people here all the time. You walked in and it was like being with friends.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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