This article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Washington DC area during a pandemic
Since he first opened the New Yorker Deli here in Crystal City in 1979, Khalil Abdel Hay, or “Charlie” as everyone who knows him calls him, has experienced both hard-won upturns and abrupt downturns in his business.
Today, as I write this, the deli is still open, offering breakfast, lunch, and the most tasty chicken shawarma sandwiches in the area. But the question of how much longer the New Yorker Deli, like many small businesses here and across the country, can remain open is very much in doubt.
The popular deli was designed to attract its customers from the thousands of workers who have been commuting here Monday through Friday for work since the late ‘70s. Like all businessmen, Khalil and his brother, who both arrived in the United States from Palestine and jointly opened the eatery, struggled to build their small business. However, in less than 2 years, Khalil says they were serving about 300 customers daily, most of whom were regulars.
“Back then, there wasn’t a lot of competition. And we always treated our customers like family. I knew their favorites and could sometimes start their orders when I saw them walk through the door. I knew just how they wanted their coffee and would have it ready for them,” Khalil noted.
Eventually, his brother moved on. Khalil opened two other stores in Crystal City which he eventually abandoned. At the time, government was the main employer here. In the ‘90s, however, federal reductions and relocations prompted many of the offices to close.
It was again time to build a new dining base. The effort was successful. But then in 2001, terrorists who had commandeered 4 passenger jet planes as part of their 9/11 attack, flew one of them into the Pentagon, located less than 2 miles away. The deadly attack forced the closing of several Crystal City firms and the temporary halt of all operations at Reagan National Airport, whose frequent flyers, traveling business men and women, and pilots and airline attendants based in Crystal City also frequented the deli.
Khalil and his family once again struggled to regain customers. However, by 2019, the deli was back serving about 200 people during its 6 hours of operation.
But in March of 2020, the most far-reaching disaster yet struck. Like communities over much of America, Crystal City underwent a virtual lockdown to try to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.
The Virginia government decided that the New York Deli, like all other restaurants in the state, could remain open if it chose to do so, but could only serve take-out orders.
Of course, the majority of the customers here had enjoyed takeout prior to the pandemic. But because of a state mandate to have workers work from home, the commuting workforce in Crystal City immediately plunged from 60,000 to fewer than 1,000, most of whom were employed in pharmacies, grocery stores, and local eateries which were deemed essential services.
“It was very bad,” Kahlil says. “We went from 200 customers a day to fewer than 10. We aren’t even making enough to pay the rent. I never thought business could be this bad”.
However, even though he realizes the “scary time” is far from over, Kahlil maintains he isn’t ready yet to close the store and retire. But he also knows decisions like those will be dictated by conditions outside his control.
“We have to wait and see,” Kahlil says. “We again have to be patient. We have to see what happens next. At some point, however, we have to start making money again”.
Currently, Virginia is in Phase 3 of its long range plan to slowly reopen, which means restaurants can finally serve patrons on-site outside and inside with guidelines specifying maintaining social distancing, having at least 6 feet between tables, drastically reducing counter service, and instituting new sanitizing and cleaning rules.
The loosening of restrictions has benefitted many of the area’s eateries, as local residents tentatively leave their apartments and homes to dine out again. But the New York Deli isn’t designed for such benefits. Most residents are dining out for dinner, which isn’t offered at the New Yorker Deli. And, since it is located inside the Shops at the Century Building, Khalil and his 32-year-old son Ahmad, who assists his father daily, can’t offer any outside dining options. And, even if they could, the biggest problem remains a lack of customers.
There is a strong possibility that customer shortage may become permanent here, experts contend. Or at least permanent until Amazon phases in the majority of its expected 35,000 high-end office workers here to staff its new east coast headquarters. During the ongoing pandemic, many firms have learned much business can be conducted without having large groups of workers in one place. Several major American firms have already announced that the bulk of their workers can continue working from home. Plus, Zoom and other such websites may have made the business trip obsolete, meaning there may never again be as many opportunities to attract customers to the deli. And there is no telling when regular flights to and from National Regan Airport will again become the reality.
“Again, we just don’t know,” Kahlil says, repeating the only answer that appears to be available right now for all the questions about Covid-19 and its long-term effects. “We would like to keep open, but we will just have to wait and see”.