“The Avenue Diner Family would like to express our appreciation and gratitude to everyone for all the years of patronage and support,” reads a sign on the Jamaica Avenue storefront. “People walked in as customers, who have become friends and are considered family. We shall miss you all.”
Testament to that statement was a farewell tribute organized one day earlier for owner Paul Vasiliadis, who has only taken 30 days off in the 11 years since he opened Avenue Diner. (They were mostly snow days, he says.)
Friends, neighbors, employees and loyal customers gathered outside the establishment Saturday afternoon to surprise Vasiliadis and express their appreciation for all he has done for the community.
One by one they stepped up to the microphone and related some way in which Vasiliadis had touched their lives: knowing their go-to order; patiently teaching them how to serve a table; and hosting numerous meetings for many neighborhood groups.
During the height of the pandemic, the Avenue Diner was one of the only businesses that remained open along a mostly abandoned corridor, consistently serving takeout and delivery.
The eatery proved an invaluable resource for seniors and other vulnerable residents who were confined to their homes due to health concerns.
As a special thank you, Neir’s Tavern owner Loycent Gordon and Woodhaven Historical & Cultural Society president Ed Wendell decided to send Vasiliadis off with a “clap-out” of sorts, similar to the ones taking place each evening to celebrate essential workers.
The gesture visibly moved Vasiliadis and his family, who were all in tears.
“This is not the way I envisioned going out,” he managed through a cracked voice. “COVID won.”
But even in saying goodbye, Vasiliadis maintained the community-oriented spirit he was known for throughout the neighborhood.
“Please keep supporting local small businesses,” he added toward the end of his remarks. “The avenue needs to stay alive and thriving, and we all need to do our part.”
On that same day, Vasiliadis’ father, who also worked in the diner and is affectionately called “Mr. Jimmy” by patrons, officially announced his retirement at the age of 81.
According to Wendell, the Avenue Diner’s closing comes as part of a years-long saga with city fines and an unfriendly business terrain.
Compounded by a global pandemic and difficulty accessing COVID-19 relief loans and grants, the result is deep financial strain on Jamaica Avenue mom-and-pop shops, which were once one of Woodhaven’s biggest strengths.
“These businesses didn't have the kind of luxury to start dealing with city bureaucracy in an emergency,” explained Wendell.
Raquel Olivares, executive director of the Woodhaven Business Improvement District (BID), shares his concern for the future of small businesses in the neighborhood.
The BID stretches 25 blocks on Jamaica Avenue and comprises nearly 320 businesses, the majority of which are family-owned brick-and-mortars like Avenue Diner.
“Closing the diner is a huge loss to Jamaica Avenue,” Olivares said. “I’m afraid that Paul is just one of the first ones leaving. The reality is, at this moment some businesses are behind in rent at least three to four months. How much can they sell to make up for that?
“But we won’t give up,” she pledged. “We will continue, because that’s all we can do.”