MIDTOWN — At every opportunity, Tarek Shbaan found a lesson to teach his daughters to be independent.
Barely teenagers, he made them fix the family computer on their own, look over his shoulder at the family's bills, and even travel to his native Egypt to visit relatives without him or his wife on the flight.
This was, in part, because he was often away, working long shifts as a manager at Ben's Deli in Midtown, even as his wife attended medical school. But also because, "someday, he wouldn't be there for us," his daughter, Heba, said.
"I didn't understand this when we were young — I'm only in seventh grade, why am I fixing the computer? Now I thank God I was put in that position."
The day Shbaan warned of ended up coming sooner than expected, as he lost his fight with pancreatic cancer Nov. 30, 2010, at the age of 51.
Three years later, on what would have been Shbaan's birthday, Oct. 14, Ben's Deli will host its third annual fundraiser for his family, donating 10 percent of all its sales to a college fund for Heba, 16, and her sister, Aya, 14, who are now a senior and a freshman, respectively, in high school.
“He was the sweetest person,” Ben’s general manager, Hal Simon, 49, said. “Very devout family man, real dedicated to his wife and his two daughters. Tremendous worker.”
Shbaan, who was born in Egypt, spent a few years in New York in his 20s, but returned to his hometown of Alexandria, married and had a daughter, and then moved back to the city permanently in the late 1980s, his family said. They lived in Bay Ridge, with Shbaan commuting to Ben’s for 14 straight years to serve the deli’s famed sandwiches and soups.
For a time, he worked seven days a week, supporting his family as his wife, Wegdan, who had been a nurse in Egypt, went through school again to work in the U.S. On many afternoons, when Wegdan was in classes or at work, the couple's daughters would meet Shbaan at the restaurant instead of heading home.
“I would go after school and he would make us sandwiches, and they would taste so good,” said Heba, who has only ever gotten a pastrami sandwich from Ben’s.
“He formed this bond with each customer individually. I'm telling you, he used to take every order as if it was a matter of life and death. Just because he loves feeding his customers and seeing a smile on their face."
She added, with a laugh: “He used to take pictures with his customers. I would find it so aggravating. But I realized the customers really loved my dad.”
Diners visiting from just around the corner or even upstate would ask for Shbaan by name. And even if they visited just a couple times a year, Shbaan often already knew their orders, volunteering to make the sandwiches himself.
The affection was mutual. Customers, learning Shbaan had died, sent his family letters of sympathy and condolences.
“Really how sorry they were and how much they loved our dad, and how much it really affected them that he left,” Heba said of the notes.
That Shbaan’s former customers, coworkers and supervisors are now paying it forward by supporting his daughters' college fund has proven especially meaningful for the girls.
“It makes me feel so happy,” Heba’s sister, Aya said.
“There’s so much love,” Heba added. “When I visit, I’m so welcomed. They tell me how much I remind them of my dad.”
Aya hopes to study education and become a teacher. Her favorite subject, she said, is history. Heba plans to pursue pre-med, aiming for a career in medical teaching or administration.
"I saw my dad going through the stages of cancer, and where I am not so emotionally strong is to actually work with the patients," Heba explained. "I want to help, but I want to help in my own way. Eight years of studying will cost a lot of money, so this fundraiser means a lot to me."
Heba said she's visited Ben's two or three times since her father's death. On her first day back, they brought over her favorite — pastrami-on-rye, with cole slaw and a pickle. Just like old times.
But while the flavors were there, the pastrami as juicy as ever, something felt off.
“They tasted different,” Heba said. “Not on a literal level. But the feeling. It was like they were incomplete.”
Ben's Deli is located at 209 W. 38th St. at Seventh Avenue. Contact the restaurant for more information on how to donate.