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Milk Street Cafe May Close as Wall Street Barricades Remain, Owner Says

By Julie Shapiro | December 1, 2011 3:42pm

FINANCIAL DISTRICT — The Occupy Wall Street protesters may be gone from Zuccotti Park, but the police barricades remain — and now one business is on the verge of closing.

No store has struggled with the barricades more than the Milk Street Cafe at 40 Wall St., which laid off 21 workers at the height of the protests in late October and on its last leg.

"Unless we get a Hail Mary, it's a matter of days, maybe a week or two," Marc Epstein, the cafe's owner, said Wednesday.

While the NYPD removed some of the barricades several weeks ago, many still block off sections of Wall and Broad streets near the New York Stock Exchange, and downtown businesses are not happy.

The Milk Street Cafe, a kosher international food hall which opened in June, lost 30 percent of its sales after the anti-greed protests started in September.

The business rebounded by a few percentage points in the past few weeks, but the cafe is still losing $2,000 to $4,000 a day, largely because of reduced foot traffic due to the barricades, Epstein said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Epstein's hopes further dampened when he heard from the NYPD that the barricades would not come down for at least another two weeks. Epstein sent a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other officials earlier this week but has not received an answer.

"I'm just bewildered," said Epstein, 53, who opened the original Milk Street Cafe in Boston 30 years ago. "If I have come away with anything, it is that this is not a place that is conducive to small business."

In addition to the 21 workers Epstein laid off in October, several more have left recently because they were concerned that the restaurant won't stay open much longer, Epstein said.

Epstein added that there was no question in his mind that his drop in sales was because of the barricades. While the online reviews of Milk Street Cafe are mixed, with some customers complaining about high prices, Beth Epstein, Marc's wife, said the company has been responsive to feedback, adding cheaper breakfast options, more vegetarian dishes and some food in smaller packages. 

The NYPD and the mayor's office did not respond to requests for comment about the barricades. In October, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson said the NYPD would continually monitor the Wall Street barricades to see how many were needed.

Occupy Wall Street has not done a major march in the Financial District since Nov. 17, though some groups of protesters continue to hold regular meetings in the area, including at an indoor public space at 60 Wall St.

Around the corner from Milk Street Cafe at Bobby Van's Steakhouse, managing partner Vincent Alessi was sorry to hear about his neighbor's difficulties.

"That could've been us," Alessi said Thursday.

Bobby Van's, which opened at 25 Broad St. in 2005, lost 50 percent of its lunch business during Occupy Wall Street, Alessi said.

Over the past two weeks, the lunch crowd has climbed back up to about 95 percent of where it was before the protests, but it has not recovered entirely.

"Everyone down here wants the barricades down," Alessi said.

"They have to be removed — it's ridiculous," said Brigitte Billet, a sales associate at La Maison du Chocolat at 63 Wall St., which saw lower sales this November compared to last year.

"I'd like [the street] to go back to normal completely," Billet continued. "The [barricades] are still affecting us."

Parrish Arnaldy, a sales representative at My.Suit on Broad Street, said he has seen a small decrease in business because of the barricades, but not as much as Milk Street Cafe, because he doesn't rely as heavily on foot traffic.

Still, Arnaldy said the metal barriers make the area less inviting and pedestrian-friendly, which affects all of the area's shops and restaurants.

"It seems like it's over," Arnaldy said of Occupy Wall Street. "Why would they still need the barricades?"