SUNNYSIDE — Dozens of Sunnyside residents packed the sidewalks of Greenpoint Avenue Thursday night to protest the closing of the neighborhood's Foodtown Supermarket, which has been a fixture in the community for nearly 40 years.
Foodtown staff and City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer say the building's landlord refuses to renew the lease for the market, which residents describe as a local institution where many of the neighborhood kids got their first jobs there and employees know customers by name.
"We want our supermarket. We need it," said lifelong Sunnyside resident Cathy Clifford, 59, who says the area's next closest food store, an Associated two blocks away, charges more for products and is a burdensome walk for the neighborhood's many seniors.
Foodtown owners Dan and Noah Katz have been trying to re-negotiate a lease with the landlord for months, Van Bramer said, offering to pay more for the space and to even buy the property, but were refused.
"The landlord simply doesn't want to give us a lease," said Foodtown manager Allen Hyusyan, 26, who started working at Sunnyside market as a cashier he was 16. If the store does close, staff — about 20 employees — have been assured they'll get jobs at other Foodtown locations, but Hyusyan says it wouldn't be the same.
"I started [here] as a kid," he said. "I know everybody. Every single face that passes by."
City property records show the building at 41-25 Greenpoint Ave. belongs to Maysa Realty Corporation, an entity owned by Nedal Hammad of Queens. Attempts to reach Hammad for comment Friday were unsuccessful, and a worker who answered the phone at one of his businesses said Hammad is currently out of the country.
Joe Conley, chairman of Community Board 2, said the board worries the landlord might have plans to build something else on the site.
Van Bramer said his office has called and sent a letter to Hammad to try and help negotiate a lease on behalf of the Katzes, but never heard back.
"A landlord has an obligation to the people and the neighborhood that they operate in," the councilman said Thursday. "The landlord is doing a disservice to Sunnyside."
Van Bramer said the market's closure has broader implications for the neighborhood's local economy.
"It is an anchor for all the other stores on Greenpoint Avenue," Van Bramer said. "When people come to the supermarket, they're much more likely to stop at the café across the street, or to get an empanada across the street."
Neighbors fear the building could sit vacant once Foodtown is out. In the commercial strip just across the street, four different stores have "For Rent" signs in their windows.
Inside Foodtown, many shelves are already empty and "final sales" signs adorn the aisles.
Nancy Pease, 51, lives a few blocks from the market and said it's always been a landmark for the neighborhood. She remembers how proud her two now-grown children were when they were finally old enough to walk to Foodtown by themselves on an errand.
"It was like a rite of passage for them, to come here and get mommy some milk," she said.
Suzy Szabo, 63, the store's deli manager, has been working at Foodtown for 28 years.
"I love Foodtown. I love my bosses," she said. "This is like my second home, and my customers are my family."