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Every Christmas, Bill Cunningham Had a Special Gift for These Deli Workers

By Kathleen Culliton | June 27, 2016 2:10pm
 Bill Cunningham and Stage Star Deli manager Andre Garcia pose for photograph in December 2015.
Bill Cunningham and Stage Star Deli manager Andre Garcia pose for photograph in December 2015.
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Courtesy of Andre Garcia

MIDTOWN — The staff at Stage Star Deli won’t make breakfast for their favorite customer ever again.

When New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham died on Saturday, he left behind an enormous portfolio of work and a mourning staff at Stage Star Deli who thought of him as family.

“He was like a grandpa to us,” said Alberto Lopez, 39, a cook at the West 55th Street restaurant who made Cunningham’s breakfast for the past 10 years. “He was the loveliest man you can find.”

Cunningham was a staple of the New York Times “Sunday Style” section with a quick eye for spotting trends and a real admiration for beauty.

“I just loved to see wonderfully dressed women,” Cunningham wrote in “Bill on Bill,” a New York Times autobiographical essay published in 2002. “That's all there is to it.”

He also loved eggs.

For more than a decade, the staff at Stage Star Deli would watch for Cunningham to bike down West 55th Street off Avenue of the Americas in order to get an early start on his breakfast: a small oatmeal with fruit, scrambled eggs, toast and a cup of coffee.

Memorial TableCunningham's usual seat at the Stage Star Deli. (DNAinfo/Kathleen Culliton)

Until he died June 25 after a stroke, Cunningham seldom missed a day.

“It was raining, snowing, hot, he always came,” Lopez said.

Once Cunningham didn’t come in for his breakfast for two weeks during a vacation and Stage Star Deli manager Andre Garcia, 35, worried the entire time.

“The first time he left, I asked, “Why didn’t you call to tell me you’re OK? I worry.’”

Cunningham shook the manager’s hand every Monday morning, smiled and spoke to each staff member, and threw away his own garbage. Garcia admired Cunningham's consideration.

“For Christmas, he gave me candy and a tip,” said Garcia. “It’s not the amount, it’s the way he gave it to me.”

Once Garcia asked why Cunningham always returned to Stage Star Deli.

“He said right here was like family, ‘That’s why I come in here every day.’”

Stage Star Deli

Yolanda Valerio, 32, an employee for the past six years, said she loved Cunningham’s cheerfulness.

“He was a really happy person with a big smile,” said Valerio. “Everybody loved him.”

Every Christmas Cunningham gathered the staff for a group photograph, which he would later present to them as a gift.

“That’s how he was, pulling everybody together,” said Valerio, who acknowledged the 2015 photograph she held in her hand was probably the last.

“The tradition is over,” she said. “It was from his heart to do it.”

Memorial Table