LI’s Iavarone Bros. Faces Coronavirus Century After Spanish Flu

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NEW HYDE PARK, NY — It’s no secret that Iavarone Bros. has been a staple on Long Island for decades. Generations of patrons have brought home Italian sausages, ground beef, produce and fresh-baked bread from the family’s markets and cafés scattered across the island. But what most customers don’t know: This isn’t the first brush in with a pandemic.

As the family tells it, Pasquale Iavarone walked through Ellis Island in 1919, just after the Spanish Flu swept across the globe and led to the deaths of about a third of the world’s population. While the store originally opened in 1927, Iavarone was actually open for business during that outbreak more than a century ago.

“It was actually during the Spanish Flu that was the first year he was open,” Joseph Iavarone, who now owns the markets, restaurants and catering business along with his brother and three cousins, told Patch on Friday.

But there the similarities end.

Thanks to modern technology and scientific advancements, the world is better able to contain viruses and prevent them from spreading.

That’s why during the era of the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo implemented severe social distancing measures aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 disease, which has sickened over 356,000 New Yorkers and led to the deaths of over 28,000 people, many of whom are older or had weakened immune systems. New Hyde Park, where Iavarone is based, has had 278 people diagnosed with the disease.

The Iavarones operate four markets in New Hyde Park, Wantagh, Woodbury and Maspeth, as well as two restaurants in Plainview and New Hyde Park. Business took a “major hit,” Joseph Iavarone said, particularly the restaurants amid a statewide stay-at-home order for nonessential businesses.

This time of year is especially prosperous for the catering side of the business. Large events such as graduations and weddings are big business for Iavarone. Not anymore, as the state banned large gatherings.

“We’ve definitely felt that,” Joseph Iavarone said. “Big time.”

Alex Cortes hand-selects produce for a customer’s home delivery. Normally he is the lead cold caterer, but now home deliveries and pickups require most of the staff’s attention. Photo courtesy of Joseph Iavarone.

The business, which had about 500 workers before the pandemic, has reduced staff by about 5 percent to 10 percent. This includes cashiers and waiters, as well as some older workers and others who wanted to stay home out of fears of contracting the virus. Those workers will be welcomed back once it is safe to resume normal operations, he said.

Restaurants were ordered to shift to delivery and takeout only. Markets were allowed to stay open but required social distancing and masks.

As the times changed, the business has had to adapt. Quickly.

Seniors now get their own shopping hours at Iavarone markets and a store moderator helps limit the number of customers inside to just 20-30 at a time. Everyone must cover their face with a mask while inside and frequently-touched surfaces are routinely disinfected throughout the day. Food samples, once a salivating and popular feature at the markets, are no longer available. Daily essentials such as paper towels and, now, masks, are now available for purchase. Hours were shortened. Curbside pickup and delivery are both offered and conducted in-house.

“It’s been a bit of a struggle, but we’re doing what we can to accommodate everybody,” he said. “We’re a very interactive store, so going to glass shields at the registers … kind of draws away from who we are.”

Sanitizing & cleaning is now a full time job for some of our staff. Photo courtesy of Joseph Iavarone.

Among the biggest challenges facing the business now: shifting to new technologies, distribution and even planning for Thanksgiving.

At one point, 30 people would try to call and place food orders at a time. The flood of calls led the Iavarones to turn to an online shopping platform to make it easier to access their products.

As much of a headache as that switch was, the “major, major issue,” facing the company right now is distribution and the volatile meat market. Items that once cost $ 2.50 to buy now cost $ 7.50.

“We’re eating a lot of cost on menu items, Joseph Iavarone said. “The meat market has skyrocketed.”

Certain types of chopped meat — a popular seller — have tripled in price, he said. And sometimes distributors can only deliver a fraction of an order, leading to sparse and quickly emptied shelves.

Additionally, the Iavarones have to project months in advance how many turkeys they’ll sell during the Thanksgiving holiday. That’s a tall order even without an ongoing pandemic. Business could be bigger because people won’t be traveling as far, Joseph Iavarone said. It could also be smaller because they’re cutting back spending.

“It’s so far out, who knows what the future holds,” he said.

Even with the added challenges, the Iavarones turned down a small business loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, believing that other companies needed it more. Joseph Iavarone said he knows other businesses that have had to completely close their doors. He counts himself lucky that he’s in the food service industry.

“People are always going to have to eat, no matter what,” he said.

Meat Dept. Manager Peter Esposito, Assistant Manager Bill Meyer get ready for a busy day with catering managers turned home shoppers Victoria Gaspe & Katie O’Donnell. Photo courtesy of Joseph Iavarone.

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