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Egyptian owner saves landmark NY diner

B&H Dairy soon to reopen after LES explosion thanks to local crowdfunding support

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

B&H Dairy restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side has been closed since a major explosion on its block of Second Avenue on March 26, 2015. (Courtesy)
B&H Dairy restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side has been closed since a major explosion on its block of Second Avenue on March 26, 2015. (Courtesy)

The Egyptian-born owner of B&H Dairy, a 73-year-old kosher restaurant on a block of New York’s Lower East Side that suffered a deadly explosion last month, has taken to the Internet to raise funds to keep the Jewish landmark afloat until it can safely reopen.

So far, supporters have donated $16,050 toward the $20,000 goal of a crowdfunding campaign posted on Smallknot, a site that allows people to invest in small businesses in their neighborhood.

According to B&H Dairy owner Fawzy Abelwahed, the funds were needed because, although the restaurant at 127 Second Ave. was not significantly damaged in the explosion, it had to remain closed until new gas pipes were installed. The restaurant’s doors may have been locked, but there were still expenses, like rent, utilities and staff salaries, to pay in the meantime.

The March 26 explosion at 121 Second Avenue caused a major fire that ripped through four neighboring buildings. It left two dead, dozens of people homeless and local mom-and-pop businesses in dire straits. According to B&H’s owner, the restaurant was packed with lunchtime diners at the time of the explosion.

B&H Dairy restaurant owner Fawzy Abdelwahed. (Courtesy)
B&H Dairy restaurant owner Fawzy Abdelwahed. (Courtesy)

“The gas has been turned off since the explosion, and we are the last ones to get our gas turned back on. We are waiting for a final inspection of the new gas pipes scheduled for tomorrow. Hopefully we can reopen after that,” Abedelwahed told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

Abdelwahed, 41, has owned B&H Dairy since 2003, when he bought the establishment from the former owner, a non-Jewish Polish individual. The restaurant was originally opened in either the late 1930s or early ’40s by a Jewish man named Abie Bergson and his partner, one Mr. Heller (thus B&H). When Heller left the business, Bergson took on his friend Sol Hausman as a partner. Fortuitiously, Heller and Hausman shared the same initial.

The restaurant’s menu remained the same over the years. Despite the fact that the current owner is Egyptian (and used to run the falafel and shawarma joint next door) and the staff are all Latino, customers know they can still get their usual latkes, knishes, blintzes and challah at B&H.

“I hired a guy to cook kosher food. Everything has always been vegetarian. We have no meat in the restaurant,” said Abdelwahed.

“It was a well-known place, and I wanted to keep it as it was out of respect for the Jewish heritage and the Jewish community. I am so proud to have this place,” he said.

An archival photo of diners at B&H Dairy restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side. (Courtesy)
An archival photo of diners at B&H Dairy restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (Courtesy)

There was a time when there were many establishments like B&H all over the Lower East Side. B&H has outlasted almost all of them. The narrow diner with its formica counter hasn’t changed in appearance over the decades, and it’s always been a friendly hangout for locals, as well as for celebrities appreciative of the food and heimisch atmosphere, including actors Shelly Winters, Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason and Jack Klugman, and boxer Rocky Graziano.

Married to a Polish woman, Abdelwahed did not take over the restaurant completely unfamiliar with the Ashkenazi Jewish/Eastern European fare B&H is known for. He may not have been brought up on this cuisine, but he has developed a genuine taste for it.

“I like our whitefish salad best, and also our sweet potato knishes. And I probably like our matzo brie a little too much,” he said.

Abdelwahed has been touched by the outpouring of support for his restaurant in recent days.

“It makes me feel as though this place belongs to everyone. We are one family — us, the customers, and the staff,” he said.

“I am glad so many people care about us. It’s clear to me it’s not only about the money.”

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