Business of the Month: B&H Dairy

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Fawzy and Ola Abdelwahed, pictured today in their restaurant, which is usually full at noontime.

Call it a Second Avenue love story.

A decade ago, when Fawzy Abdelwahed, the owner of B&H Dairy, wanted a break from work at his crowded lunch counter, he would cross the avenue for a breather at the Stage Restaurant, an establishment with a similar cozy vintage atmosphere. A new waitress – and new immigrant from Poland – named Aleksandra “Ola” Smigielska not only took his order, but wiped his smudged eyeglasses clean.

B&H Kiss new

A shot from the couple’s wedding album.

That was it: Fawzy pursued Ola, a friendship was born, and the couple was married at Brooklyn Borough Hall in 2007. Ola became co-owner of B&H, and thus a Catholic from Poland and a Muslim from Egypt became the proud standard-bearers of a kosher restaurant founded by Jews in the late 1930s. (Inspired by her husband’s positive approach to life, Ola has since converted to Islam.) Indeed, B&H’s hechsher, or kosher certification, is up to date and posted prominently; Ola says the rabbi who administers it often enjoys a meal at B&H as well.

Whether or not they come for the kashrut, customers are mad for B&H. The vegetarian menu includes Jewish-Polish-Ukrainian soul food like pierogis, knishes, blintzes, borscht and lox, as well as diner essentials like omelets, pancakes, grilled cheese and tuna salad. It’s the ambience as much as the food that keeps people coming back, though.

“Everybody owns this place,” said Fawzy, 41, who has a knack for remembering customers’ names. “Sometimes you can’t work, you’re laughing so hard,” said Ola, 38. Diners get into big conversations, she said, and “they’re going to come back the next day to finish what they were talking about.”

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Mysterion the Mind Reader was one of a steady stream of regulars who stopped by to ask if B&H was open yet. He did a card trick before moving on.

The couple lives in Queens with Fawzy’s son Shreef, 12. The family is content making home in Ridgewood, but considers B&H’s neighborhood uniquely special. “You know the old movies? It’s exactly like this,” says Ola, who likes the block’s “old-fashioned” feeling. Fawzy likes that all kinds of people – poor, rich, middle-class – live and eat together. “Everybody’s friendly. Everybody knows us. It makes us happy,” he says.

B&H Dairy has been closed since Thursday, March 26, when an explosion and fire destroyed the three buildings on the southern end of its block, Nos. 119, 121 and 123. Ola was at work in the basement that afternoon when she heard the boom. Her right ear still hurts, her hearing is impaired, and she has trouble sleeping. Fawzy was driving into Manhattan at the time, and saw the plume of smoke from the Williamsburg Bridge.

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Outside the restaurant is different now. Inside is the same.

Their business was lucky: It suffered little physical damage, and the landlord is benign, feeling a personal fondness for B&H. The Abdelwaheds envision re-opening for business before the weekend. The couple is grateful for the outpouring of support from the community since the fire, especially the over $20,000 raised via crowdfunding. Ola says the money will be used to re-stock the kitchen, and give back pay to the team of five.

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The city’s Small Business Services held a Business Recovery Meeting today at Middle Collegiate Church. Fawzy is in the foreground, with Bernadette Nation of SBS on the left. Directly behind Fawzy (back to camera) is Roman Diakun, owner of the Stage Restaurant. To his left is Moishe Perl, owner of Moishe’s Bake Shop. To his right in the orange shirt is Omer Shorshi, who owned Pommes Frites, which was destroyed.  Photos by Karen Loew.

“They preserve a slice of New York that has vanished for the most part,” wrote a fan who nominated the restaurant for GVSHP’s Business of the Month.

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Fun Facts About B&H:

Fawzy Abdelwahed bought B&H from a Polish man named Ziggy in May 2003.

B&H originally stood for Bergson and Heller, the founders’ last names. The sign outside also says “better health.”

The mural painted on the wall across from the lunch counter portrays the local area 200 years ago, when it was lightly-populated farmland.

B&H is called “Dairy Lunch” because a kosher restaurant sells either milk or meat, not both.
(Eggs and fish are considered pareve, neither milk nor meat, so they are sold at B&H.)

The shop’s tee shirts read “Challah! Por favor” in a nod to the place’s diversity, with Jewish (and other) food served by Latinos, Arabs and Poles.

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Help us select the next Business of the Month — vote for your favorite small business with the quick and easy form here. It’s a great way to support independent business in the East Village, NoHo and Greenwich Village.

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Karen Loew Karen Loew is the Director of East Village and Special Projects at GVSHP.