The oily scent of potato and onion samosas fills the air as soon as a customer pushes through the glass doors to the Jackson Heights Food Court. “Apake dina kaise ho raha hai (How is your day going)?” a customer asks, as an Indian man in a dark blue apron and baseball cap carefully spoons orange-tinted potato and cauliflower curry into a styrofoam cup. Throughout the restaurant, people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian descent chatter loudly in Hindi as they eat at tables sticky with the remains of others’ meals.
Back at the entrance a sign announces “Under new management,” the only hint at the weeks of turmoil that left this popular food court closed for weeks this fall.
The food court reopened Nov. 10 after it was shut down by the New York City Health Department in October for operating without a permit and for the presence of pests. The state’s Agricultural and Markets department first visited the food court on Sept. 15 for an inspection but passed it on to the health department’s jurisdiction after finding the majority of the food court’s revenue came from prepared food sales in its grocery store.
The health department allowed the food court – which first opened in July 2012 – to reopen after inspecting it on Nov. 5 and ensuring it was operating with a permit.
“Jackson Heights Food Court was closed because they were operating without a permit and because they had infestations of mice, roaches and fruit flies,” a statement from the health department said. “They corrected these violations and then applied for a permit.”
The business, which included both the grocery store and food court at the time, lost more than $100,000 in the last month while it was closed, according to Seragul Khan, one of the food court owners.
“Before, we had about 200 customers coming in each day,” Khan said. “It was incredibly tough for us to be closed for a month but we’ve tried to clean up and keep the business going.”
Teenager Shafura Alam and her mother catch the R train from their Astoria home to get to the food court. It takes them 15 minutes. They said they visited the food court in October, when it was closed temporarily, so they went to shop at another Indian grocery store in the area. There are ten major grocery stores with south Asian foods in a six-block radius and many more South Asian restaurants.
However, the Alams missed the food court because it has the grocery store in the back and a community feel right next to the subway.
“We do our shopping and we eat here. Our favorite food is the sheesh kebabs and the chai tea,” Alam said. “It’s convenient because it’s a grocery store and restaurant in one.”
Before it reopened, the food court made a few changes.
It has separated itself from the grocery store in the back of the building so that it can be better organized, Khan said. It has also hired new employees to focus on cleaning up the restaurant and greeting customers.
Another sign in the restaurant advertises new American dishes, including shrimp fries, onion rings and chicken wings. The new menu items are aimed at drawing customers from beyond the South Asian community, according to Khan.
Despite the separation from the grocery store, the court still has the same look and feel, from its vegetable samosas to the prepared food section with kheer mix, an Indian dessert. The shop even has the same telephone number displayed on its entrance, but the line disconnects when dialed.
Yet, the shop still has large crowds that gather throughout the day. Though there are a number of other South Asian restaurants nearby, including Dosa Delight and Tawa Tandoor, customers constantly mill in and out of the food court.
Saba Ali does her grocery shopping in Jackson Heights and said it is important to have South Asian establishments like the food court to foster a welcoming atmosphere.
“As someone who has gone to Pakistan multiple times and traveled in Asia, there’s something so inviting about the way things are done (in Jackson Heights) that isn’t done here in the states,” she said. “These stores highlight a really interesting part of our culture: we’re so informal, trusting and friendly.”
But Javed Chawdhry, the owner of GRB Distributors Inc., an electronic shop next door to the food court, said the lack of maintenance at the restaurant reflects a pattern across the neighborhood.
“I’ve been here for 10 years and none of the restaurants around here maintain themselves,” Chawdhry said. “The restaurants close once a year and a sticker from the health department appears on the outside (of the restaurant).”
City records show that in the last year, 15 Indian restaurants in Jackson Heights have been inspected by the Department of Health. Of those, 11 now have an A grade, three have a B grade, and one, Chautari Restaurant, has been closed down, according to the department’s website.
As for the Alams, they did not know before their most recent visit why the food court had closed. When told the reason, they said they would keep shopping at the food court, because they still appreciated the convenience and tasty food, new management or not.
“We specifically like this (food court),” Alam said. “We’re glad it reopened and will keep coming here because it still has everything we want.”