How sweet it is!
Beloved East Village fixture Ray’s Candy Store was spared from shutting its doors after its 89-year-old owner fell behind on his bills thanks to nearly $50,000 in donations from his sweet-toothed customers, Side Dish has learned.
The store’s owner, Ray Alvarez, has been slinging egg creams and fried Oreos for 49 years to customers from Bruce Willis and Madonna to Kim Kardashian and local cops, firefighters and teenagers.
He even kept the doors open during the infamous 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots, saying the “combatants” were his customers.
But Alvarez got slammed first by the pandemic and then by inflation. The bills began piling up, including $18,000 from ConEd.
“All my costs doubled, from cooking oil and potatoes to electricity,” Alvarez told Side Dish.
The rent is also high, he tells Side Dish, although his residential rent — he lives above the store — is around $564 a month.
“Rent is a killer. When I started in 1974, I paid $125 and now I am paying $6,185 a month. After I paid my rent and the electricity, I didn’t have any money for my health,” Alvarez said.
He borrowed $10,000 from two sisters – aged 74 and 64 – who work for him. After he burned through that, Alvarez borrowed $1,000 from a friend. But when he needed more cash, the next pal Alvarez asked said he couldn’t lend him any money but could set up a GoFundMe page. The friend has requested anonymity.
The goal was to raise $19,740. Instead, it raised $48,986 – in one week, Alvarez said.
“Everyone loves Ray,” said Nicolas Heller, a 33-year-old Williamsburg resident who has been coming to the shop at 113 Avenue A by Tompkins Square Park since he was a teenager, mainly for the ice cream. “He was always a fixture. Ray has been this old man working in the wee hours of the night, keeping the lights on for his business for as long as I can remember.”
Heller posted about Alvarez’s plight and the GoFundMe drive on “New York Nico,” which chronicles the city and its characters on Instagram, and boasts one million followers.
The donations and tributes came pouring in.
One person donated $2,000. Another donated $10, writing: “Ray you are an East Village icon! Thank you so much for the decades of joy you’ve brought to thousands of people alike, and your soulful commitment to your neighbourhood. We love you!!!!!!”
Added a $15 contributor: “We love you, Ray, and we’ll always be here for you as you have always been there for us..happy early birthday!”
Alvarez, born Asghar Ghahraman, was a young Iranian navy sailor when he literally jumped ship in America in the early 1960s. The penalty for desertion was death. He lived as an illegal immigrant for close to 50 years before gaining American citizenship in 2011. His life was chronicled in a documentary by fellow Iranian-born filmmaker Arya Ghavamian, in 2018.
Thanks to the generous GoFundMe campaign, Alvarez says he plans to keep Ray’s open permanently – continuing to put in 20-hour days, seven days a week. He often works the overnight shifts and can be found sleeping in the back.
“People help me. Sometimes, they buy one egg cream, give me $100 and say, ‘Keep the change,’” he said.
Laura Stassberger, 64, has been coming to Ray’s for “the ice cream and shakes” for the past 40 years. She works as a companion and recently popped in with Orin Soloway, 81, a retired newspaper journalist.
“I have been coming here since my 20s. I love Ray. He has the best egg creams and I love when he tells me he loves me. But today he only had love for Orin and gave her free ice cream,” Strassberger said with a smile. “Ray’s has the best egg creams and it’s a neighborhood staple. I would hate to see it go.”
Alvarez said he has no desire to sell the store – even as he turns 90 in January.
“A few people want to buy it, but it’s my lifeline. I’m alive because of the candy store, and if I sell it, I will die. I don’t want to sit home and watch TV. My life is hooked up with the candy store,” he said. “If I sell my business, I will die the next day because the candy store is my life. Everyone knows me and comes by and says hello and we talk about music, and if I sell, then I will be alone, by myself.”
Swing by the store and you’ll likely see Alvarez’s signature move, smiling as he shouts out the window to passersby, “I love you!”
The feeling has been mutual for 49 years.
Citymeals pays tribute to Greene
We hear…that Citymeals on Wheels raised $3.7 million at its 35th annual power lunch at the Plaza Hotel last week — including a surprise donation of $2.5 million from the estate of a late supporter. Those in attendance, which included Citymeals volunteers Jenna Bush Hager and her twin sister Barbara Pierce Bush, were teary-eyed at multiple times during the event — the first since the passing of its legendary founder, restaurant critic Gael Greene earlier in November.
“Gael had a presence that was larger than life. She was sorely missed,” said restaurateur Penny Glazier, who has been attending the event since 1992.
Emceed by MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle, others at the event included Citymeals executive director Beth Shapiro, Daniel and Katherine Boulud, Sienna Miller, Deborah Roberts, Savannah Guthrie, and Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch.
Citymeals has delivered more than 67 million meals since its founding and has become the largest nonprofit meals on wheels program in the country. One in 10 older New Yorkers face food insecurity. Around 14% of Citymeals recipients live on just the one meal a day the group delivers.