Immigrant entrepreneurs

They continue to breathe life into the South Shore’s economy


Nine bakeries –– six of them Italian pastry shops –– were in business in Elmont when Paul Sapienza took over his parents’ popular Hempstead Turnpike bakery, Sapienza’s, in 1973.

“Today we’re the last one here, and we’re more of a general bakery now than we used to be,” Sapienza said of the pastry shop that his parents, both immigrants from Italy, started in 1967.

Just a few blocks from Sapienza’s, on Dutch Broadway, stands Lena’s, which serves Dominican fare that is highly popular among Elmont residents, many of whom are of Caribbean descent. At the eatery they tune to international soccer games on Telemundo while feasting on oxtail stew and green plantains.

It’s a scene that quietly plays out in many Nassau County neighborhoods: established businesses, founded by immigrants who came here generations ago, are now neighbors with new businesses started by immigrants who arrived more recently. Their presence sketches the details of immigration and business ownership: why immigrants are drawn to certain areas, how changing ethnic communities influence business ownership, and how ethnocentric businesses have endured through the generations, despite drastic changes in local demographics. According to report recently released by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, immigrants make up 18 percent of Long Island’s population, with Nassau and Suffolk combined adding 48,580 immigrants between 2010-2015.


The immigrant entrepreneur

Many immigrant entrepreneurs are attracted to the Village of Freeport because of its pro-business government, said Mayor Robert Kennedy. The village has its own power company. “We have electric that is 40 percent cheaper than other areas, and is much more secure since we have our own power plants,” Kennedy said. “Our water is approximately 30 percent cheaper, because we have our own wells and purification system and we maintain everything.”

The village wasn’t always so attractive to businesses. In the 1980s, Freeport establishments were closing, often because the owners didn’t live in town and were out of touch with the community.

Eligio Peña, a native of the Dominican Republic, saw opportunity. He had previously opened several bodegas in Brooklyn and Queens, and used his earnings from those stores to start Compare Foods on Main Street in Freeport, explained his niece Jenny Jorge, who is now the Merrick Road store’s vice president of operations. Its opening in 1989 was among the milestones in Freeport that attracted a more diverse Latino population to the village, which today is a business magnet.

When Jorge’s uncle Jose Gutierrez, Pena’s brother-in-law, bought the Main Street store from him, he slowly involved family members in its day-to-day operations, and Jorge’s father opened another Compare Foods on Merrick Road in Freeport soon afterward. Today, members of their extended family own 19 of the Compare Foods stores in the chain.

Dr. Walter Mendoza, a chiropractor, emigrated from El Salvador to Freeport in 1981, when he was 5 years old. He feels fortunate, he said, to have grown up in the village’s diverse community. “To me, people are people,” Mendoza said. “I had more experiences and more growth opportunities with different cultures that allowed me to grow as a human being.”

He contrasts the experience with that of his brother, who came to the U.S. when he was 15 and had more difficulty because of cultural differences were ingrained in him, a challenge faced by so many immigrants. “Education is the key to overcoming fears and not knowing the laws,” said Mendoza. “Knowledge lets you be more successful in life.”

Sapienza, who is also president of the Elmont Chamber of Commerce, noted the difficulties immigrant entrepreneurs have when starting businesses. “I don’t think my father would’ve have joined the chamber, because people were very aware of his accent,” Sapienza said. “In the 1930s through the ’40s, Italians were looked down upon. They weren’t really Americans. I think a lot of current immigrant store owners tend to shy away because of that — they don’t feel like they belong.”

Franklin Square, which today has a sizable Italian population, was actually founded by German immigrants in the 1800s, according to Paul Van Wei, president of the Franklin Square Historical Society. The hamlet still boasts several popular German businesses. One of them, the Plattdeutsche Park and Restaurant, was founded in 1902 by an umbrella group of two dozen German organizations called the Plattduetsche Volksfest Vereen, which still owns it today.

Schilling’s Hardware, opened by a first-generation German-American, Fred Schilling, 96 years ago, retains its name, but is now owned by Charlie Kim, who is originally from Korea. Plattdeusche remains one of the best-known German-American cultural centers in the metropolitan area, Van Wei said. Schilling also founded the Franklin Square National Bank on Hempstead Turnpike, which is now a historical landmark.

During the mid-20th century, Italians were an established ethnic group in Franklin Square, owning many still-popular businesses like the T&F Pork Store, which was founded in the early 1970s and has been selling Italian fare ever since.

Some recent immigrants start businesses with no particular ethnic identity. Olimpia Pagano, of Franklin Square, and her siblings helped their father, Domenick, 78, who came from Naples, Italy, in the early 1960s, operate the Dandy Lion Tea company, which makes herbal tea out of dandelions. Their business started when Domenick began making the tea for his wife, who was suffering from cancer.

“It’s my goal to help people and show them how to stay healthy,” said the elder Pagano. “Our research shows dandelion is the most powerful herb. It cleans your liver, it’s good for the kidneys, good for the bladder and helps you lose weight.” He added that he is currently seeking investors for his business.

In Island Park, Peter Lambrous, a native of Cyprus, Greece, and a chef, made his way to Island Park in the early 1960s and opened Lambrous, a restaurant that recently became a catering hall, in 1969. “My dad always wanted his own business,” said his son Nick.

He noted that his father was drawn to Island Park because there were other Greeks here, but that is no longer the case. “Greeks aren’t the predominant people in Island Park anymore,” Nick said, adding that there are many Latino, Italian, Jewish and Irish families in the area.

A few blocks away sits the Diva’s Nails & Waxing salon, which Maria Lhicay, who came to the U.S. from Ecuador, opened on Long Beach Road last year by. Lhicay, who lives in Corona, Queens, came to Island Park after answering a help-wanted ad for a manicurist at another Island Park salon. A few years later, when a Long Beach Road storefront became vacant, she decided to take the entrepreneurial leap. She runs the business today with help from her daughter, Miriam. Lhicay said her inspiration came from her brother, who had opened a successful restaurant in Woodside, Queens.


How new businesses can survive the times

According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, only 50 percent of businesses survive longer than five years. Experts on entrepreneurship offer strategies on combating those odds — creating a business plan, keeping expenses low and reinvesting in the business. But when owners of decades-old, ethnically flavored businesses in Nassau County were asked how they made it through generations of change in their communities, many offered anecdotes with a common theme: assimilation.

The folks at Riesterer’s Bakery, which recently celebrated its 85th anniversary, overhauled the shop to serve West Hempstead’s burgeoning Orthodox community. “West Hempstead has had a huge influx of Jewish people moving into our area,” Karl Riesterer told the Herald, “so in 2013 we decided to dedicate our entire facility to kosher.”

The T&F Pork Store also changed with the times. “The business has changed drastically, because there is no more housewife,” said owner John Carlino, adding that in so many families, both husband and wife working full time. “Now, people choose something quick on the grill or something already prepared,” added Carlino, who has a case full of freshly prepared food in his store every day. “It never used to be that way. It used to be all meats and cheeses, but that’s how the business went.”

 Nick Lambrous said his business changed from a restaurant to a catering hall to prevent food waste. “There’s a lot of waste in the restaurant business,” he said. “We design the menu for whoever is having the party. We get all kinds of ethnicities.” Ethnic specialties — including paella, tripe and souvlaki — are prepared for those who request it.

Sapienza Bakery’s offerings have also changed over the years, with fewer Italian pastries and more mainstream offerings, although cannolis are still the shop’s top seller. “As long as you make a good quality product,” Sapienza said, “it crosses the cultural lines.”