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Pancho's Cantina in Island Park to close after 40-year run

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Pancho’s Cantina, which has been in business for 40 years, including 27 in Island Park, will close for good March 7.

“We know so many people by name that are coming in and saying what an important part we played in their lives and for their families, so it’s been very, very   bittersweet, but very rewarding,” owner Gary Steiner said. “And after such a long run, you just want to go out on top and on our terms, at least, and we feel that’s what we’re doing.”

Steiner broke into the restaurant business at a young age, working for his father, Al, at his steakhouse, Al Steiner’s. In 1979, Gary and his wife, Helene, partnered with his brother, Steve, and his wife, Cindy, to open Pancho’s Cantina in Cedarhurst. It then moved to Oceanside before settling in Island Park for the past 27 years, where it became a popular neighborhood eatery.

The restaurant, at 4525 Austin Blvd., is well known for its Tex-Mex offerings and varied menu, as well as its family-friendly atmosphere. Gary and Helene kept the family theme going in many ways, including having their daughters, Sara and Stacy, work there at various times. Gary said he was pleased that the community had embraced his business, and he was touched by residents’ heartfelt response to news that it was closing.

“Since the minute we made any announcement at all, the outpouring has been absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “We have customers, lots and lots of customers from the Cedarhurst days still, that have followed us and been with us all along. It’s been tremendous. We’ve been a central focal point of the community, and Island Park has always been tremendous to us.”

Wendy Skinner frequented Pancho’s in Cedarhurst when she was in high school, and continued to eat there when it moved to Oceanside and then Island Park. She said she would miss the food and rapport that she had with the Steiners and the staff there.

“When we went to Pancho’s, it was like coming into family,” Skinner said. “We were treated like family.”

She added that her father, the late Joel Gewanter, provided legal work for Al Steiner when he owned the steakhouse, and also for Gary when he launched Pancho’s. Skinner said it was bittersweet to see Pancho’s go, especially since, for the past 20 years, every Friday night was “Pancho’s night” for her, her family and her friends. She was happy, however, that the Steiners would be able to enjoy retirement.

Ken Falcon, who grew up in Hewlett but now lives in Rockville Centre, said he had come to Pancho’s since he was in nursery school more than 30 years ago, and it was difficult to see the business close.

“It feels like childhood coming to an end,” Falcon said. “The whole team over there is really just fantastic. People really got to know them well. The food is second to none in my book. We’re stocking up on chips and salsa so we have some after they close.”

Pancho’s community involvement included its membership in the Island Park Chamber of Commerce. President Barbra Rubin-Perry said that chamber members and officers were sad to hear that the restaurant had been sold, and expressed her appreciation to the Steiners for being involved in charitable activities in the community, as well as being there for friends and neighbors after Hurricane Sandy and during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Gary was there to help,” Rubin-Perry said. “He kept the doors open and the delicious meals coming during the Covid-19 pandemic. For years, the chamber called Pancho’s home, holding our monthly meetings there.”

Rubin-Perry said she grew up in Cedarhurst, and her family often ate at Al Steiner’s. Then, when Pancho’s opened there, it became one of her favorite eateries. Through the years, she added, it became a go-to place for her family, where they celebrated birthdays, baby showers and other gatherings. “On behalf of the chamber and my family and friends, I’d like to wish Gary all the best in the coming years,” she said.

Though the pandemic impacted the restaurant, as it did many local businesses, Steiner said the decision to close was years in the making, and wasn’t a result of it, though he said Covid-19 hastened the decision. The main dining room, he said, hasn’t been open since last March, and the eatery immediately switched to takeout and delivery when the pandemic peaked, causing business to drop off.

Steiner thanked his customers for staying loyal during this trying time, and noted that the summer months were busy, thanks to outdoor dining, but business tapered off in the fall and winter as restrictions tightened. He said he was grateful the government has provided grants and loans, including the Paycheck Protection Program.

Steiner said one of the most difficult parts of closing the restaurant would be saying farewell to his staff, many of whom have worked at the restaurant for more than 30 years.

“We’ve had so many employees over the years, and we’ve hired so many younger members of the community who we basically helped and saw mature so much into great, great human beings,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in how many people have come through our doors working, and most of whom, no matter if they were young, the majority of whom stayed and worked with us for a long time.”

He noted that even during the pandemic, the core employees have remained steady, and he thanked them for continuing to work hard and be reliable during difficult times.

The Steiners sold the property to a real estate investor, and Gary said he believed it would be leased to another restaurant owner in time. As for his future, Steiner said, he and his wife plan to move to Florida and relax. He added that he was grateful to Island Park and other communities that supported them for decades.

“We’re blessed to have made so many friends and acquaintances over the years, and so many of our customers that my wife and I know by name and know their family, and they know our family,” he said. “They’ve seen our kids grow up working there. It’s just been unreal.”