Ward’s Delicatessen may not have been Merrick’s most attractive eatery — tiles laid cracked and loose on the floor, wires dangled precariously behind the TV, and dated wood paneling lined several walls — but many customers considered the place a spiritual heart of the community. Merokeans have bought sandwiches there for more than 30 years.
The mood in Ward’s was somber on Feb. 23. Despite efforts to overcome financial troubles, owner Craig Jeffrey — with a team he describes as family — had to close the doors on the Merrick staple.
“It feels like a funeral,” manager David Brown said, fighting back tears. When he was 14, Brown would ride his bike to help out at the deli, he recalled. At first he just organized the newspaper stand and swept the sidewalk. By age 28, he was overseeing employees.
Jeffrey had also been a customer since childhood. With his sister, Tara Polley, Jeffrey, now 50, would walk down the block to Ward’s every day, starting when he was 5 or so. It was like a second home to both of them, they said.
Jeffrey and Polley were co-owners from 1998 to 2015 with another partner, whom they declined to name. She handled the books, including payroll taxes.
In 2015, Jeffrey and Polley learned that their partner had neglected to pay taxes for two years, putting Ward’s in debt to the Internal Revenue Service. Attempts to pay the bill left them behind in payments to vendors and their landlord, Jeffrey said. Since their co-owner changed the mailing address to her own home, they didn’t know about the situation until it was too late.
The third owner was pushed out of the business after the incident, and Polley bowed out later that year, leaving Jeffrey as the sole owner.
Gerry Parker, a frequent customer, tried to rally residents to help. In late January, he organized a Facebook fundraiser that neared $7,000 by press time. Money was also collected in donation bins inside Ward’s. The goal was $150,000 — their estimate of the money needed.
Jeffrey’s “product is a blend of charm and wit and that smile that keeps you coming back,” Parker wrote. He had hoped to use the funds to help the owners pay back their debts to the IRS. Additional funds would go toward a renovation.
Although Jeffrey and the staff were hopeful about continuing the business, on Feb. 13, the deli’s landlord issued an eviction notice — they had to be out within two weeks.
Merrick residents swarmed Ward’s on its final day. Almost every visitor was greeted by first name, as if they’d been friends for years. Nearly everyone offered their condolences and seemed sad to see the lunch spot close.
“It really is a shame,” said longtime customer Mark Valencia. He added that he often traveled, and ordered from dozens of delis around New York. Ward’s, he said, was the one that kept him coming back.
“It’s never gonna be out of my blood,” said Polley. “Everyone here is more like family than anything else.”
“The community has been tremendous,” Jeffrey said. “A lot of red-eyed people have come in with offers of support. It’s flattering, and it’s been an honor to serve them.”
Brown said that he knew little more than Ward’s. It was his first job and, aside from a cleaning business on the side, his main job for 15 years. In that time, he called in sick only twice and once worked with a broken elbow, he said.
“It’s like I never worked a job,” said Brown, who travels only a few blocks to get to Ward’s. “You don’t realize how many good friends you’ve made until it’s all gone.”
Jeffrey gave back to the community as well. Food was delivered to struggling residents, such as the elderly or those dealing with a death in the family. Jeffrey also cooked for the Fall Fest at Birch School, which his daughter attends. In response, the school issued him a Founder’s Day Award that honors local “heroes” around town. He also hosted a barbecue for Calhoun’s Spring Fest.
“I only do it for the kids,” Jeffrey said.
All hope is not lost for Ward’s. Using the funds raised, some staff and friends, including Jeffrey, Brown and Parker, plan to open at a new location in Merrick, which they declined to specify. On Saturday, Parker said they were aiming for a May opening.
“With our will,” Jeffrey said, “we don’t need to dream.”