It’s not often that a subject of my article contacts me after publication. After all, not many of them know I exist, and even fewer of them care that I do. That is generally the territory I occupy. I tend to write pieces that yell at the clouds without having a tremendous impact. That changed last week. My piece on a long-time staple of the West Hempstead community became a talking point in that neighborhood, but it also took off in certain kosher food online groups, sparking debate about the move. It was then that I was contacted by Eric Fiedler, the owner and operator of Hunki’s. He wanted his chance to tell the community just what happened – and why. I agreed to meet him at his new shop in Woodmere, where I sat down with him and his wife Chaya to learn the story behind the exodus of Hunki’s from West Hempstead.
Taking over the Hunki’s brand in 2019, Fiedler began to remold the Hunki’s brand. A complete overhaul of the seating area as well as the counter and display cases was in store. The walls were branded with the names of many West Hempstead streets and institutions. New televisions were mounted on the walls, displaying menus, playing music, and showing a variety of sports. It was a cleaner, sleeker, more modern Hunki’s, and for a while business was good. “Not great,” Fiedler mentioned, “but definitely good.”
Fiedler pointed out a major bottom-line issue: West Hempstead is just not big enough to support two pizzerias. And that was another problem that Fiedler ran into when initially purchasing the Hunki’s franchise. It was only two months after opening that West Hempstead saw a second shop open, called Sauly’s. The impending opening was not known to Fiedler at the time he bought Hunki’s. The second shop created a surplus on the supply side, and obviously was detrimental to Hunki’s business. Yet, the store was doing enough business to be sustainable.
But then COVID hit. And as has become all too common a theme with small businesses – especially restaurants – Hunki’s business began to waiver. The prices were lowered just to get people in the door: Two pies for $26 was the low point for a pizzeria struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. It became more and more obvious each week that new revenue streams were needed. In March of 2021, Fiedler signed a lease for a location in Woodmere.
It should be noted that at this point, the goal was to renovate the new location and have both shops open, run by different crews, with Fiedler traveling between the two locations. However, another major problem to small business owners created by the pandemic was the unavailability of employees. Fiedler told me that he tried to hire employees with enough experience, but many whom he spoke with either were uninterested in working while the government was paying them not to, or wanted too much pay for his business to remain viable.
So what was supposed to happen? Actually, there was an agreement in place between Fiedler and Sauly’s (remember them?) to take over the location. However, that could not be done without a go-ahead from the landlord, who, for whatever reason, could not come to an agreement on a new lease with Sauly’s. Additionally, according to the terms of the original sale, Fiedler had the option to purchase the property as well, an option he chose to exercise in the winter of 2020, and, had it gone through, would have made him the landlord. However, due to some business challenges outside Fiedler’s control, the property sale was being held. This whole mess is being held up in litigation at the time of writing, and we will have to wait to see what happens. This litigation is what forced Fiedler to pause the direct payment of rent to the landlord, and instead, upon the advice of his lawyers, keep the rent money in an escrow account. That money has been paid to the landlord in full.
The reaction online to the move has sparked a lot of anger in the West Hempstead community. Residents were angry not only about the fact that Hunki’s left, but how it left. One day the shop was open, the next it was not. Fiedler explained that he was unable to explain anything to the community at the time because there was so much unknown. Who would own the building? Who would be occupying the space? Would a new renter be renting from the original landlord or a new landlord? Will Hunki’s be returning? Will it be reopening? How much was he allowed to divulge to the community, as there are lawsuits pending on a variety of fronts? There was just so much that Fiedler did not have answers to, so he felt it would be better to remain silent until more had become clear. He made a statement a few days later, and while he admits that perhaps the statement could have come sooner and included more information, there were still so many questions left to be answered, and he wanted to give as much information as he could. At that time, he decided to focus his energy on opening his Woodmere location.
This past Sunday, Fiedler made a trip into West Hempstead to deliver complimentary pizza pies to some of his harshest critics and biggest supporters. On the box read the message: “Spreading Ahavas Torah One Pizza at a time – hope you enjoy! Eric and Chaya.” Chaya pointed out that it should have read, “Ahavas Yisrael,” but she thinks the message was received. The idea to deliver the pies was done at the urging of Chaya’s friend, who pointed out that even Yaakov Avinu sent gifts to Eisav in order to make peace. “If Yaakov sent gifts to his mortal enemy,” Chaya pointed out, “how obvious is it that we should do the same for our friends?” So Chaya and Eric sent a dozen pies to various people in West Hempstead as a peace offering, and to do something nice for a community they had served for the last two and a half years.
So, what can the West Hempstead community expect to see happen to their beloved pizza shop? Both Chaya and Eric agreed that they are leaving the door open to a return. But one point that Eric was very clear about is that a pizza shop will once again be in that location. It may be Sauly’s, it may be Hunki’s, it may be some other shop – but there will be pizza sold out of the location that housed Hunki’s for 35 years. Perhaps then, the community can put this whole incident behind them, and continue to grow in their ahavas Torah. Yisrael. Ahavas Yisrael.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.