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A Deli Overcomes Tough Times

Customers enjoy the bright and cheery interior of Tasty Deli. Photo by Willie Diaz

Customers enjoy the bright interior of Tasty Deli.
Photo by Willie Diaz

By Willie Diaz

When you think of a sandwich, most of the time you do not attach a special name to it or try to cram more than half a dozen ingredients into it; it is just a sandwich. But at the Tasty Deli in Washington Heights, sandwiches are given crazy names such as the Charlene, Sloppy Sal or The Experiment.

Just outside the subway stop for the A, C and 1 trains on 169th Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue, Tasty Deli has stood in the same spot since it opened in 1957. Walk inside, and you’ll most likely see owner Santiago “Santi” Francisco happily taking and serving orders behind the counter, surrounded by a small group of employees. He hasn’t always been smiling, though; on several occasions the deli nearly became a victim of the economic downturn.

Francisco started working at Tasty Deli in 1986, moving up the ranks from the kitchen to the front to becoming a manager. When the owner Richard Polio decided to leave, he sold the store to Francisco in 2004.

His routine for running the store on a daily basis does not change much; he awakens 5 a.m. in his New Jersey home, takes his daughter to school and goes to Restaurant Depot for food and supplies before heading for the George Washington Bridge. Francisco usually gets in around 10 a.m. (the deli opens at 6 a.m.), works until closing time at 7:30 p.m. and to gets home around 9 p.m.

Francisco’s employees include his brother, and the dynamic between them is no different from Francisco’s relationship with the rest of his crew. “My brother has his job, the rest have their job,” Francisco said, “Just because he’s my brother” doesn’t mean he also has the right to give orders to the crew. “You can’t have two roosters where there are a lot of chickens,” he said.

The “celebrity” sandwiches the store is known for were introduced after Francisco started to take notice of the repeated orders his customers – many of them students or employees at Columbia University Medical Center / New York Presbyterian Hospital would make. Of the “hot mess” sandwich, for example, Francisco said, “Some of them used to come in and say, ‘Let me get a turkey sandwich, let me get a little avocado, a little basil, a little ‘Jalisco,’ so what I did was take all those ingredients” and put them into one sandwich. The sandwiches typically cost $9.50 to $10.95, and there are dozens to choose from.

The names attached to the sandwiches often don’t have much to do with the ingredients in the sandwich, but they do get people’s attention. One customer, Christopher Urena, said he loved “the atmosphere and amazing staff, I’ve been coming back for the past two years.”
The menu was also expanded to appeal to different palates, with vegetarian options, wraps and salads. Francisco operates his business with a sense of confidence and dedication, a sentiment developed from the tumultuous “roller-coaster ride” he has had throughout his decade as store owner, he said.

After the economic downturn, he was struggling, losing business because “people didn’t want to spend the money they used to.” He said he took loans from loan sharks and credit card companies, totaling nearly $100,000. He lost his second business, Tasty 2, a deli in Newark.

“Everybody kicked me to the curb, my father, my cousin, I continued, and I’m here,” Francisco said, recalling that even his own mother told him, “You’re crazy, your own employees are going to be richer than you.” He decided that “once you give up, you’re dead.” Only a few months ago was Francisco finally to clear his business of debt, and now, he said, it feels like a huge weight is off his shoulders.

Francisco was able to expand his business by offering delivery, especially to the nearby hospital, and allowing customers to order online. As time went by, he expanded the delivery service and embraced online ordering services such as GrubHub, Seamless, Eat24 and He said those steps “brought everything back to a point that it’s amazing. I have four companies sending me orders from open to close.” Francisco always has orders to take care of when he arrives in the morning, either for catering or orders arriving by fax. Online ordering sites keep track of the orders each month, and at the end of the month they send a check to Francisco after taking 10 to 12 percent. The cut from each check doesn’t bother him because “at the end of the day it works out because you still get more business. That money pays the bills,” he said.

In the future, Francisco hopes to open another Tasty Deli in Inwood, around 216th Street, seeking business from employees at the Presbyterian Hospital Allen Pavilion, the M.T.A. bus depot and local businesses. He is also planning on remodeling the back wall of the current deli, redoing the kitchen in stainless steel and rearranging the counters to make space for more tables. Francisco said his theory is “you spend a little something, get that money back, and invest it in another thing.” And, of course, “Create more sandwiches.”

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Many Undocumented Immigrants Drive Without Valid NY Licenses

By Alex Goetzfried

About 625,000 undocumented immigrants live in New York State, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center. And because New York requires a Social Security number to get a driver’s license, most of these immigrants who drive are doing so with an out-of-state license – or no license at all.

As of now, in 10 states, an undocumented immigrant can get a license using a tax identification number, a passport and proof of residence (such as a utility bill, lease or cable television bill), or some combination of those three.  Not so in New York, although it’s regarded as progressive on immigration issues. This leads many undocumented immigrants to go to Connecticut, Michigan, New Mexico, Washington or six other states to get a driver’s license and return to New York, where they live and use it.

This is illegal.

“Article 2 of the Constitution, the commerce clause, allows you to move between states; however if you reside in a state where the license is not issued for over 90 days you, by law, have to change to the state you live in,” said Brian DeSesa, an attorney in Sag Harbor who deals with traffic violations. “By going to a different state, getting a license and returning to the state you live it’s illegal. If you work in New York, and live in New York, you have to convert that to a New York license.”

Javier Navarro moved to New York 23 years ago from Mexico City. While he is a United States citizen, many of his friends and extended family are not. Navarro said many undocumented immigrants have to use a friend’s name to insure his or her car. Vehicles must be insured in order to be registered.

“A lot of people have an accident and they run away because they don’t have a license and a friend got the insurance for them,” Navarro said. They would stay at the scene of the accident, he said, if the government gave them a license. “If you give a license to these people, they’ll pay taxes, pay insurance, it will be more money for the city, but government doesn’t think like that,” he said.

In the outer boroughs of New York City and on Long Island, many undocumented immigrants need a driver’s license to get a job. Many of the undocumented immigrants outside of Manhattan are landscapers, painters, construction workers and day laborers. These jobs require that they be able to drive work trucks to different job sites throughout the day.

Driving without proper insurance also causes problems. When an uninsured or illegally insured vehicle gets into an accident with a legally insured driver, the legally insured driver’s insurance must cover the damages, in some cases causing that person’s premium to go up. That is because New York is a no-fault state; insurance companies are required to cover damages regardless of who caused the accident. The legal driver’s insurer must cover the expenses of the accident, even if the legal driver was not at fault.

Part of the resistance to making it easier for immigrants to obtain licenses is that ticketing generates revenue for government.  A driver caught operating a vehicle without a license can be fined $75 to $300, imprisoned to 15 days or both.

Determining how many tickets are issued by the state and how much revenue that generates is nearly impossible though. “It’s one of those types of questions that comes up a lot, unfortunately it’s hard to get that kind of data from the state,” said John Bowman, communications director at the National Motorists Association. “We wish that the states and local authorities would do a better job of reporting this kind of data, because it goes towards transparency of what is a basic law enforcement function.”

Michael Barry, vice president of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute agreed. “There’s probably little data because it’s all anecdotal; if you’re not a licensed driver it causes a problem,” Barry said.

In 2007 driver’s license reform was a big part of the overall immigration reform issue in New York. Governor Eliot Spitzer pushed to allow undocumented immigrants to receive licenses – once as an executive order, then as a legislative bill, and once through the Department of Motor Vehicles. But he withdrew the executive order, and the other two attempts were defeated by intense political opposition. The issue has not been a priority ofstate officials since.

California is now in the process of passing measures to allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses and other benefits. The other nine states that have relaxed the regulations for obtaining a driver’s license are Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Colorado.