By Adam Manno
A beloved Sunnyside pizzeria closed its doors Sunday after a gas leak and an overdue rent bill made business untenable for its owner.
Skillman’s Famous Pizza, located on Skillman Avenue and 46th Street, has been using electric grills, fryers and ovens since October 2021. That’s when Con Edison says it found a gas leak in the basement and shut down service to the shop. Since then, the neighborhood staple has been relying on regular breakfast and lunch fare to stay afloat. Everything, says store owner Erik Ortiz, except its namesake pies. Those require gas ovens.
“Since I lost the gas, my sales have gone down by 30 or 40 percent,” he told the Queens Ledger. “The pandemic got me, and then it was the gas.”
Jennifer Logan, who’s lived around the corner from the store since 2013, says she cried when she discovered its days were numbered. Her son Charlie, 11, is autistic, and the restaurant has become a second home for the boy in the past decade. Aside from hosting his birthday parties, Logan says that Ortiz and his wife have gone above and beyond to interact with Charlie and make sure he’s comfortable when they stop by.
“They’re my communicator assistance,” she said. “They really put in the effort with him.”
For the past year-and-a-half, Ortiz has been at a standstill with his landlord, George Vlastos, over the gas leak that threatened the business. Ortiz bought the shop from Vlastos in 2013 in a partnership with four other associates. Vlastos has allegedly refused to fix the $14,000 issue, even after an attorney told Ortiz that gas maintenance is the landlord’s responsibility.
“The explanation [Vlastos] gave me is that he doesn’t want to fix the gas because he doesn’t have money to pay for it because it’s too expensive,” Ortiz said. Vlastos and his son Anthony did not respond to calls or emails from the Queens Ledger.
Complicating the situation is Ortiz’s rent bill. In a kind of chicken-and-egg dilemma, Ortiz says he was never more than a month behind on rent during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as occupancy restrictions, customer hesitation, and the gas issue raged on, he fell behind by six months, depriving him or Vlastos of the money needed to fix the leak.
“I was hoping to renew the lease,” Ortiz said on Saturday. “About two weeks ago, the owner came with his wife and said they weren’t going to renew it. He gave me until March 31st, but tomorrow is our last day open.”
Posts on the “Sunnyside Together” community Facebook group have been flooded with tributes to the restaurant. Some have blamed Vlastos for the closure, but Logan, the longtime customer, is quick to defend the aging landlord: “He’s not a horrible guy. He just wasn’t gonna fix it.”
Ortiz says his lawyer has advised him that he could continue to legally occupy the building for up to a year while he sorts out the issue. The office of city council member Julie Won, who represents Sunnyside, has connected Ortiz with the city’s Department of Small Business Services and with Accompany Capital, a Jackson Heights-based community development financial institution (CDFI) that helps immigrant entrepreneurs. “He’s been serving the community for so many years and he’s an important part of it. He’s very sad about this situation,” says Nick Gulotta, Won’s chief of staff. Artists and other members of the community have also floated the possibility of a fundraiser or a benefit concert. But Ortiz is tired of fighting.
“I’m already too stressed with this issue,” he said.
In the meantime, Ortiz, his wife and his remaining partner—his brother Edgardo Vicario—will pack the place up and move on.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a good worker or what, but I have two job offers to do the same thing: cooking,” Ortiz said.