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Ruhling: The Deep-Discount Guy

Chris Sciacco, who is wearing a grey sweater and a big smile, throws open the doors to Kaiya’s Pallets.

This is week No. 5 of the wholesale/discount store’s existence, and he’s really pumped.

Come on in! We have deals you can’t pass up!

Water is 10 cents a bottle.

Gatorade is 50 cents a bottle.

Diapers are on sale for $10 a pack.

And brand-name cereals are $3 to $5 for a two-pack.

Come on in! Fill your cart without emptying your wallet!

“I’d say that 90 percent of the people who come in here do not leave empty-handed,” says Chris, as he greets another customer. “I decided to open the store because there’s nothing cheap in Astoria.”

Kaiya’s Pallets, which he describes as “a mom-and-pop BJs-Costco,” certainly fits the bill.

Its ever-changing inventory of brand-name products, which range from toothpaste and olive oil to clothing and lounge chairs and appliances, is the very definition of deep-dollar discounts.

Despite his enthusiastic sales pitches, business is not Chris’ first love, something you might guess if you’ve seen the hilarious videos he creates and stars in that promote the store.

A native of Whitestone, Chris moved with his family to Maryland right before he started high school then came to New York City when he enrolled in The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

He majored in film.

“I always had a camera,” he says. “I was an athlete and goofball, and I was always making stupid stuff. I fell in love with filmmaking after I took a course in high school.”

His parents, he says, were not amused by his affinity for the cinematic art.

“I begged them to let me do it,” he says.

To appease them and ease their fears for his future, the summer before he started school, he worked at his uncle’s discount store, Thomas Ventures, in Corona.

He bartended his way through college, and when he graduated, he moved to Astoria in 2007 shortly before his daughter – in case you haven’t figured it out, she’s the Kaiya in Kaiya’s Pallets – was  born.

“I started working for my uncle full time,” he says. “He told me he wanted me to follow my dreams, so he allowed me to take time off to continue making films.”

Chris took him at his word: So far he has made 300 shorts, and his first feature-length film, The Improviser, has just been released.

In 2018, when his uncle died, Chris began running the store and successfully shepherded it through the pandemic by adding a wholesale component.

And that might have been the end of the story had his aunt not decided to retire and sell the store, which, he adds, may or may not happen any time soon.

“She encouraged me to start Kaiya’s Pallets, which is a mini version of Thomas Ventures,” he says. “Right now, I’m working seven days a week and going back and forth between the stores.”

It is, he admits, a lot.

Kaiya’s Pallets, which covers only 5,100 square feet, is staffed by Chris and four of his friends.

Kaiya, who is 13 and is the model for the store’s logo, works a weekend shift in the clothing section.

“At first she thought it was cute that I named the store after her,” says Chris, a proud single father since her birth. “But now all of her friends are making fun of her.”

And she’s making it fun for herself by promoting the store on social media.

In case you’re wondering, Chris is starting work on yet another film; it will, of course, be shot in Astoria.

And he’s planning on making a film about his grandfather, a Korean War POW who came out of the fighting with four Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and three Bronze Stars pinned to his uniform.

Sometime in the future, he hopes to open more Kaiya’s Pallets.

“My dream is to have another location on the other side of Astoria,” he says.

On The Record: Kayleen Seidl, Actress

During summer 2014, Kayleen Seidl relocated to Astoria, Queens from the Midwest to pursue her musical theater career.

It was during a summer stock in Woodstock, New York when she decided to move to the big city on a whim.

She attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and earned degrees in vocal performance and Spanish. A few months into her move, she booked her first New York show at White Plains Performing Arts Center.

“I really came to give the musical theater industry a shot, and I basically said I’d give myself five years and see how it goes,” Seidl said.

“At about the five-year mark, I was in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Yiddish, which was enjoying a year-long run off-Broadway on 32nd St,” she continued. “I decided it was going well, so I’m still here.”

As a small town Catholic girl, becoming heavily involved with the National Yiddish Theatre was a pleasant surprise for Seidl, which allowed her to expand her knowledge of different cultures.

“It’s been really great. I’ve learned a lot about the culture and language; I didn’t know that Yiddish even existed growing up,” Seidl said.

“Now I’ll catch myself saying Yiddish words sometimes because they’re just so ingrained in me from this whole experience,” she added. “It’s been a really neat journey.”

Her favorite part about living in Queens is the diversity it has to offer, and of course, the food!

Burrito BLVD to open Astoria location

Two years ago, Robert Matos opened up Burrito Blvd at 72-64 Metropolitan Ave. in Middle Village, having no prior experience in the food industry.
Matos, who worked in real estate at the time, wanted to try something new career-wise, and saw promise in the Mexican food industry by way of his longtime friend Joe Vetrano, who owns the Burrito Blvd location in Mineola.

“He told me it was the best thing he ever did, and so that stuck in my head,” Matos said.

“Joe was in the process of franchising Burrito Blvd, and we became business partners. Middle Village quickly took off,” he continued. “People in the community would tell me that this is exactly what was needed, and I get compliments on my staff all the time. So that early response made me feel good and reassured that I’m not crazy and that this was going to work.”

Because both Burrito Blvd locations have seen such success, Matos and Vetrano decided to open a third location at 36-20 30th Ave. in Astoria together.

The grand opening will take place on Sat., April 23 from 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and will offer $2 burrito, bowl and taco specials all day.

“Astoria is a great area because it’s so busy; everybody walks or takes public transportation. It’s a great corner spot on 30th Ave., which happens to be one of the busiest streets in Astoria. It was a great opportunity,” Matos said.

He added that the Astoria location will be quite different from the Middle Village one because it will be more of a grab-and-go style store, as opposed to a large indoor dining space.

Similar to the Middle Village store, the Astoria location will feature mural artwork by an artist who goes by the name Mike.A.

But the main thing Matos takes pride in when it comes to running his business is getting to engage with the community and provide them with quality food products.

“It feels good to have a place where I get kids that come from the park to hang out and bring their friends. It’s the best feeling to know people are satisfied with what you’re doing,” Matos said.

“It’s so great to serve my community and I’m so thankful for their support,” he continued. “I think opening day in Astoria will be a big success, just like it was for Middle Village.”

Officer-Involved Shooting in Astoria

A domestic dispute led to police shooting a 27-year-old Astoria man who was reportedly wielding a machete.

Officers from the 114th precinct responded to a 911 call at 9:48 a.m. at 31-63 33rd Street on the report of an emotionally-disturbed person armed with a weapon.

The 911 caller, later identified as Brianna Cortez, relayed to officers that the man had taken “a lot of pills” and was saying that he “wanted to die.”

Police say that the 27-year-old suspect, Eduardo Andrade, confronted officers in the apartment hallway while holding the 911 caller’s mother. Together, Cortez and Andrade have a three-year-old child, who reportedly witnessed the scene.

Chief of Department Kenneth Corey briefed the media later Monday morning, where he described the confrontation officers had with the suspect and preliminary information about the case.

“After getting the mother out of the apartment, the officers deployed a taser,” Corey said. “The taser had no effect.”

That’s when, police say, one officer discharged “approximately three rounds,” striking the man in his groin.

The 27-year-old suspect was transported to Elmhurst Medical Center, where he underwent surgery and is expected to recover.

Two of the four responding officers underwent medical evaluations, but did not sustain any serious injuries.

Corey went on to say that there is a “rather extensive domestic history” between Cortez and Andrade, which includes multiple allegations of domestic assault, harassment and violations of protection orders.

In a video circulating on social media, Cortez is at the scene yelling that she called the police over an argument.

“They didn’t ask questions,” Cortez can be heard saying. “They dragged my 53-year-old mother to the floor, ripped her shirt off, and then shot my son’s father twice in front of him.”

She continued, “This is why you don’t call the NYPD for help. They will shoot you and blame your family.”

Police relayed that the responding officers had body cameras on their person and they were activated at the scene. Those videos are currently being reviewed by the police department.

Video:
https://twitter.com/SamiLiebman/status/1513552253910765572?s=20&t=R3Rf4w7k7KHIlxqBwDUqXA

Community partners team up to host Ramadan food distribution

The Astoria Welfare Society and community partners are teaming up to distribute free halal food and groceries during the holy month of Ramadan.

Enough traditional Bangladeshi food to feed nearly 250 families was distributed on Friday, April 1, the day before nearly a quarter of the world’s population ushered in their holiest month by beginning their day-long fasts.

Mohammed Jabed Uddin, the General Secretary of the Astoria Welfare Society, welcomed the Astoria community as well as elected officials to the distribution site at 29-11 36th Avenue.

Other pop-up and drop-off locations will be held this month in surrounding neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, said Uddin. He is also doing drop-off deliveries of halal food throughout the month.

“We continue to stand by our community, it doesn’t matter who they are,” he said.

Community organizations helping with the distribution drive are Queens Together and the Champlain Hudson Power Express and Congressmember Carolyn Maloney’s office. The event was sponsored by Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“If it wasn’t for the help of Queens Together and Blue Shield Blue Cross, we wouldn’t be doing this,” Uddin said.

Locals spoke of what the beginning of Ramadan meant to them while waiting in line for the food distribution.

“All over the world, people can not eat dinner or lunch,” said one local. “A lot of people throw their food away for nothing. We are feeling how other poor people are feeling.”

Elected officials, including Senator Chuck Schumer, helped distribute the groceries and halal food. Representatives from the offices of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Assemblymember Zohran Kwame Mandami and Councilmember Julie Won, as well as Councilmember Tiffany Caban herself, were also on hand for the event.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims break their daily fast with a meal called Iftar, which comes only after sunset each day. The act of fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. This year’s holiday ends on the evening of Monday, May 2.

“I know it’s been a very tough two years for all of us, and now we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Having enough food to eat during the month is very important,” Schumer said. “Ramadan Mubarak!”

Astoria Starbucks first in Queens to file to unionize

An Astoria Starbucks is filing for a union, the first of its kind in Queens.

The store, located at 30-18 Astoria Boulevard, announced its plans to file a petition for a union election in a letter written to President and CEO Howard Schultz.

“The organizing committee at Astoria Blvd. firmly stands in solidarity with unionization efforts across the country,” the letter reads. “The same courage of stores before us has empowered our baristas to take positive action. We are cautiously excited for the future of a company that is reflective of its workforce and not of corporate greed.”

The Astoria location is part of more than 145 stores across the country that have filed to unionize.

Elected officials at all levels of government showed their support for the workers at the Astoria Boulevard store with a letter of support and impromptu visits to the store.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, State Senator Michael Gianaris, Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani and Councilmember Tiffany Cabán all signed on to the letter calling for Schultz to sign the Fair Election Principles and respecting the workers’ right to organize.

“Every worker should have the right to organize a union and bargain collectively,” Gianaris said. “I stand with the workers at my local store and the entire Starbucks Workers United effort as they fight for better working conditions and fair pay for all associates. I call on Starbucks to allow the free, unencumbered election these workers deserve.”

In February, three Starbucks locations in New York City made their first efforts to unionize, just weeks after three more stores in Buffalo were the first to do so. The first union elections in New York City will be an in-person vote at the Roastery at the end of the month.

The Astor Place location will be voting by mail with ballots going out at the start of next month, and ballots for Caesar’s Bay in Brooklyn, Great Neck in Long Island, and Massapequa in Long Island will go out a week later.

Brandi Aldu, a Starbucks Workers United organizing committee member, said, “My fellow partners and I decided to unionize because we are forced to manage the consequences of decisions we were not a part of, made by people who don’t understand what it is like to live a life as a Starbucks barista.”

The Balloon Sculptor

There is an art to breathing life into a balloon.
Hampton Keith Bishop selects one of the 600,000 unblown balloons that are hanging on the wall in a rainbow of color.
It happens to be a pretty pearl lemon chiffon hue.
He attaches it to a precision air inflator, the black box that can be carefully calibrated to release .1 to 9.9 seconds of air in a single instance.
He sets the buttons — .5 of a second, 1 second, 1.5 seconds – stopping at each to show the results as he pumps up the balloon to the perfect size.
Size isn’t the only balloon attribute Hampton can change; he’s an expert at altering colors.
He deflates the pearl lemon chiffon balloon and stuffs it with a spring green balloon, inserting one inside the other on the top of a long stick.
The black box does its magic, and the balloon-within-the-balloon blossoms into a luminous green/gold watermelon.
“It is,” he says, “like mixing paint.”
Since he started HKBalloons NYC at the end of 2015, Hampton has literally blown up hundreds of thousands of balloons sans a single premature pop.
His creations have appeared at corporate and celebrity events, have been exhibited at art shows and have starred in films (Survivor is coming out this year) and on TV (he’s done projects for several shows, including Saturday Night Live, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock: A One-Time Special, Love Life, Blue Bloods, Girls5eva and Pose).
In 2018, for a satellite show by Maarkah at the Museum of the City of New York during New York Fashion Week, models wore gowns made of HKBalloons. (Hampton didn’t have a dress form handy so he used a body-size inflatable champagne bottle as a size guide for the expandable couture.)
And in the depths of the pandemic, Hampton created elaborate holiday balloon scenes outside his home office on Astoria Boulevard South facing Astoria Park.
“I didn’t have anything to do during the lockdowns,” he says. “I just needed to create something, so I designed them as messages of hope.”
Balloons, you see, represent happiness to Hampton, who is from Bowling Green, Kentucky. (If you listen carefully, you can still hear a slight accent through his smooth stage voice.)
He twisted his first balloon in first grade after his babysitter gave him a book on the subject.
His neighbor, a Ringling Bros clown who owned a costume shop, allowed Hampton to work in the store, tutored him on balloon twisting and mentored him on the finer points of musical theater, which was Hampton’s major at Belmont University.
“I was always fascinated by balloons and hot-air balloons,” Hampton says, “and I used to build giant sculptures out of trash bags in my front yard when I was a child. I loved being able to create something out of nothing.”
After graduating from college and working at Dollywood, Hampton moved to Astoria to hit the New York City musical-theater audition circuit.
Like all performers, he took a variety of jobs to pay the rent.
His stints with the custom holiday design company American Christmas, the show producer RWS Entertainment Group, and the party store Balloon Saloon proved pivotal to the formation of HKBalloons NYC.
The company (the HKB is Hampton’s monogram, and he’s delighted that it just so happens to end in B for balloon!) started out as nothing more than an imaginative idea.
“I started in my apartment with three to four bags of balloons,” he says. “And I twisted balloons in Central Park for tips at the end of the month to make enough money to pay my rent. Suddenly, it just took off.”
Hampton, who is a solo show, runs the company out of his basement and lives in the apartment above the office.
Sometimes clients ask him to replicate their designs; other times, they commission him to come up with ideas and execute them.
Large projects are blown up in sections in Hampton’s office and assembled on site, a job he likens to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
“Sometimes, they take up my entire apartment, too,” he says, adding that when there’s still not enough space, he rents a box truck to store and transport them.
In May 2019, for instance, when HKBalloons NYC created the SNL set for the Jonas Brothers, Hampton made the 5,000-balloon sculpture in sections and trucked it to the Manhattan studio.
“I actually created it twice,” he says. “I did one for the color check and one for the live show. I popped all the balloons of the first one with scissors.”
That one really hurt, Hampton says, because nobody except the production crews got to see it.
That’s the thing about balloon sculptures – they are appealing, in large part, precisely because, like bouquets of live blooms, they aren’t supposed to last forever.
Speaking of forever, Hampton, who just turned 33, isn’t sure where his balloon business will lead him.
He’s at a point where he can pick and choose his projects, he’s just not sure what the next big thing will be.
He’s thought about expanding and hiring people to help him, but for now, he’ll just take things one balloon at a time.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.

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