A small business hangs on, but barely



Mohinder Singh spends an hour and a half every weekday on operational work in the basement of Dil-E Punjab Deli. Photo: Emaad Akhtar.

It’s been 11 years since Indian small business owner Mohinder Singh first started feeling the pinch in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “Before the bike lane in 2007, I used to have around 150 customers, daily. Now, I lose between 70 to 100 a day due to a shortage of parking,” he said. “My wife works in the post office. When I lost business, I became more dependent on her to survive.”

Singh has run Dil-E Punjab Deli on Ninth Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets since 1994, offering affordable Indian food popular with yellow cab drivers from South Asia. But the city constructed a bike lane in front of the deli in 2007, and that, he says, has discouraged taxi drivers from stopping.

That’s just the start. The veteran businessman is caught between a dwindling taxi industry and creeping gentrification, costing him his customer base.

Singh filed a complaint with Community Board 4 (CB4) in 2007, and in 2008 was granted a designated taxi stand with three spaces, one block south of his deli. Bhagwant Singh, an Indian cab driver who has patronized the deli since its inception, takes advantage of this facility when he can. “Ninety percent of cabbies who use this taxi stand visit the deli,” he said.

What was supposed to be a boon for the deli owner, however, has proved a headache. Taxi business is down, garages can’t house all the cabs that sit idle, and as a result send their surplus to fill his spaces. “The city’s garages are over capacity and abuse my taxi stand,” he said. “Every day, there are at least one or two cab drivers parking there for five or six hours. Some overstay for weeks when they go on vacation.”

CB4 Transportation Committee Co-Chair Christine Berthet was unaware of Singh’s predicament, but argued he still had no reason to complain. “It is a unique situation. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has created dedicated parking spots for taxi drivers around his business, more than there were before the bike lane. It is not reasonable for a business to expect running a drive-through with free parking in the middle of Chelsea in Manhattan.”

Farooq Phatti, founder of the now-defunct Pak Brothers Yellow Cab Drivers Union, says that competition with ride services, and a lack of organization among cabbies, has caused both the union and Singh’s business to suffer. “We closed down in 2002 because the taxi industry was unorganized and divided; it still is,” he said. “Everyone has their own interests at heart, there is no unity.”

Joe Cutrufo, spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit that ‘advocates for better bicycling, walking and public transit for all New Yorkers,’ believes the debate about protected bike lanes had been settled. The idea that businesses are inconvenienced by bike lanes is flawed. In fact, bike lanes have shown to be good for business.”

Business has indeed flourished at Billy’s Bakery, just a block north of Singh’s deli. The store’s general manager, Ming Lim, says bike lanes have resulted in a “30 percent increase in people coming in and purchasing stuff.” The 44-year-old believes the increase stems from a proliferation of new apartments near the High Line. “There are more young couples and professionals in the 25 to 40 age bracket who live and work in this area, and prefer biking because it’s more accessible.”

Cyclist Paul Martin Kovic, a 45-year-old event manager, was en route to Billy’s Bakery to order a cake. “You can’t just blame it on the bike lanes,he said. “I don’t see the problem. If people like his deli, they would go there regardless of whether there is parking available to them or not.”

Another biker, 46-year-old jeweler Americo Pacheco, was visiting a locally-owned craft beer bottle and gourmet food shop adjacent to Dil-E Punjab Deli. “You need to counter whatever is happening in the world as a businessman,”he said. “It may be bike lanes today, it may be scaffolding tomorrow. He needs to offer discounts to whatever clientele he has lost to draw them back in.”

It isn’t the bikes, but what they represent – a new population – that has impacted Singh’s business, yielding lower profits and higher costs. “The city is increasing rent, so that small businesses get pushed out,” he said, though he insists he will not be one of them. “In 1994, I was paying 1,800 dollars a month; now it’s 8,300 a month plus 12,000 a year in building maintenance fees. My lease is up in 2023, and I have no plans to give up working. My health will tell me when it’s time.”

Lim’s advice to Singh is to work a deal with the city administration. “He should request for 10 minutes of free parking for cabs that frequent his deli, I think that’s a fair solution.” Singh said he had already tried that, but the city would not grant him a “single minute of free parking time.”

He will not give up trying. “The community board hasn’t accepted my requests for more taxi spaces,” he said, “so I am pushing the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) to help me. The last time I asked was four weeks ago, but I haven’t heard back yet. I’ll take what I get, whether it’s three or six spaces.”

Asked about the chances of this materializing, CB4’s Berthet categorically replied, “I doubt it.”

According to Singh, the NYTWA will file an application with the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, who will take the matter up with CB4 on his behalf.

The NYTWA didn’t respond to requests for comments.