Photo: @jackson_diner

Every other week we will be featuring a small business owner in Jackson Heights, Queens, to learn how they are managing through the pandemic and how they are preparing for coming months. If you live in or visit Jackson Heights, we hope you will consider showing these businesses some love — they are working hard to survive.

This community reporting project is produced in partnership with the New York University Studio 20 graduate program. Each business owner profiled will then refer another small business owner in the area, creating a chain of connections throughout the community. This week we are highlighting Jackson Diner.

Photo: Studio 20

What Jackson Diner does: Jackson Diner, a culinary staple in the Jackson Heights community, is beloved both by locals and out-of-towners for its delicious, authentic north Indian food and, prior to Covid-19, its affordable buffet-style lunch. Some of the most popular dishes on the menu include chicken tikka masala, samosas, tandoori chicken and saag paneer. The restaurant, which opened in 1983, is a trailblazer in the Indian restaurant rush the neighborhood is known for.

How it survived: Owner Manjit Singh works tirelessly to keep the restaurant afloat. With just a few minutes to spare between taking phone calls, preparing food orders, directing staff, and keeping the business running, Manjit says it’s been difficult to cover the restaurant’s usual expenses, despite the few federal loans he’s received. In fear of contracting the virus, six of his 12 employees stopped showing up to work in March. Manjit says he picked up their shifts. He drives roughly 30 minutes from his home in New Hyde Park, where he lives with his wife and three adolescent sons, to get to work. Jackson Diner never closed its doors in the early stages of the pandemic —Manjit quickly pivoted to delivery and pick-up orders only. Most of these orders are received through apps like Grubhub, Seamless, and DoorDash — companies that take up to 30% of commission fees per order. Occasionally, Manjit sends one of his staff to hand-deliver food to local customers who live within a five- to six-block radius of the restaurant.

When the restaurant shut down indoor dining in March, Manjit says he held out hope. But now, almost a year into the pandemic, he worries about recuperating his losses. “In the restaurant business, if you have one bad weekend or a bad week, we’re done for the month – we’re not going to make money. High expense of labor, rent, taxes — it’s very high. Now this – we’re having a bad year. So, I don’t even want to think about it. How are we going to recover from this, you know?” Manjit now takes between 30 to 50 orders a day, a sizable decrease from the 100 or so customers he served daily before the virus struck. “The beverage sales are the main killer for us,” he says — not just for Jackson Diner but for the restaurant industry as a whole. While some patrons occasionally order mango lassis or a can of coke, Manjit says customers at home tend not to order drinks with their meals, which has killed a significant portion of revenue. Manjit attributes the restaurant’s survival to the status of the diner amongst its patrons. The restaurant has “sentimental value” to the community, which he believes keeps customers coming.

Photo: Studio 20

What Manjit Singh wants you to know: Manjit, who took ownership of the restaurant from his father in 1998, has a lot of faith in Jackson Diner. When asked if he thought the restaurant might have to close down due to expenses, he shook his head firmly. “I don’t think like that. If I wanted to think like that, I would have been sitting in my backyard in April. I wouldn’t have been coming here.”

Why you should visit: Beyond the reasonable prices and the flavorful dishes, Jackson Diner is a mainstay of the community’s culinary history. When Manjit’s father, Gian Singh, opened the restaurant in 1983, there were only three Indian stores in Jackson Heights – one other restaurant, one appliance store, and one clothing store, Manjit said. Jackson Diner was an American-Greek owned restaurant at the time, and it was going out of business. When Gian bought the restaurant, Manjit says the former owner was puzzled. “He said, you know, why are you buying a restaurant in Jackson Heights? There’s no business here.” But his father, undeterred, bought the restaurant, kept the name, and slowly started phasing north Indian dishes into the menu — recipes he learned from his upbringing in Punjab. One of Manjit’s favorite items from the menu is the paneer pasanda, a flavorful vegetarian dish that he enjoys cooking at home for his family.

Over time, the restaurant became a hub for the South Asian diaspora, who immigrated in large numbers to Queens in the late 1970s after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was enacted, lifting a previously established 100-person annual quota on Indian immigrants in the United States. Manjit’s father was himself part of that immigration — he brought his family to New York from Nawanshahr, a small town in the state of Punjab, India in the late 1970s. Upon arriving in New York, Gian first settled down in Elmhurst, Queens, which Manjit says was a popular area for Indian immigrants at the time.

While Jackson Heights is now home to a melting pot of South Asian and Latin American stores, restaurants, and businesses, Jackson Diner is known and revered as a pioneer among Indian restaurants—and the South Asian community.

You can check out Jackson Diner’s menu here.

Location: 37-47 74th Street, Jackson Heights, NY 11372

Nomination for the next business: Sona Mandi Jewelers

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