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BY ZACH WILLIAMS | Dozens of community members had assembled to commemorate his life’s work, but Luis Batista escaped notice beforehand, seeking customers to help as he had for 29 years in the Essex Street Market.
June 27, 2014, was Luis Batista Day in Manhattan. So declared Borough President Gale Brewer, who presented him with a framed proclamation at a reception within the aisles of his former grocery store inside the market. She said he exemplifies the “mom-and-pop business model.”
“We are standing here today in the type of community which is the backbone of New York City,” Brewer said.
Batista retired May 1 due to lingering health problems that now make it difficult to endure the physical toll of operating a grocery business. He started working in the market in 1985 as a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic, going on to open, his own business, Batista Grocery, a decade later.
His kind disposition made him like a neighborhood uncle to his regular customers, according to Councilmember Margaret Chin.
“It’s just great to be so neighborly and to have so many people love him,” she said. “I think, among immigrant communities, they want to be entrepreneurs, set up their own businesses; and I think Essex Street Market offers this opportunity to a lot of small businesses at affordable rents.”
Batista said he will miss “everything” about running the business, though he plans on occasionally venturing from his Bronx residence to the market in the future. He expressed gratitude to God, the city Economic Development Corporation, customers and fellow market vendors.
“I want to say thank you for everything in my life,” he said.
He sold the business for about $100,000 to Luis Vargas, who learned through his cousin of Batista’s wish to sell the roughly 1,400-square-foot spot. For 20 years, Vargas worked in the grocery industry in the city and New Jersey. He came to the States in 1993 from the Dominican Republic, where he grew up in the same city, Santiago, as Batista.
Vargas’s first grocery store closed after seven months due to what he said was a poor location. But he expressed confidence that the Essex Street Market would have the customer base and location for his newest venture to succeed.
The new owner added that he will reorganize some of the grocery’s space in the market, though the business will mostly stay the same as it was under Batista, including the staff.
“We think we have to have more employees, because we expect the sales to increase,” Vargas said. “In this country, you can be success more than any other one.”
Another Santiago native, Fillipe Caba, who works for the adjacent meat vendor, said Batista is a bit like his own father. Chit chat about sports, the weather and their native land were common topics when they interacted, he said.
“He’s a nice guy,” said Caba.
The enclosed market space was created in 1940 by Fiorello La Guardia, specifically for pushcart vendors, to keep them from clogging up the streets. Today, 20 independent vendors fill the space, according to E.D.C.
But the historic market will be reborn in a new space in the near future. It will be shifted into the planned 1.65-million-square-foot Essex Crossing mixed-use development, which will include residential, commercial and community space. Construction will begin in spring 2015, with the first five buildings projected to open by summer 2018, according to the Web site of Delancey Street Associates, the development partners.
Nevertheless, the market’s mission will remain very much the same, according to E.D.C. officials who oversee it on behalf of the city.
Vendors such as Batista reflect the ideals of the Essex Street Market and the community it serves, said Lisa Thompson, the market’s manager.
“He’s a small business owner and entrepreneur, an immigrant who came onboard in the market, specifically at a time that it was not in as high demand as it is currently,” Thompson said. “And he built a business from a stall, and his footprint is not necessarily the footprint that he started off with. And it’s truly the American story of the small business owner who worked really hard.”