Long Island’s economy thrives on the longevity of small businesses, often run by a family and passed down through generations.
Merrill Zorn was busy at the Bethpage Air Show recently, as Zorn’s catered Bethpage Federal Credit Union’s tent on the beach, a partnership that goes back as long as there has been an air show. While she praised the credit union, she also held a box filled with lunch and information about Zorn’s own history of him.
“We stay true to who we are and don’t cut corners,” Zorn, CEO and president of Zorn’s of Bethpage, said as she held a wrap made not with turkey roll, but sliced turkey. “The recipes haven’t changed since 1940.”
Zorn’s Poultry Farms, which does business as Zorn’s of Bethpage, started as a poultry farm in the 1930s, added retail in 1940, and has become among Long Island’s best-known smaller companies in a region known for family businesses.
The region, famous for its beaches and golf courses, is also a veritable hotbed of small businesses that fuel the economy and the culture of this sliver of land between the East River and the Atlantic.
“Small businesses are an integral part of Long Island’s economy,” said Shital Patel, principal economist and labor market analyst for the Long Island region at the New York State Department of Labor.
Patel said nearly two-thirds of businesses on Long Island had fewer than 5 employees and almost 80 percent had fewer than 10 employees in 2021. There were about 50,000 businesses with up to four employees and more than 13,000 with five to nine employees compared to 80 businesses with 1,000 or more employees.
“I prefer to deal with small businesses when I can,” Marc Bekerman, of Syosset, said after ordering a slice of pizza from Phil & Sons, where he has been a customer for nearly 15 years. “Especially when I become friendly with the owner.”
Companies range from Zorn’s (which employs 65) and PC Richard & Son to Phil & Sons pizzeria and restaurant in Plainview and Flushing. “The food’s the same,” Zorn said of the continuity along with change that keep companies going. “Our recipes are the same.”
Some family businesses bear the family name, such as PC Richard & Son, Zorn’s, and smaller companies including Phil & Sons. The pizzeria is named for Philip D’Aguanno who with his wife Maria D’Aguanno founded the Italian eatery 37 years ago in Flushing.
“That’s the one we all started working at,” said Anthony, who lives in Bethpage and manages the Plainview restaurant owned by his mother Maria. “It’s about the same size as this.”
Businesses tend to grow and shrink over time, adapting as the world changes around them. Zorn’s grew to include nine poultry farms, eight on Long Island and one in Mullica Hill, NJ in the 1930s before opening a store.
The last farm, in Bethpage, closed more than 30 years ago, although Zorn’s had animals, but not a working farm. The company’s southern fried chicken, skinless fried chicken, rotisserie chicken, ribs, homemade salads, and sides have remained popular.
The East Meadow store closed in 2012 and Bellmore closed a little more than a month ago after the store in 2019 downsized from 25,000 square feet to 8,000 square feet.
“It’s new,” Zorn said. “We do the same thing. We cook the food the same, but we added sit-down.”
Phil & Sons opened a restaurant near St. John’s University in Queens, which it closed about 20 years ago after “the landlord tripled my rent,” D’Aguanno said.
Family members are often hands on. “I’m in the back of the house, front of the house,” Zorn said. “I don’t sit at my desk all day. I do everything.”
D’Aguanno said he works from 11 am to 10 pm “You sacrifice so many things. I miss so many of my kids’ things, concerts, dances,” he said. “People don’t realize. You have to work to make your business a success.”
Family companies often found that goodwill came in handy when Covid hit. Phil’s received a steady stream of orders from residents for themselves and others. “My neighbors were ordering from us,” D’Aguanno said. “They would order to donate to people.”
D’Aguanno, who has three children — Philip (named for his father), Gianna, and Antonino — said increasing costs make business tougher.
“Between the salaries, supplies and rents, it’s astronomical,” D’Aguanno said. “It’s getting harder and harder.”
Zorn said she’s the only family member involved in the business today, while D’Aguanno said his brother Sal remains involved and his sister Vita was for many years.
“You do something you love,” D’Aguanno said. “Your customers become family. You see their kids grow up. They see your kids grow up.”
Zorn said workers at her company are like a second family, pointing to longtime employees such as executive vice president Catheryn Onorato, who has been there for about 25 years.
“With today’s issues, it’s all about love,” Zorn said. “It’s about keeping the legacy alive, staff, people and community.”
D’Aguanno said members of his family are busy helping at the restaurant. “My little guy, he’s 9 years old,” Phil said. “He does the counter with me like a pro.”
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