Pommes Frites fries again in West Village; Relief $ greased way

At the grand opening of Pommes Frites in the West Village, state Senator Brad Hoylman, holding a fist full of fries, joined co-owners Omer Shorshi and Suzanne Levinson, to his left, staff and family members.

BY JASON COHEN | The gas explosion that rocked the East Village in March 2015 took two lives, leveled three buildings and knocked five businesses out of commission. Fifteen months later, one of the shops, Pommes Frites, is back. The Belgian fries haven held its grand reopening on June 20.

Located on Second Ave. for nearly 20 years, the popular fast-food spot relocated to 128 MacDougal St., adjacent to New York University.

According to Suzanne Levinson, Pommes Frites’ co-owner, nothing can fill the void left by the deaths of Nicholas Figueroa, 23, and Moises Ismael Locón, 27, who were both killed in the adjacent Sushi Park restaurant in the disaster. But she took some consolation in the fact that Pommes Frites could be salvaged.

“I had no idea the impact the explosion would have had,” Levinson said. “It was very scary, pretty surreal. … We were sad to leave the East Village.”

Levinson was at Friteshop.com, their other store in East Williamsburg, when she learned about the explosion. Her first thoughts were about her staff, whom she immediately called, finding out they were safe, but “traumatized.”

She promptly rushed out of Friteshop.com and over to the East Village.

“I literally saw fire trucks coming from Brooklyn to Manhattan,” Levinson exclaimed. “I thought, ‘Wow this was big!”

It was subsequently determined that an illegally tapped gas line had caused the massive blast at 121 Second Ave. on March 26, killing Figueroa and Locón and injuring 19 others.

On Feb. 11 of this year, five people were indicted in the catastrophe by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. Building owner Maria Hrynenko, 56, her son, Michael Hrynenko, 30, contractor Dilber Kukic, 40, and plumber Athanasios “Jerry” Ioannidis, 59, were each charged with manslaughter, plus criminally negligent homicide and assault in the second degree, in connection with the case. In addition, Andrew Trombettas, 57, was indicted for allowing Ioannidis to illegally use his master plumbing license.

After recovering from the initial shock of the tragedy, Levinson and her partner in Pommes Frites, Omer Shorshi, were determined to reopen. Last June they signed a lease for their new West Village location, then subsequently ran into several obstacles along the way.

But they raised $25,000 on an Indiegogo crowdsourcing Web site. In addition, they were lucky to be among five small businesses chosen for inclusion in the East Village Explosion Recovery Loan Program, which was created shortly after the tragedy by Asian Americans for Equality and the Renaissance Economic Development Corporation.

Co-owner Suzanne Levinson showed how it was done during the grand opening, whipping up some delicious Belgian fries.

The program loaned a total of $200,000 to the businesses, all five of which have successfully reopened. Loans were administered at the very low interest rate of 2 percent and businesses were given the option of a six-month deferment before beginning payment. Even with the welcome financial help, Levinson noted, “At the end of the day, you have to do it on your own. No one will open the doors for you. We thought a new place could work. We had to build a new place.”

She was particularly touched by the outpouring from the community of people offering to help. And she was surprised by how many people were aware of their plans to reopen.

“We were really grateful to have that support,” she said. “My business partner looks forward, not backward. There was no reason why we shouldn’t look for a new location.”

While Levinson said she misses Pommes Frites’ former East Village home, she concedes it was essentially just bricks and mortar, which can always be replaced. It has been an adjustment, but customers are slowly returning to the new location.

Patrons are finding the same warm atmosphere and delicious food, and the owners hope it will attract some of the New York University crowd when they return to school in the fall.

“I think they really like the new space and our old customers really seem to be excited to be here,” she said. “We love the space very much. It’s kind of like time hasn’t passed and we’re picking up where we left off.