Like many of New York City’s small businesses, Ray’s Candy Store in the East Village took a financial hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Inflation and soaring utility costs added to the financial peril.
In 2022, a friend of 90-year-old owner Ray Alvarez set up an online fundraiser to help keep the business afloat. In one week, supporters of the iconic sweets shop raised over $45,000, and donations are still rolling in. So far, the GoFundMe page has raised $67,524.
Thanks to the generous donations, Alvarez can keep Ray’s open, and as a token of appreciation to his donors and loyal customer base, the East Village fixture invited New Yorkers to celebrate his path to financial freedom with free deep-fried Oreos and a photo-op on Sunday, Dec. 3.
Ray’s Candy Store, located at 113 Avenue A, is an East Village institution and has been serving Belgian fries, deep-fried Oreos and Twinkies, egg creams and more since 1974. Nearly 50 years later, Alvarez still serves coffee at only a buck-twenty-five — he refuses to raise the price.
Entering the store, customers step into a time capsule, providing a glimpse at what New York used to be before corporate chains took over. If the store’s walls could talk, they would tell a story of celebrities like Madonna and the late Anthony Bourdain, the downtrodden, corporate types, cops, and firefighters — all ordering from the worn blue counter.
Alvarez, who still works 20 hours a day, seven days a week, is the heart and soul of the store and the poster child of the American Dream.
Born in Iran as Asghar Ghahraman, Alvarez literally jumped ship from the Iranian Navy in 1963 to find freedom and a better life in the United States. After working a number of jobs, Alvarez had saved up enough money to buy his candy store across from Tompkins Square Park.
Alvarez said the GoFundMe campaign “saved his life.”
The neighborhood favorite, who still burns the midnight oil, recently bought a new ice cream machine to keep fan-favorite flavors churning, but without savings, he had no money to pay the store rent — $6,400 a month — or his utility bills. Alvarez said he uses his social security to pay $500 for his apartment above the store.
“My business is good in the summer and very bad in the winter,” Alvarez said. “GoFundMe, they are very special people. In my book, they are the best because they said, ‘Ray, don’t worry, we take care of it.'”
GoFundMe’s Community Engagement Team stopped by the store Sunday to recognize Ray’s as part of a series of events meant to highlight local businesses supported by a successful campaign on the crowdfunding site.
Kelsea Little, GoFundMe’s head of brand storytelling, said they couldn’t believe the turnout for Ray’s Candy Store.
“There are 2,400 people who donated, and I think that just speaks to how beloved he is by the community,” Little said. “So that’s really what stood out to me. It’s like a big, warm hug for Ray.”
The donations range from $5 to $2,000.
“Those $5 donations are sometimes what mean the most to people because they feel like they’re not doing that much, but it really means a lot to the person receiving it,” Little said.
East Village resident Wendy Goldberg stops by Ray’s once or twice a month with her 12-year-old son.
“I want [my son] to know why New York is such a great city. It’s because of places like this,” Goldberg said.
Kaye Kirschner and Mark Schlecker said they loved Ray’s story.
“We love supporting businesses in the neighborhood that’s been here a long time and has an old-fashioned feel to it,” Schlecker said.
Kirschner, born and raised in New York City, added that with so many small businesses closing, it is “fantastic” to see a historic and true New York business still standing.
“I wish there were more businesses like this,” Kirschner said, adding she was glad to hear how successful the GoFundMe campaign was. “It shows that other people support Ray’s business, that they also really care about Ray and his story and want to support the business.”
Tanisha Mitchell came from Flushing, Queens on Sunday, with her kids, Kailee and Isiah.
Mitchell said she heard about Ray’s Candy Store on Instagram.
“I always wanted to come try the fried Oreos,” Mitchell said, “so this was such a perfect opportunity.”
Mitchell said she thought the fundraiser was great.
“I grew up around New York, where there was a whole bunch of mom and pop, you know, individual entrepreneurs,” Mitchell said. “So to see him still going strong is really cool. I mean, he’s basically a part of New York history.”