Rachel Baron

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Everything was under way for the grand opening of Empanada City’s new Starr Street location on June 5. The location was picked, loans were taken out, and the buildout was close to completion. There was one roadblock, though: they had no gas. This is the situation that owners Briant and Jessica Almonte and Jessica’s parents found themselves in when National Grid informed them that they’d cease to process new applications for gas service. Now the Almontes are hurtling toward opening day with rent payments and over $150,000 in loans to repay, and no way of generating the necessary income.

National Grid announced that it would be denying service until the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) approves an extension of the existing Transco pipeline from New Jersey to the Rockaways. Called the Northeast Supply Enhancement Project (NESE), the extension would potentially “alleviate expected increases in energy use in New York City,” Bedford & Bowery reported. The project was rejected by Governor Cuomo and NYSDEC in May, but the Almontes were not made aware of this until later on. 

“Here we are, two weeks away from potentially opening, and now we’re being held hostage by these guys,” said Briant. They were informed of the embargo just two months ago, in June, when they submitted their application for gas service. While National Grid would continue to service buildings with an existing gas meter, service for new buildings and restaurants would be put on hold until NESE is approved.

Setting up shop at 321 Starr St.

NYSDEC claims that the pipeline poses a major risk to public health and marine life because it will introduce copper and mercury into the water. The organization wrote in their notice of denial that copper is “a critical contaminant that is closely regulated in the environment due to its potential to have drastic and immediate effects on aquatic life,” as reported by Bedford & Bowery. The project has also encountered sizable opposition from environmental activists, who wish to see less reliance on natural gas and a pivot toward eco-friendly energy sources. 

Karen Young, a representative from National Grid, told Bedford & Bowery that “the infrastructure serving the region has reached full capacity and is unable to meet growing demand,” and that “to add additional service would pose a risk to the integrity of our system and compromise natural gas use for existing firm customers.”

Briant, however, sees the embargo as manipulative. “If you can service people as soon as you get your application approved, there isn’t a capacity issue. You have gas to service people now,” he said. “They’re just using it as a chip to get what they want.” He also believes that politicians should not be allowing this kind of monopoly.

Spinach and ricotta empanada.

Jessica left her career in 2018 in order to run the existing location of Empanada City in Prospect Lefferts Garden, and the family depends on the shop for their livelihood. The situation is  “devastating,” said Briant. “It’s scary.” 

The Almontes hope to open the new location by September 15 at the latest. If the Almontes can’t get gas service in time, they’ll have to resort to electric appliances, which cost two to three times more than gas appliances.

Their new Bushwick location is a mere block away from Jessica’s childhood home on Willoughby Avenue between Cyprus and St. Nicholas Avenues.

While the family has been outspoken about their situation, they’re far from the only ones being affected. “This is not a story of National Grid and what they want,” Briant said. “This is a story about New Yorkers and the pain that this is causing.” 

All images courtesy of Empanada City.

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