2008-08-15 / Front Page

New Diner Management Hopes To Erase Nightmare Beginning

By Nicholas Briano

The Rockaway Diner on Beach 116 Street opened to poor community response, something the new management team hopes to quickly turn around. The Rockaway Diner on Beach 116 Street opened to poor community response, something the new management team hopes to quickly turn around. The Rockaway Diner was much-anticipated by Rockaway residents, but it left many consumers and employees with a bad taste in their mouths when it first opened its doors earlier this summer.

There were complaints by customers of poor service, long waits for food, unwashed dishes, and a management that seemed out of tune with both them and the workers.

Employees complained of long days, low wages, promises broken and mistreatment by management.

A new wind has blown into the diner, at 231 Beach 116 Street, however, and with a new, more experienced management team in place things seem to be looking up for both customers and employees, several people who have eaten in the diner in the past week say.

The new husband and wife tandem of Zulfet and Sanela Cemen may be familiar to those who frequented the Rockaway Sunset Diner, which closed in 2006.

"We are trying to do right by people," Zulfet Cemen said. "Things are starting to turn back around."

What Cemen is speaking about is what most consider to be a dreadful beginning for the diner that included more than 15 employee firings, many resignations, and numerous customer complaints to The Wave.

Some employees, who believe they were victims of a tyrannical owner, came to The Wave to complain. They charge that the owner, Rafik Ahmed, made some of them work more than 70 hours per week with no overtime pay and little time for breaks.

Marvin Wilson was hired to become the diner's night manager. He says he has been in the restaurant business for six years and that he had never seen so much disorganization in his entire life. He cited problems that included poor training and too much owner interference when he was trying to properly manage the restaurant.

"I was hired one day before opening," Wilson said. "I thought it was a good opportunity and I knew what was needed to get done."

He continued to say that even though he was hired as a manager, his boss never put any trust in him or gave him the authority to make changes in the restaurant's best interests.

"He needed to let me do the job that I was hired for," he said. "One day he told me that I didn't know what I was doing and screamed for me to get out. He was firing people over payroll issues, overtime, and no one ever received pay stubs."

One of those who claims he was fired because he asked for his overtime pay was 18-year-old Chris Cruz, who contends he was a victim of brutal verbal abuse by Ahmed.

"I got fired because I was owed overtime pay and I also worked 30 hours as a host, which has a higher pay rate than a busboy," he said. "He then told the manager to fire me because I was a liability and knew too much."

Other claims from fired workers include a charge that Ahmed was not reporting their earnings to the government. One waitress even said that Ahmed fired her because she became pregnant and was not willing to work a ten-hour shift.

Another busboy, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, brought in his time card and it showed he worked separate workdays of 22, 19, and 18 hours.

In one week he accumulated 81 hours, double the normal workweek. He said that he was never paid any overtime pay and only earned the busboy wage of $4.65 an hour. The several busboys that came forward claimed that they rarely received tips and were forced to work in other, higher-paying positions at times, but were still only paid $4.65 an hour for the entire shift.

A spokesperson for the New York State Department of Labor says that the agency is currently investigating the diner and that they cannot comment further.

But Cemen remains optimistic, saying that the diner has already improved and finds that customers are starting to return and appreciate the improved service. He added that workers are no longer overworked and overtime is rarely needed because he and his wife have properly organized the work shifts with the perfect balance of full-time and part-time employees. Ahmed trusts them to run the business properly.

"Nobody here works more than 40 hours anymore and all work shifts are 8 hours long. We have worked hard to regulate the shifts and approve all punches in and out to the time clock," he said. "We are better trained now and it is showing as the customers are much happier now. We want people to feel like this is their diner where they can get great service, fresh food, and feel like family."

Cemen said the first thing he changed when he was hired two weeks ago was everything. He said the overtime issue should have never happened if the managers had organized the work shifts properly.

"Rockaway really needed a diner," he said. "This place was opened for the community to have a place to meet friends and have a nice meal. In the beginning everything was wrong, but we could only do our best to move forward and head in a positive direction."

Cemen added that the people who return will see a big difference in the service and admits improvements were needed to overcome the chaos of the first few weeks.

Through time he hopes people will come back and find their first impression of the restaurant has changed.

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I ate at the diner when it first opened. Service was horrible and waitress did not know what she was doing. We waited an hour to be seated only to find place was empty . Have no clue why they made us wait. Main dish was brought out before our soup. No crackers or bread given. we asked for bread and figured they would bring us some rolls as most places do but gave us buttered wheat toast. I will not give this place another chance.IF this place is to survive they better shape up or ship out.

I was in the diner last sunday with a group of friends for dinner after the beach. it was our first time since it had opened and our first impression was positive due to the "cute" decor and atmosphere. That quickly changed. We ordered drinks, appetizers, and "specials" which came with "sides and salads". After a long wait our salads came out with sides of mashed potato's....then after another significant wait, our entree's all came out with all of the appetizers all at the same time! and of course the mashed potato's were cold by then . The food itself was edible, but nothing to brag about. The waitress apologized and blamed it on the cook saying he likes to screw with waiters he doesn't like, and then told us that one of the other waitresses recently had a fistfight with him! I have worked in restaurants in my younger days and know it's a tough game, and am usually more tolerant than most because of my experience in that field, but this was just really bad. They have a long way to go, and it will be a long while before i give this eatery another shot.

Louis O.

My wife and I had dinner and will never return. The food And service were poor. Rockaway needs a good diner again.

My husband and I ate there a few weeks back, The entire order was messed up. The waitress kept apologizing that she just started and she didnt think the new owners like her. The food was absolutely awful. Everything was cold and over done you could barely chew it. Never again! The decor was the best part but the food and staff were horrendous!

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