Saturday, 19 April 2008

Pizza King Owner Happy After Forced Move

SCHENECTADY- New York — Business is booming in the Pizza King’s new home, and the king is so pleased with his new location that he says he wouldn’t go back to his valuable State Street corner even if it were offered to him on a silver platter.

“Now I wouldn’t go back there even with free rent, swear to God,” Jon Camaj said during a break between baking pizzas Friday.

That’s quite a change from the man who once swore he wouldn’t leave his crumbling State Street store until his dead body was carried out the door. Metroplex Development Authority officials spent months persuading Camaj that his rented storefront was falling apart and could not be saved. They wanted him to agree to break his lease so a developer could tear the building down, but Camaj launched a popular rebellion to fight the demolition. Residents flocked to his store to protest that a small business owner was being bullied by big-money developers, and Metroplex officials said Camaj wouldn’t listen to reason.

But eventually he agreed to move to Jay Street, where he now serves pizza in an airy, sunlit building across from City Hall.

He says now that he shouldn’t have fought the move.

“It’s like day and night. It’s like a different world,” he said. “Almost full credit should go to Metroplex. Jayme Lahut convinced me. He said, ‘Jon, this is really good spot, you should take it.’ I scream and yell and all that stuff, but he’s still a great guy.”

Camaj told Lahut that his customers wouldn’t follow him two blocks away from State Street. He gloomily predicted the death of his business, which he built over the course of 20 years after immigrating here from Yugoslavia.

But as people lined up nearly out the door during lunch hour Friday, a month after he opened, he was happy to say that he’d been wrong. He hasn’t lost any business at all.

“I was never expecting this. It’s really great,” he said. “I was going to move out of here [Schenectady], but I’m happy I stayed.”

The pizzeria was so full Friday that strangers ended up sharing tables. That’s how MVP office worker David Smith met landscaper Jeff Winegard, who had never been to Pizza King before. Smith assured Winegard that he hadn’t missed anything by never visiting the old site, where parts of the building’s ceiling were collapsing before Camaj moved out.

“This building is better. The interior is better. The whole interior design is better,” Smith said.

Others said they were willing to walk just about any distance to buy Camaj’s pizza.

“I went there almost every day,” Eddy Senior Care employee Kathy Johnson said of Camaj’s old location. “It’s still great pizza. Even though I have to walk a little further, it’s great weather, so who cares?”

Others argued that his new store is far more convenient. There is free two-hour parking right behind the store, metered parking directly in front of the store, and unlike the State Street location, no one has to duck under scaffolding to get to Camaj’s front door.

“This is a better location,” said new customer Kirsten Ford. “I tend to walk down Jay Street more — there’s not as much on State Street.”

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