When Patty Zorbas arrived on the scene on Queens Boulevard at 3 a.m., it was hard for her to watch. A five-alarm fire completely engulfed the six stores adjacent to her own, Alpha Donuts.
“When I saw the flames, I was like ‘that’s it, we’re going home,’” she said. “We’re not going to survive.”
Zorbas joined fellow business owners to watch firefighters work throughout the night on December 13 to control the fire. When the sun rose, six businesses were destroyed.
Among them were Sunnyside staples like Sidetracks, Better Line Hardware, and New York Style Eats. What did survive was Alpha Donuts.
That’s because decades prior, Alpha Donuts survived a less-intense fire. Afterward, the separate landlords on Queens Boulevard between 45th and 46th Streets agreed to install a firewall between their buildings. That firewall saved Alpha Donuts from turning into a pile of ash.
After last year’s fire, a few paint jobs later they were back to looking as they did before the fire — exactly as it was in the 1970s.
While Zorbas could have changed the aesthetic, she chose to keep it the same for nostalgic reasons.
“It feels like home,” she said, adding she is not a fan of the modern look. “It’s where you grew up, and it reminds you of the past.”
There are no tables inside Alpha Donuts. Just a single, winding countertop and 18 stationary stools. An old-fashioned cash register sits on the counter between the donuts and the grill. When Zorbas replaced it with a modern register, customers complained.
“It’s not the same without the register,” Zorbas said. “It’s our good luck charm.”
The doors at Alpha Donuts never close. Open 24/7, the restaurant serves early-bird seniors, sausage-craving cabbies, and late-night stumbling crowds.
Zorbas’ family has owned Alpha Donuts since 1979, and she has been running the restaurant for 28 years. When asked what keeps her going, she said it is the people.
“I meet people from all over the world, and I remember people coming in here as kids,” she said.
At 1 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon, Zorbas was jumping between conversations with customers and her chef, Taso Diakantonis, who has been working at Alpha Donuts for 21 years and also shows no signs of slowing down.
Even though Alpha Donuts was spared from the 2018 fire, Zorbas said the adjacent destruction leaves a hole in the neighborhood.
“They’re my neighbors and I felt so bad,” she said. “It was a very sad day for Sunnyside. The neighborhood is not the same.”