July 5, 2023 By Michael Dorgan
And just like that, it was gone.
Having served the Sunnyside community for nearly 50 years, the old-school coffee shop Alpha Donuts closed its doors for good last week leaving patrons shocked and in disbelief.
The no-frills diner, located just a few feet from the Sunnyside Arch on Queens Boulevard and known for its donuts and greasy breakfasts, abruptly shuttered on Wednesday, June 28. Around 48 hours later its interior had been completely stripped and dumped.
The only remnant of the Sunnyside staple is its bright yellow and red exterior sign, while a notice attached to the diner’s front window reads: “Thank you for so many years of beautiful memories.”
The Sunnyside/Queens Post visited the location on Monday, July 3, and passersby could be seen gazing through the shop’s windows with astonishment and asking what had happened.
Cab drivers, who were known for parking in a line along Queens Boulevard and then frequenting the business, speculated that massive rent hikes had forced the business to shutter. The rumor was also rife on social media.
However, Patty Zorbas, 62, who owns Alpha Donuts, told the Sunnyside/Queens Post on July 5, that she was forced to close due to inflation and the potential costs of several upgrades needed to keep the business afloat — which she said she could not afford to carry out.
She said that while her rent had increased, it was not the reason behind her decision to close.
Zorbas said equipment such as the grill as well as other items at the eatery needed to be replaced.
“I sat down and put down the numbers together, and with insurance, taxes and inflation, the amount of money I would have to spend was above my reach,” said Zorbas, who is originally from Greece and lives in Woodside.
“I’ve been crying for two weeks. I’ve been there for 32 years.”
She said she decided to close late Tuesday, June 27, and the following day she shut down Alpha Donuts and started stripping out all of the equipment and fittings.
Gone is the establishment’s unique S-shaped countertop that allowed workers to serve customers up close, and gone is the shop’s vintage, button-styled cash register.
“It was tough. I was exhausted both physically and mentally,” Zorbas said. “It’s life-changing and I’m trying to sort my mind. I’m very sad but that’s life.”
Zorbas said Alpha Donuts was established in 1975 under different ownership. Her husband and his brother took it over in the 1980s before she began running the business.
She first started working at Alpha Donuts in 1991 and typically worked 7 days a week, she said. She now plans to take a break for a month and will then start looking for a new job.
She said Alpha Donuts withstood snowstorms and hurricanes — its sign was ripped down during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 — but it was the pandemic that set it on a doomed path to closure. The lockdowns, Zorbas said, cut into the business’s bottom line leaving it unable to drum up the cash necessary for the upgrades.
“The pandemic started the problem, as we couldn’t serve for a year inside,” Zorbas said. “We never recovered.”
Alpha Donuts was popular for its wide range of donuts which were on display on the left-hand side of the shop near the front door. Jelly, cream, lemon and blueberry were just some of the donuts available and a dozen could be nabbed for $14.
Hot and cold sandwiches, coffees as well as cold salad platters were also on the menu at reasonable prices, but Zorbas said the coffee shop’s best-seller was its full Irish breakfast which was added to the menu in the 1980s at the urging of a young Irish woman named Colette who was working there at the time.
Zorbas said the eatery had a certain charm that attracted local residents. In 2011 Robert De Niro shot a scene there for the movie “Being Flynn.” The movie was set in the late ’80s and Alpha Donuts was viewed as an ideal location for a coffee shop of that period.
The establishment was particularly popular with cab drivers down through the decades given it used to be open 24 hours a day before the pandemic, according to Pedro Luna, a cab driver who was a customer there for the last 10 years.
“I’ve been coming here every morning, I got my green tea here, I hang out, I use the restroom also which is important,” Luna said. “So I had a place to go, that was very important for me.”
Luna said he feels that a massive part of the neighborhood has been lost following the closure, noting that Alpha Donuts also served as a vital meet-up place for senior citizens.
Luna said he had spoken to about 10 elderly patrons in the last few days and that they are devastated by the news.
“They are lonely souls, they are brokenhearted right now,” Luna said.
“They came here every day. They are lonely people … they live by themselves at home [and] this was their hangout to come and eat and meet the people.”
Luna said the patrons also helped make Alpha Donuts a Sunnyside mainstay.
“It was very unique in the way that people sat down,” Luna said. It was like a friendly kind of thing.”
And for Zorbas, it is the people too that she will miss most about Alpha Donuts.
“I love them and I’m going to miss them. It was a great, great, great experience.”