Oct 3, 2016
From Street Kid to Hamburger King
Snow cones were commonly referred to as “Hard Times Sundaes” way back in the Great Depression—being not just the rare treat that people could actually afford, but also a viable business venture for struggling entrepreneurs, due to exceedingly low overhead. And while it seems a clunky pseudonym for a Brooklyn food truck largely associated with burgers, it attains a striking lyricism when applied to the origin story of its owner, Andrew Zurica—and not only due to the widely known parable of how he successfully rebounded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
It spans a history that—up until now—he’s closely guarded from the media outlets that have eagerly chronicled his ascent, from owner of a hand-fabricated mobile eatery, improbably parked behind a Walgreens in Mill Basin, to Vendy nominee, Instagram darling, and high end food court regular, with coveted spots in both the upcoming DeKalb Market Hall, and UrbanSpace Vanderbilt, mere steps away from commuter-thronged Grand Central. That’s where Zurica has summoned me today, to a cloistered staff quarters overhanging the market. And as he wistfully watches patrons pool around his storefront, he begins to assemble the abject pieces of his past, lurching to a stop whenever employees loiter near. “My father was Italian for a living,” he begins without preamble. “A career street guy, in and out of prison for 12 years. He was a bookie like my grandmother, who had a candy store in Park Slope, taking bets with a housedress and an apron on.”
“We lived in the biggest house in Mill Basin— or the suburban ghetto as I call it—and I ran with all the bad kids,” Zurica continues. “We stole, sold weed on the corner, beat people up, got beat up. One day my dad slipped a pair of my mom’s pantyhose over my head. He put a gun in my hand and told me we were going to rob someone. They never showed up so we never followed through, but talk about a real bonding experience with your father.”
My brows knit, a reflexive show of sympathy. He pauses; he’s not after pity or absolution, merely painting a picture for how things were—and setting the stage for why things fell out the way they did. “I actually attribute a lot of my success today from growing up on the street. The way I’m always on the lookout for opportunities, the way I learned to fight for myself,” Zurica shrugs. “No one really cared about my education so I rarely went to school, but I’d show up on test day, wing it and pass. I’m still that way; I may not have taken a traditional path, but I’m able to fly by the seat of my pants, figure things out, and get them done.”
“I look through the curtain and see cops, detectives, customs agents, federal agents with guns out… I took a breath, thought about sneaking out the window, then calmly opened the door and let them kick their way in.”
And in truth, throughout his pre-teen and young adult years, Zurica largely supported himself (and his mother) by way of legitimate jobs, whether working at restaurants in the winter, or building swimming pools come summer. But he always had to have some sort of side hustle, and by the time both of his parents passed in the mid ’90’s, he took a crucial next step beyond pot peddling and petty thievery. “My friend hooked us up with these DJs who were traveling back and forth from Amsterdam, buying, smuggling, and selling ecstasy,” he says. “I went from selling weed on the corner to international drug trafficking, and all the while, I knew in my bones that someone was going to rat us out and we were going to get caught. So I stopped just like that, and went on the straight and narrow for the next three years.”
It was July of 2000, and Zurica was fast asleep in his Brooklyn apartment, when he was jolted by thunderous banging on the door. “I look through the curtain and see cops, detectives, customs agents, federal agents with guns out. So I went back inside my bedroom and lay down for a minute. I took a breath, thought about sneaking out the window, then calmly opened the door and let them kick their way in,” he remembers. “They took me to a bull pen at Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, and it was just as I had said—some guy had ratted us out and the whole thing went down. They arrested 32 of us that day. It was the biggest conspiracy to sell ecstasy of its time back then; a three million dollar street value drug ring bust.”
And out of those 32, 29 cooperated; save for Zurica (“I had no one to point fingers at but myself”), who spent the next 16 months awaiting sentencing at MDC’s supermax facility (he was actually in lockdown during 9/11, watching helicopters and stray papers whiz by his heavily barred, nine-inch window). He passed the remaining 24 months of his sentence at Allenwood camp in Pennsylvania, where he was eventually put to work in the kitchen, and began to carefully lay plans for when he got out. “I remember sitting in the TV room, watching everyone watch sports, hearing them talk like experts about every play. And I was thinking, half of these guys can’t even read or write. They have no resources when they get out of here,” Zurica says.
“I decided that from this day forward, I’m not watching television anymore. I have megabyte space that needs to be filled with a lot more important information than celebrities and athletes and sports. Sure, if your life is perfect, and you’re paying your bills and have a family and everything is great, go ahead and use it as an extracurricular activity to fill in some void. But if you’re struggling and not happy with your career or finances or where you are in life, what are you doing sitting at home watching Sunday football all day long, instead of trying to find some way to work and make a living? So I told myself, I may be stuck now, but when I get home I’m going to work and work and never stop working. And I had a feeling that food and construction were going to be my things.”
So after a few more harrowing bumps along the way (including a fire during his first Christmas home, which decimated new, hard won belongings like his bed and his clothes, not to mention the beginnings of the memoir he had started in prison), he began his journey towards self-actualization by opening his first Mill Basin restaurant, Luncheonette. But no sooner had Zurica gained momentum—just beginning to garner out-of-neighborhood notice for the burgers that would eventually become his signature—than his idyllic, waterfront location proved to be his downfall, putting him on the front lines of one of the nation’s most formidable natural disasters, Hurricane Sandy.
“Luncheonette was actually a few steps down from the water line. When it started flooding in we tried to seal up doors and lift equipment, but were afraid of getting electrocuted, so there was nothing to do but close the gate, lock up, and go home,” Zurica recalls. “I lived right by the beach and couldn’t get down my street, so I parked two blocks away and waded waist deep through water. My house was filling up, and my dog was standing in the middle of it. I realized my car was the only thing I had left and I couldn’t lose that, too. So I put the dog over my shoulder, jumped in the water, got in the car, and drove around for hours. When all was said and done, both my house and restaurant took on four feet of water. Here I was just getting ahead again, and boom.”
To someone even an iota less resilient, it would have been an easy excuse to break down or backslide completely. But while using the few working remnants left in his restaurant kitchen, in order to cook meals for needy families and cleanup crews in the neighborhood, Zurica transitioned, almost without pause, to his next venture: building and launching a food truck. “There was a guy across from Luncheonette that had gotten rich from Italian ices, so that’s what I decided I’d sell, along with burgers, which appeal to mass audiences,” explains Zurica. “A friend invested $40,000 and I figured out the rest; I went to the city, got the rules and regulations, cut out my own windows, put in all the metal, did the plumbing, chose a name in the 11th hour, worked out a deal with the owner of the property, and parked. And in the 16 months that it took me, from conception to construction, I never took a day off.”
“For two years I lived on the balls of my ass in a foreclosed home, but people would see all my pictures and articles and assume I was a success. The real deal was that I faked it until I made it.”
Of course, for a business so entirely dependent on foot traffic, Hard Times Sundaes’s original location appeared exceedingly iffy, positioned in one of Brooklyn’s sleepiest neighborhoods, a good 30-minute walk from the subway. And Zurica’s now infamously gruff “no, you can’t have it your way” persona seemed equally unsuited for the upbeat and sunshiny food truck world, from his unwavering stance on eggs, to his moratorium on mayo. “Eventually, I caved and bought packets, but I’d tell my customers they’d have to leave to put mayonnaise on their burgers, they couldn’t do it here,” Zurica bristles. “I didn’t want to be a dick about it so I’d say it with a smile, but inside I’d be gritting my teeth. And I never put an egg on it when it was cool to put an egg on it, and I never added foie gras or special sauces or fucking cabbage, and I still won’t to this day.”
Yet, despite it all, word on Hard Times Sundaes actually got out, snowballing from a series of articles (including one of the first in Brooklyn Magazine) to numerous event invitations, a Vendy nomination, a couple of television appearances, and, finally, an opportunity to move beyond Mill Basin and into a brick-and-mortar outpost in UrbanSpace. “I’m only just now starting to make money; all my efforts up until now have gone towards creating a brand,” Zurica stresses. “For two years I lived on the balls of my ass in a foreclosed home, but people would see all my pictures and articles and assume I was a success. The real deal was that I faked it until I made it.”
Which is why (not without a good deal of trepidation) he’s made a conscious decision to come clean with his whole story today, in hopes of inspiring and motivating others like him. “I’ve been to more funerals by the time I was 20 than you can imagine, and somehow I made it. Possibly prison saved my life. I might have been doing the same shit,” Zurica allows. “Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, and wherever you’ve been, I can tell you that I’ve been through all of it. But I always had confidence in myself that I could make it. When I was waist deep in water there was never a doubt, and when I was evicted from my house there was never a doubt.”
“We lived in the biggest house in Mill Basin—
or the suburban ghetto as I call it—and I ran with
all the bad kids.”
“Whether your ideas are terrific or terrible, execute them correctly and you’ll succeed,” he continues. “So don’t sit home and watch the game. Get up at four in the morning, go to yard sales, buy a box of magazines for $1, and sell them on Ebay for $10. Be passionate about something and do it every day, because if you want to find a way, believe me, you’ll find a way.” ♦
Photos / Patrick Kolts
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