The lunch crowd at Austin’s Ale House in Kew Gardens can be a loud one. While some men sip soup in shirtsleeves barely glancing upward, others are prone to loud, sometimes angry, protests or fist-pumping cheers at the sight of a certain horse galloping to victory across a flat screen overhead.
Nobody seems to mind the noise, but many say they’ll miss it.
If all goes according to plan - and many, from politicians, to gamblers to bartenders are hoping it doesn’t - the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation will be packing up and moving out of restaurants like Austin’s and three other Queens locations - Blackstone Restaurant & Pub in Astoria, Irish Circle in Rockaway Park and O’Neill’s in Maspeth - by mid-June.
According to NYC OTB’s closing plan, voted into action on February 19, the 71 remaining OTB outposts around the city - two have already closed - will cease business operations in mid-June. State-mandated financial distributions, based on revenue instead of profit, would have caused the corporation to run cash negative by June. Mayor Bloomberg, who urged NYC OTB to close shop, said he would not subsidize a gambling operation.
While stand-alone OTB branches will simply be gutted and put up for rent like the Steinway Street outpost, the restaurant locations that house OTBs may be left struggling to fill a void. Owners are compensated with a percentage of the daily handle and receive incremental share increases when certain benchmarks are met, so OTB’s absence may be apparent immediately. But what about the food and drink purchased by OTB players?
“Some use the bar and OTB. Some just wager,” explained John Kohout, a manager at Austin’s who claimed only about 2 to 3 percent of his customers are betting. Austin’s hooked up with OTB five years ago and was in business another ten before that so Kohout isn’t too worried.
On a recent weekday at lunchtime, all of the roughly 60 TVs at Austin’s were tuned to horseracing. About 50 people, mostly men, were eating at restaurant booths, propped on stools at the bar, or sitting in the separate OTB parlor poring over Racing Forms.
A couple talked over lunch while horses raced silently on the muted television beside them. All was quiet aside from the normal din of weekday lunch until Joey, Gary and Jose jumped to their feet at the far end of the bar, screaming excitedly as a race ended.
Unlike Kohout, the regular OTB players at Austin’s have been knocked off stride by the OTB announcement.
“It sucks. A lotta people are in here for OTB,” exclaimed Joey Dellaratta.
“Why would you wanna hurt me? Where would I go when I wanna play hooky from my office? Where do I hide from my wife? Where do I hide from my kids?” he asked emphatically.
Gary Taylor said he’ll go to the racetrack instead of coming to Austin’s when he gets off work early.
“I’m here everyday,” Taylor said matter-of-factly.
“I’ll be here [if OTB leaves]. I don’t know about everyday, but I’ll be here,” he said.
Their pal Jose Fernandez thinks OTB will strike a last minute deal like Aqueduct did. “Tell Albany to stop skimming off the top and give the city the money it deserves,” Fernandez said.
Johanna Cassidy, a bartender and waitress at Austin’s for 13 years, explained that OTB helped bring in new customers when others were driven away by the smoking ban.
“Without OTB, business will suffer a little. Daytime playtime is no longer,” Cassidy said, laughing as she walked down the bar to take an order.
In an effort to keep “playtime” in tact, Councilmember David Weprin and union leaders recently called for a renegotiation of OTB’s statutory payments, citing the 1,500 OTB jobs and residual payments to the city that are in jeopardy.
“I think it’s just a threat by the mayor because he’s a businessman,” Kohout said, noting that Austin’s would gladly help advocate for an OTB reprieve if approached.
Meanwhile, Frank ‘The Mailman’ Fumai engaged in small talk with Cassidy, dumping oyster crackers in his soup, paying little attention to the OTB contingent as if shaking his head and smiling at the neighborhood kids playing stickball in the street.
“Makes no difference to me,” ‘The Mailman’ said.
“I come for lunch. I came here before OTB. I’ll come after OTB.”