Back during the gilded days before the pandemic, 85-year-old Mel Yorke would drive from his home to the Garden City eatery owned by his son, Richard Yorke, in a shopping plaza near Roosevelt Field. For more than seven years, Mac & Melts has fueled the office workers and mallgoers of Stewart Avenue with burger melts, grilled-cheese sandwiches and iron skillets of mac-and-cheese. "Our location was lousy, but our food is great," says Mel Yorke, long the unofficial, charismatic greeter inside Mac & Melts' casual dining room. Yorke would joke with customers as they navigated layers of molten cheddar, Gouda and Gruyere. "I used to be there every day, kibitzing with customers. I loved the people I met," he says with a hint of regret.
In March, that came to a hard stop. In a decision that may not have been unanimous between father and son, Richard Yorke chose to keep Mac & Melts' dining room closed after on-premises eating resumed, relying solely on takeout and delivery. He told his dad, who survived COVID-19 last spring (as did Richard Yorke's mother) to essentially stay home.
"He believes our store is too small. At the cost of losing business, he does [Mac & Melts] as a takeout business. He doesn’t need me anymore," complains Mel Yorke, whose voice booms so clearly across a cellphone that he could almost be in the room. "I miss it. I’m bored!"
If you didn't know Mac & Melts was there, you might bypass the place, tucked as it is into a strip mall anchored by a Burlington Coat Factory. Inside, the walls and counters are the colors of cheddar and sunshine, and the air is suffused with the smell of melting cheese. A trio of iron skillets on the counter — small, larger, largest — are relics of the time when one could linger over some short-rib mac-and-cheese.
But for now, the tables have been removed from the dining area, and the cash register is behind plexiglass. Seven years into what had been a steady business, Richard Yorke says sales have been "consistently 50% off" since COVID-19 began. "We had a lot of loyal people that we lost, up and down Stewart Avenue. We’re right behind office buildings, doctor’s offices, law offices. They have no people — they have skeleton crews there now," he says.
To compound matters, operating costs have spiked. While the price of masks has gone down — they were $150 a box at one point in 2020, Yorke says — cleaning supplies and other necessities remain high. "Gloves that used to be $28 are $90 a case today. Where do we get these funds from? It’s very hard."
Even so, Yorke says he is trying to endure what will hopefully be the latter days of the pandemic. As I waited anonymously for some takeout, the younger Yorke's connection with his customers was still clear, even from a distance and behind a panel of plexiglass. When a customer after me ordered a soda that he didn't have — there are no fountain drinks right now — Yorke apologized with sincere regret, then paused for a beat. "You know what, I’ll get one for you," he told her.
"No, no, it’s OK," said the woman.
"No. I will," he said.
Back at home, Mel Yorke is respecting his son's wishes to stay away from Mac & Melts, but can't seem to resist the opportunity to meet a writer there. "Tell me what day you want to go, and I will be there," he says, over the phone.
"Sure," I fib, as I'd never compel an 80-something take that kind of risk.
Mel Yorke then turns fatherly. "Don't forget to double mask, and don’t go into crowds!" he advises, before hanging up.
Mac & Melts, 684 Stewart Ave., Garden City. 516-246-9610. macnmelts.com