Ayhan Hassan and Port Washington have enjoyed a wonderful relationship for the past twenty something years. Over that time, locals have watched him turn a simple snack bar into three hugely popular restaurants on lower Main Street (Shish-Kebab, Fish-Kebab, and the Mediterranean Market). And, in addition to bringing revenue and out-of-town spenders to this lovely seaside town, he has beautified lower Main Street, making it a charmingly quaint and interesting destination for many.
Recently, Ayhan, who worked his way over from Cyprus to the United States on an oil tanker in 1973, expanded his "empire" into Rockville Centre and Plainview and continued to add more chapters to his successful "American Dream" story.
Last week, however, our Mediterranean golden boy was dealt a real blow. For the past week, a major outbreak of shigellosis, a gastrointestinal illness, was reported to the board of health by several hundred callers who had eaten at his restaurants. However, only 49 cases have been confirmed by the lab, 11 of which are from employees of his five restaurants.
For some, this food-borne illness can cause mild to severe diarrhea, often with fever and traces of blood or mucous in the stool. Others, however, may have no symptoms even though they carry the bacteria. Symptoms may appear one to seven days after exposure, but usually occur within two to three days.
Spokesperson for the Nassau County Board of Health Cynthia Brown said that the spread of shigellosis could have been caused by raw food, such as vegetables that arrived in the restaurant already contaminated, improper food preparation or an infected employee who handled food without thoroughly washing his or her hands.
In a phone interview with Ayhan, he told the Port News that he's "devastated" and "overwhelmed" by the recent events. "My waist size has gone down two inches," he said.
He finds it all hard to understand. "I've been in business for 21 years and must have served 12 million people. I'm not doing anything differently. Our kitchens are open and routinely inspected by the Board of Health." He added, "I've always been proud of running clean and healthy kitchens. It had to be something that came in from the outside."
He said he feels terrible that so many people became sick, and finds it difficult to go from table to table and speak to people. However, he is overwhelmed and amazed by the outpouring of support and affection from the local communities. "It brings tears to my eyes," he said, noting that many loyal customers and local officials, Legislator Craig Johnson, State Senator Mike Balboni and TONH Supervisor May Newburger have come in to eat, just to show their support of him. "I've received prayer cards from people and we've had many emotional moments with our local friends."
Groups of local people are even making it a point of eating at one of Ayhan's places.
He noted that he asked the officials from the Board of Health if they recommended that he close down. "They said no," he said. He reported that the Board of Health has been at his restaurants every day. "They tell me there's no indication that the restaurants continue to pose a threat to public health."
Cynthia Brown advises that the investigation into the exact source of the outbreak is still not completed and may take another week or two.
His restaurants have been cited in the past for violations. Ms. Brown notes however that citations can include things like uncovered light bulbs or inaccurately placed signs (i.e. Employees Must Wash Hands). She did note that in 1996 and 1998 the Board of Health had conferences with Ayhan based on violations in his establishments that included bare hand contact. She also noted that Ayhan is being very cooperative.
The Nassau County and New York State Department of Health strongly advise all individuals who ate food from these establishments over the past week to carefully wash their hands.
Anyone who thinks they may have been infected should call 571-2649.