As the most densely populated borough of New York City, Manhattan is known to be the city’s historical birthplace. It is often described as the cultural and financial capital of the world. Located in the Upper East Side of Manhattan is a gourmet food shop called William Poll. The business is surrounded by the hustle and bustle of New Yorkers, rushing to get to where they need to be. The shop is a handful of blocks away from the 77th Street station of the 6 train and one can see an abundance of restaurants, food shops, Starbucks, and clothing stores as one walks to William Poll.


The front of William Poll

Zach Yuzon

Walking to the storefront, my parter and I are greeted by a windows displaying the store’s name in orange script. Behind the window is a display case with food like chocolate eggs, gluten-free pretzels, Grinotines, and boxes with what I presume to be gourmet foods inside them. Several employees are behind counters and display cases where they are serving customers along with other employees who are preparing food in the kitchen, which is completely visible to the entire store since there are no walls separating the kitchen and the front of the store. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling, giving the store a classy atmosphere. Walking in, we are welcomed by the sight of a banner proclaiming the store’s celebration of its 81st anniversary, which we would later learn was an old banner and the store was actually celebrating its upcoming 96th anniversary.

I try to make everyday a learning experience. So I learn a new recipe, I learn a new customer...a new vocabulary word or a new way of being patient or communicating. James Poll

James Poll

Born in Jackson Heights, Queens, James Poll is no stranger to the family business. James has been involved in William Poll since he was 4 or 5 years old. James has a very friendly personality, which definitely helps with having good relationships with the customers; he is funny, upbeat, and generous. His main goal everyday is to learn. “I try to make everyday a learning experience. So I learn a new recipe, I learn a new customer— we know their names, we know everything they like to eat, we know their addresses. I’ll learn— whether it’s a new vocabulary word or a new way of being patient or communicating.” During our conversation, customers walked in multiple times and James always greeted them and asked how they were doing.

Other than running the gourmet shop, James Poll also works as a comedian. People have even asked him to do their wedding videos so that they would be done in a humorous fashion. Before fully committing to running the business, James mentions that he wanted to be a doctor. Unfortunately, he decided not to pursue this career because his father became sick with cancer. As a result of this, James decided to take over running the business for him. However, he considers himself blessed to be running this business and does not regret a thing.

Inside William Poll

The History of William Poll

William Poll is first and foremost, a family-run business. It was first started in 1921 when James’ uncle, Angel moved from Greece to New York. After starting the business, he then sent for his brother, William, who was living in Thessaloniki. William crossed the Atlantic ocean on an engineering ship as a stowaway. He lived in the engine room and could only eat and shower at 2 in the morning. William ended up in Cuba where he made a living by selling bootleg liquor and cigarettes, then traveled to New York where he ran the shop with his brother.

In the late 30s, they opened up a second location for the store in Jobs Lane in South Hampton. Unfortunately, the second location was closed down after Angel’s death after a train accident while he was driving down to Long Island. The shop’s name was eventually changed from Angel Poll to William Poll.

The shop has had many different places to call home in its 96 years of existence. William Poll was located on 86th and Lexington Avenue for 1 year, then it was located on 81st and Lexington for 5 years, then it was located on 78th and Lexington for 25 years before moving to its current home on 75th and Lexington. The major reason for all this relocating was rent. In its initial location at 86th and Lexington Avenue, the rent doubled after 1 year. When the shop was located on 78th and Lexington, the rent tripled after 25 years. This has proven to be a major problem for many businesses, but William Poll has managed to overcome their rent issues multiple times and flourish as a business.

The History of the Neighborhood


NYC Market Analysis from the 1940s

William Poll has been situated in Manhattan’s Upper East Side for just under a century. It’s flow of wealthy customers from the surrounding neighborhood has accounted for most of their widespread success over the years. However, two major social factors have established the profits for the Lexington Avenue store: demographic population and household income. Back in the 1940’s, the majority of the Upper East Side’s population was white (about 98%, including both native and foreign-born). A majority of that population has spent over $10,000 in expenditures, signifying the high-class living and spending habits back in the day. Still, this trend has reached up to today’s standards based on income. Within the last decade, 42% of the Lexington Avenue’s combined 90,000+ population has made $150,000-$199,000 in average income.


NYC Census Data (including income) from the last decade

James explains how these wealthy patrons have come to notice his business. “Because 5th Avenue and Madison were always homes of the wealthy, and the stables for their horses, or their garages were on Lexington and 3rd.  Their horses, or their garages were on Lexington and 3rd. And the housekeepers or the butlers lived either on Lexington and Park or in the townhouses with the families. So this was the way down.”


2016 Census Average Income Data

However, New York has become more diverse over the years with the rise in immigration. For example, the average Asian family income in the neighborhood in 2016 was just over $850,000, signifying that the luxurious lifestyle of the 1940s can still be applied in today’s modernity. James notes the demographics of his customers in saying that they are “60% from here (New York), 25% Europe, 5% South America, and 5% Asia.” While the predominantly white population still persists, this implies how William Poll has attracted many customers of diverse backgrounds and cultures that add to the melting pot that is New York City.


William Poll: In the 1980s

In addition to the customers of the Upper East Side, the fellow business owners along Lexington Avenue have played a crucial role in James’ success, both for the better and the worst, the latter including neighboring businesses closing down. As depicted in a 1980s photograph, William Poll’s neighbor (right) has gone out of business, which only adds to the store’s uniqueness both as a surviving business in the neighborhood, and their presentation of gourmet food to the public. The photo also proves that living in a very wealthy financial neighborhood doesn’t guarantee success. So, how does William Poll continue to thrive if its location isn’t the only factor in its survival? Perhaps, it is the hospitality the store presents toward its hungry customers and fellow food-related businesses [along Lexington Avenue] that has contributed to its prosperity.

There’s a lot of respect and love— it’s not about commerce. It’s about feeling and family. James Poll

Giving Back to the Neighborhood and the Community

William Poll takes pride in the things that it considers important: family and generosity. James states that the shopkeepers in the area help each other out. For example, if a restaurant runs out of eggs, William Poll will send someone to give them 6-10 dozen eggs from their own storage. If William Poll runs out of turkey, they’ll get turkey from one of the other food shops and then repay them later on.

The store considers its customers as family and treats them as such. “We all band together and we watch out for the children.” The shop has a sticker on the front door that says “Safe haven.” James explains that this means that any child that feels threatened by someone can come into the shop and be protected. The employees will call their parents and call the police if needed.


The wall where the Christmas pictures are put up

Zach Yuzon

The shop has been around long enough to have customers from different generations. According to James, families have come to the shop and said, “oh I remember your parents,” or, “Mr. and Mrs. Poll used to give me cookies as a child.” The people who have known Mr. and Mrs. Poll since they were children now bring their children and grandchildren to the shop, thereby introducing a whole new generation of customers. Another thing that the shop does that adds to the feeling of family it prides itself on occurs from Thanksgiving up until a few weeks into the next year. During this 3 month time period, customers send their Christmas pictures to the shop. Then, the shop puts these pictures up on a wall where it eventually gets filled up with Christmas pictures from their customers.

The shop also gives back to the neighborhood anonymously. “Anybody that needs a gift certificate or a donation, whether it’s church, Greek cathedral, temple, mosque, or school. From Downtown, all the way up to Connecticut. We give back to everybody.” One of the organizations they donate to is Ronald McDonald House Charities, which is a charity that takes care of many kids including those with cancer. William Poll also gives back to the police force and the firemen. James and his brother were part of New York’s Finest for 20 years. During his time there, James learned that police do not get their own vests and that Kevlar disintegrates after 4-5 years. As a result, William Poll raises money in order to buy vests for the police force. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, the shop feeds 2 police departments and 2 fire departments to thank them for the work they do in protecting the community.

William Poll also feeds the homeless 10 times a year. “At night, whatever is left over, we send over to a homeless shelter.” Also, during Christmas, the store makes a lot of gingerbread houses. They sell a few hundred every year, but they earmark 10 extra to go to organizations like Ronald McDonald House Charities, Sloan Kettering Cancer House, and several nursing homes.


William Poll has faced many challenges in its 96 years of existence. A major one, as previously mention, was rent. The store has had to move locations several times because their rent was doubled and even tripled. Is rent still a challenge they face nowadays? No. They currently have a long lease for the building they reside in.

James also names strikes as another challenge the business faces. Not because the employees at William Poll are striking, but city-wide strikes. He explains how the 2005 Transit Strike knocked business out for everybody from about December 21-23. It was a very difficult issue to deal with because, as James explains, 35% of a business’s year is from Thanksgiving to January 2nd. Businesses had to close on such a significant time of the year. Furthermore, in a dairy strike or a transit strike, trucks aren’t allowed into the city so the business can’t get its deliveries of products needed to restock its current inventory.

Another problem that a transit strike presents is the fact that employees can’t get to work. Some employees live in boroughs other than Manhattan. If employees can’t get to work, the business won’t be able to run efficiently. Fortunately for William Poll, some workers do live in the city, so they can come in and cover for them.


Surviving as a business for nearly 100 years is not an easy task to achieve. Being located in a wealthy neighborhood definitely brings numerous positives for a business. However, it also poses multiple problems such as high amounts of rent, which can stand in a business’s way of lasting a long time. William Poll overcame this issue by establishing meaningful and genuine relationships with their customers and fellow shopkeepers. With this strategy, customers are more likely to stay loyal to the shop and if a business lasts long enough, customers will introduce their children and grandchildren thereby bringing in new customers.

What makes William Poll even more special is how their modus operandi isn’t concentrated on financial gain but for the community to prosper. They have lasted for almost 100 years and they wish to give back to the community that has helped them flourish for so long. The motivation for William Poll’s generosity comes naturally to them because as James describes, “Greeks are very hospitable…we’re known for being generous,” which is especially helpful in the hospitality business.

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