Perez’s popular grilled chicken, ham, and cheese sandwiches inspired by el completo. Credit: GWB Juice Bar

At the George Washington Bridge Bus Station, one food vendor adds color to the Greyhounds and grayer concrete trusses: GWB Juice Bar, a Washington Heights kiosk that doles out cool Caribbean drinks like soursop smoothies and classic Dominican morir soñando, a creamy concoction of milk, sugar, and orange juice. 

Owner Luis Perez also serves hot dogs and pressed sandwiches — including grilled chicken sandwiches with ham and cheese. His inspiration: el completo, a “complete” sandwich of pernil (slow-roasted marinated pork leg or shoulder), ham, and cheese that harkens back to his summers in 1990s Santo Domingo.

GWB Juice Bar is a hidden gem behind Marshalls at the GWB Bus Station. Credit: GWB Juice Bar

If you’ve caught a bus from the station but didn’t see the stand, it’s not for a lack of pizzazz — the juice bar is covered in images of fruits, hot dogs, and sandwiches. It’s also typically blasting merengue– Los Hermanos Rosario is a favorite– or, Michael Jackson. And during some holidays and on  Perez’s birthday, he hosts parties with freebies. 

“We’re gonna treat you like family,” Perez said. “Don’t matter if you spend a dollar or ten dollars, you’ll be treated with respect … with open arms.”

A true hidden gem

Being a truly hidden gem is Perez’s biggest challenge. 

To get to GWB Juice Bar, you have to either enter through Broadway, take the escalators to Marshalls and use the back exit, or enter through a quieter street on Fort Washington Avenue. 

“People who live across the street or in the neighborhood two blocks away don’t know that I’m there,” said Perez, who started the business three months before the Covid-19 pandemic.  “People come out of Marshalls from the back and they’re like, ‘oh my God, what’s going on? I been coming to Marshall for five years; I didn’t know you was back here.’”

A small but loyal customer base has kept the business going.

When the pandemic hit, the number of people passing through the GWB Bus Station . Not only was the shop closed for three months, but when it opened again, the nearby train station entrance was closed for a while, which meant even less foot traffic.

The juice bar lost about 95% of its clientele, Perez says: “It was like a desert … a dead zone.” 

He says Port Authority and his landlord tag-teamed to help him stay open, giving him a 75% rent discount for a year. And Perez put his personal income from a full-time job in the hotel industry into his business. 

How Perez found the passion to start a juice bar

It wasn’t the first time Perez had fought to keep a small business going, in part due to a foot traffic issue. His Dominican mother and Italian stepfather opened an Italian restaurant in the West Village in 1995. Shortly after opening, the city started construction on the West Side Highway, so access to the restaurant was limited.

Luis Perez has gleaned lessons from an old family business. Credit: GWB Juice Bar

Then his stepfather died three days after the restaurant opened. “And it was only me and my mother,  so it was a tough decision, because none of us knew the business,” Perez said. “But my mother said, ‘come on, let’s stay open; let’s fight for your stepfather, for his legacy.’”

His mother then took on the role of chef, and Perez stepped up to manage the business. “I’m a survivor; I’m a fighter,” Perez said. They lasted three years but eventually had to close down. Back then, the restaurant rent was about $10,000.  

Despite losing that “battle,” Perez says, it taught him patience, drive, and the ins and outs of running a business. He would go on to work in food and service in Hilton and Marriott hotels — and at GWB Juice Bar. 

“It didn’t let my hopes down,” Perez said. “We walked out almost with nothing in our hands, but it planted a seed in my mind — ‘I must do this again; I must have this again.’”

His son, Luis Perez Navarro, who helps his father with marketing, says it came as no surprise his father started GWB Juice Bar: “His passion really is the food industry, so I think it’s awesome to see it come to life,” he said. “I like the Dominican twist on everything — that’s important, being from Washington Heights.”

Being more than a juice bar

From his years working in hotels, Perez also learned customer service skills: “I was taught to wow, to bring an unforgettable experience,” he said. “I try to implement this experience in my small juice bar, to make a connection, make [customers] feel special.”

Luis Perez serves up smoothies, sandwiches, and smiles at GWB Juice Bar. Credit: GWB Juice Bar

He would go so far as to buy Yankees swag for a guest’s superfan kid. At GW Juice Bar, apart from the toys and balloons he hands out for his seasonal parties, his smiles and kind words are well known. 

“I’m like the mayor,” said Perez, who was born and raised in Washington Heights. His neighbors know him and stop by to say hi at the cheerful-looking juice bar, even when they don’t buy from him or have less-than-cheerful stories to share.  

“I’ve had people come to me feeling down and I’m like, ‘here, sit down, have a smoothie. tell me what’s going on,’” he said. Whether they’ve lost their job or their child is sick, Perez tries his best to advise, sometimes bringing God into the conversation. 

Two years ago, one customer passed by to say hi. Perez noticed her sad eyes and asked what was wrong. Her daughter was terminally ill, she told him. He came around the counter and gave her a hug and warm words, vowing he would pray for her daughter. Months later, she stopped by to tell him her daughter was doing well. She usually buys two hot dogs from GWB Juice Bar — one for her and one for her daughter. 

“That made me feel very, very good, just that connection, [even with] people who have never bought anything from me,” Perez said. “The juice bar is — we are special therapy here, we are guidance, and we’re just a place to make people happy.”

GWB Juice Bar is hosting a summer party in a few weeks. The “mayor” of morir soñando and soursop smoothies will be waiting. 

Visit GWB Juice Bar at 408 Fort Washington Avenue (behind the Marshalls at the GWB bus terminal). 

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1 Comment

  1. Mi querido sobrino(sonrisa)
    Eres un luchador y por eso tu reconosimiento en todo lo que haces, no importa lo cansado que esté siempre recibe a tus clientes con una sonrisa 😁.

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