Jan. 2, 2019 By Laura Hanrahan
A multi-franchisee operator and active community member who introduced Arby’s to the Middle Village area and beyond has died.
Tom Clarke, who owned several fast-casual franchises in the borough and brought Arby’s to Metropolitan Avenue after purchasing the property in the early 2000s, died unexpectedly on Dec. 28 at age 63.
A Long Island-native and franchisee owner for decades, Clarke operated several Arby’s and Burger King restaurants throughout Queens and Long Island, and pioneered the first northeast Taco John’s.
Clarke was a certified public accountant by trade, and began working in the restaurant business in 1991 when he opened his first Burger King location, according to a 2015 interview with Taco John’s, which described him as a “food franchising pioneer.”
He soon expanded to Arby’s and Taco John’s franchises, eventually operating eight fast-food restaurants.
Clarke took pride in the quality of his restaurant’s food, saying that he served “real food” at a good price.
His Arby’s expansion to Middle Village came with some controversy, as the 69-16 Metropolitan Ave. property was once home to Niederstein’s, a German eatery which was the oldest restaurant in Queens when in closed in 2005 after 150 years.
The new franchise property, which Clarke purchased that year for $1.6 million, meant that the wooden building that housed the old restaurant had to be demolished, despite attempts to rehabilitate the structure.
Council Member Robert Holden commemorated Clarke in a Facebook post on the day of his death, recalling the interactions he had with him after he first bought the former Niederstein’s property.
“At the time Tom contacted me in my role as Juniper Park Civic Association president,” Holden wrote. “He knew the neighborhood was mourning the loss of the iconic Niederstein’s. He wanted to pay tribute to the restaurant and asked me for photos of the area and of Niederstein’s.”
Inside, the restaurant now displays a photographic history of the surrounding Middle Village and Maspeth area.
“As a stakeholder in our community, Tom respected the neighborhood, attending several town meetings and community events,” Holden wrote. “Over the years Tom Clarke contributed to countless events and charities in the neighborhoods he served.”
Clarke, for instance, had a partnership with PS 177, a school for students with disabilities in Fresh Meadows, where he helped kids there develop practical work skills at his Burger King and Arby’s locations under the supervision of a teacher or assistant.
He also regularly donated kids’ meals and more from his restaurant to the school’s annual holiday parties, holding upwards of 400 students.
Clarke also received the Business Person of the Year award in 2013 from the Middle Village Kiwanis Club for his work in the community.
Community members recalled their memories of Clarke’s giving nature and his many efforts to reach out to local residents after his death.
“Tom was a big supporter of our local Veterans,” one resident commented on Holden’s Facebook post. “When the Vietnam Wall was in Juniper Valley park, Arby’s supplied 50 complete lunches one day. During the Queens Veterans Parade for four years he would give out water and cookies to everyone in the parade as they passed Arby’s.”
Clarke was buried at All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village on Dec. 31.