The next time someone slaps the food industry with a charge of narcissism, you might want to remind them of the time cupcake bakers Allison and Matt Robicelli tirelessly spearheaded grassroots relief for those New York neighborhoods most devastated by Hurricane Sandy. And that—after receiving the news that their gas lines for their kitchen were severed—they forged ahead without even knowing when they'd be able to get back to business for themselves. Their story is just one example of the good done by the food world to help aid those who had been largely ignored and most affected by the superstorm. But it's a particularly compelling one.
"If people need help, I'm going to help them," Allison said, her tone bearing no hint of hesitation, "and I'm not going to wait for permission. I don't know if it's the Brooklyn in me, or the food."
I arrived at their Bay Ridge apartment at 9 in the morning on Sunday. I entered a home packed to the brim with bags full of clothes, toys, and toiletries, where loaves of bread piled high waited for jars of peanut butter to be cracked open. Hunched over her computer, with her phone in her lap and her cat at her side, Allison looked a lot like a general in a makeshift war room. I was tasked with joining the sandwich assembly line, as others came and went: dropping off donations or packing their cars like undersized suitcases. Word of the operation spread contagiously; one woman who came by with a bag of clothes didn't know Allison's name.
"I'm that person who, when things get bad I know what to do," Allison went on. "The Red Cross, FEMA, the National Guard, they've been trying to figure out what to do for four days. These people are starving. We can't wait for them." The Robicellis have gone into total relief mode, rescheduling their lives around the work at the expense of everything else. "Matt has been sick, throwing up. He slept 45 minutes last night. Maybe in a couple days when they're all ready, we'll take a step back."
Over the course of the weekend the Robicellis and local volunteers donated, to Allison's estimate, thousands of PB&J sandwiches. Within three hours of my arrival, some dozen industrial-sized loaves were unpacked, smeared, repacked, and sealed. On Sunday alone, three cars stuffed with food, water, clothes, toys, and toiletries were sent out. When I asked her how this all happened, she found herself challenged to provide a clear answer.
"My background is food and construction. We get things done," was one offer. Another explanation was that she is only person in the "artisan" food scene from south Brooklyn; other food folks, like startup Lonestar Taco, looked to her for information on where to send down food. "I blacked out after we started making sandwiches," she shrugged.
Her efforts began with a visit to a toy drive organized by her mother's group. There she talked to the city councilman and witnessed good intentions—"you've got an office of five or six people, and suddenly 10,000 people are at your front door with clothes asking to help"—but plenty of disorganization and confusion. At the time, she thought there was mostly basement flooding and wind damage and that the Red Cross was out helping. It wasn't until she received a letter from a fellow mom that she realized the extent of the damage.
A subsequent post on Tumblr set things off, and her Twitter stream became—and remains—a resource for anyone looking for information on where to help. People were quick to act: when she tweeted that she had seven people at her house working, newly opened local deli ALC sent over a $100 catering platter. (Of course, there was pizza, too—this is Brooklyn, after all.)
"I was on Twitter getting contacts in affected neighborhoods, talking to people, finding out what was needed where, finding ways to get people help," she explained in a later email. "I was seriously getting calls every hour with tips of new parts of the city calling in, saying no one had been by, no cops, no FEMA, no food—to send help. I figured if I just started yelling on Twitter as loud as I could, people would realize there were a lot bigger problems than what was going on with the subways or not having internet. That there were literally parts of the city being left for dead."
Though she admitted a need to decompress before I left for Staten Island in the early afternoon, Allison proved incapable of relenting. Despite the good news that their kitchen's gas line had been fixed—which took Matt away from their base on Sunday—she continued to help direct volunteers through the weekdays. There was just no way, she wrote me, that she and Matt could stop helping. And she wasn't lying: on Monday, they began working with the Mayor's Office and City Council to set up a "centralized food hub" in Bay Ridge, which is now in the early stages of getting off the ground. Allison remained active coordinating donations and drivers well into Tuesday, but started facing a new hindrance. "Our relief effort in Bay Ridge has been practically shut down due to the fact that there's no gas in our neighborhood," she tweeted yesterday morning.
Allison did worry whether the inspiring volunteer effort would continue, tweeting: "this isn't a crisis that's going away in a week or two. We're in this for the long haul." But in conversation with me, she expressed more grave and personal sentiments. She talked about growing up in Bay Ridge, her love for Staten Island and the friend's house that was her second home, now gone. Here, for the first time, she appeared wounded. And then we talked about her fears.
"The outpouring of support has been great. But it's going to be different next week, people are going to go back to work and move on with their lives," she says. "We've lost half of our clients. It's going to be scary, for our employees, for anyone working per-diem in New York. If we don't support our small businesses, we're going to lose a third of them by March."
When you consider the overhead of running a small business in New York you realize how chilling that estimation is. For anyone who loves food and New York, its a harrowing thought. Ever the organizer, Allison reached out to Manhattan friend Peter Shankman with a way to get his advertising industry friends involved. A 2 p.m. meeting last Thursday connected Allison with Made In NYC, a vetted directory of small businesses; a subsequent press release will be sent out asking companies to do their corporate shopping through the website.
In spite of their vulnerability as small business owners, the Robicelli bakery seemed an unimportant and distant afterthought. The one time it did come up in conversation, Allison said they wouldn't be taking home any money until their girls were able to make up the lost income. (They estimate that they lost thousands of dollars in inventory alone.) Nothing about this week has been glorious, and all of the their efforts have been done without recompense. That they own a small bakery that produces gourmet cupcakes is exactly the point: the Robicellis' efforts epitomize what the food industry is really about, naysayers be damned. Allison insists that she's just doing her part, that she would run it all if she could, and that there are thousands more helping.
But considering how much the Robicellis are giving New York when they themselves are still embroiled in uncertainty, food lovers everywhere should consider all they can do to give back. Without them, and all the others in the food industry who have helped, New York would certainly be worse off right now.
For now, Robicelli's is working at getting back on their feet. Baking will commence on Friday, Matt tells me, but pre-orders are being accepted. Maybe consider a couple thousand cupcakes or two; consider heeding the Slicemaster's call to action, which we are endorsing. A list of locations where their products can be found is available on their website, but it is advised to check with the stores to see if they were affected by the storm and when they'll have the sweet goods back in stock.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.