The Lasting Impact of Hurricane Sandy on NYC's Food Artisans
"Believe me, we would have made more pig candy."
Having no power in her Essex Street Market production kitchen a week before the New York Chocolate Show left Rhonda Kave of Roni-Sue Chocolate with less inventory at the show than she—and plenty of potential customers—would have liked. Before the storm hit, she says, she had done a fair amount of production for the show, especially of her molded bonbons. Afterward, since she lives downtown and didn't have cell service, she spent several long days wondering what she'd find when she finally got into the market several days later.
"Theoretically, everything should have been okay," she says, barring the cream fillings and other perishable ingredients sitting in rapidly warming refrigerators. "It was quirky, the things that weren't okay," she shares. Any bonbons topped with fleur de sel, for instance. The moisture in the air was attracted to the salt, leaving them wet on top and unsalable. (Far from inedible though; her market neighbors got to enjoy them.)
Once she was able to access her kitchen on the Wednesday after the storm and figure out what could be salvaged, she had to find somewhere to keep it. A market in Harlem offered her space, but not nearly as much as she needed. Then one of her Essex Market cohorts, Patrick from Heritage Meats, lent her space in his walk-in fridge in Bushwick, she says, "saving my products while he lost thousands of dollars himself in meat that had gone bad in his powerless Essex Street Market walk-in."
Scott Bridi of Brooklyn Cured experienced the same mad scramble for refrigeration after the storm. His product—meat—has a limited window for how long it would be safe in still-cold but powerless freezers before it would need to be discarded. So when he learned that the power was out in his Sunset Park kitchen, he needed to move it quickly. Luckily for him, the Hell's Kitchen facility where does some production was in good shape. Finding a vehicle that could hold all the meat that needed to move, getting access to the Brooklyn building, finding a route into Manhattan when most of the bridges were closed, and doing it all without losing product was, he says, "a logistical shitshow." He adds, "all things being equal, if it had just been our building without power, if people hadn't been losing their lives and homes, I could have complained for weeks." He adds, "In context, it was just a nuisance."
Fany Gerson of La Newyorkina, who makes Mexican sweets including the iced treats called paletas, didn't fare as well with her frozen goods. Her Red Hook kitchen is still without power as of this writing, and she'd lost both considerable inventory and specialized equipment that was ruined by flooding. "The popsicle machines are my biggest concern," she shared. "They were costly, and it was hard to get them here from Argentina."
Beyond the lost products and equipment, Gerson is worried about possible damage to her reputation. Because of the timing of the storm, Gerson was unable to meet any of her obligations for Day of the Dead sweets and said that she'd heard from restaurants she supplied last year that customers had been asking for them again and were disappointed. "That kind of damage, people being unhappy, that's hard to recover from."
Gerson is looking for a space to cook in the interim, but hopes to be back in her own kitchen before too long. La Newyorkina will be selling Mexican cookies and candy at the Columbus Circle holiday market this year. Since she's a month behind her production schedule, she'll be focusing her efforts on producing for the market, putting off opening the online store she was planning or approaching other stores about carrying her wares.
Jessica Quon and Sabrina Valle of The Jam Stand rented space from Gerson in her kitchen, but managed to save some of their inventory because the floodwaters flowed around their wire racks instead of pushing them over, like they did with solid shelving and large freezers. "We walked away with five cases per flavor," Quon says. "It lasted for a week." Instead of looking for new cooking space immediately, Quon and Valle decided to work with a co-packer upstate to get through the holiday season, which includes being at the Columbus Circle market and the Brooklyn Night Market. They'll take stock in the new year. "We'll probably have to look for a different space," she says, "It's so sad to see the community as a whole going through this."
Cacao Prieto is another Red Hook business, and their facility took on about a foot of water when the surge forced water up through the old sewer lines. Founder Daniel Preston estimates the losses at about $500,000 in lost inventory, damages, and business interruption, but says they were up and running again after about a week. "We didn't know what else to do but work twice as hard," he says, adding that they're raising money through product sales to donate to the Red Hook Initiative, including what he calls a "silly special offering" for the holidays: vodka distilled from gummi bears.
Not everyone sustained losses though. Alex Crosier of Granola Lab, who works out of the same kitchen in Sunset Park as Bridi, describes herself and her company as "incredibly lucky." Granola is a shelf-stable product made from shelf-stable ingredients, and is, therefore, she says, "the ideal product for when the lights go out." And since she only cooks twice a week normally, Crosier only lost one day of production. Her orders got backed up, but she says her customers understood: "Everyone was more concerned than anything."
Concern for others is the most frequently recurring theme of all of these stories: vendors' concern for the makers, the makers' concern for their employees, and everyone's concern for those who were hit harder by the storm than they were themselves. Almost everyone donated their time and proceeds to charities that were working with Sandy victims. Bridi worked with the Robicellis on their relief efforts, ran the kitchen for the Red Hook Initiative for several days, and is working with friends in the business on a soon-to-launch endeavor to use existing distribution networks to get food to people who will continue to need it in the Rockaways.
Brad Finkel of Hoboken Farms believes that he and his team "were unbelievably lucky because we were able to be of service." His own Hoboken bakery out of commission from flooding, Finkel worked out of another bakery to produce 2,000 loaves of bread, which he gave out to people on the streets of Hoboken. "I was going to give it to FEMA or the Red Cross," he says, until he realized that he had a way to immediately meet a fundamental need of the people around him. The power of that need deeply affected him. "This is the town I grew up in, now people were grabbing for bread," he says. "I realized that the way forward for us as a business is through service."
Crosier agrees, "We're all part of this community," she says. "I'm doing what I can to the best of my abilities, donating a portion of proceeds, volunteering my time. If everyone does something, that's a big deal."
About the author: Stephanie Klose has more mustard than you. You can follow her on twitter at @sklose.