More than two months have passed since Hurricane Sandy, but the stories of struggle in New York's food industry continue to trickle in unabated. Some restaurants, such as The Good Fork, are only now returning. More yet cannot say with certainty when they will reopen. Others, like Barbarini Alimentari, have been 86ed. Between the $1 million in damages reported by the New York Post and the expensive insurance plan that is playing hide and seek, Babarbarini's closure makes it clear how much of a challenge it is for these businesses to return.
Still, there are others who are fighting against the odds. Among them are Court Street Grocers and La Newyorkina, whose owners spoke with us about their ongoing plights. In October, both were beginning to make good on their ambitions. Months later, they're still trying to get back on their feet.
Court Street Grocers is, as Erin described it in her 2011 review, a store run by "three dudes [who] just want to sell all the seriously good stuff they can find across the country." That same desire comes through in their sandwich selection, a combination of consistently original creations that beguile a discerning palate and regional homages to the D.C. half-smoke, Philly's roasted pork sandwich, and the Jersey pork roll.
Although Hurricane Sandy left the original store unscathed, their unopened Red Hook location was not spared.
Last June, the team purchased a space on Sullivan Street, intending to turn it into a commissary and sandwich shop. The additional room and gas ovens meant they would be able to produce in greater bulk, start packaging their products, and expand their catering business. When Sandy hit, they were still in the process of redoing the electricity. The plumbing and walls had been finished, with the only other major work left to do being the walk-in. They would have been good to go in just a few short days. But the damage from the hurricane meant everything, from sheet rock to tiles to equipment, had to be redone.
"In this business, we really run week to week. This expansion was supposed to help make us viable," Eric Finkelstein, one of the owners, explained over coffee in early December. "But its put us in a precarious situation. We love Red Hook. It would've been easier to walk away—we've got an escape clause in our lease."
Like many others, the Court Street team faced long delays because of the devastation in Staten Island, the Rockaways, and southern Brooklyn as well as New Jersey. Getting the goods they needed to run the store proved difficult.
"The first few weeks were tough. Our distributors were wiped out, half of JJ&K's inventory was gone. Balthazaar was producing but difficult to get bread from, so Caputo's baked extra bread to help us out," Eric told me. "December 6th was the first day we've seen our electrician since before the storm. He lives on Staten Island and he ended up okay, but a lot of his friends lost everything: their tools, their homes."
Court Street's situation in Red Hook is complicated by the fact that they are not eligible for a grant from federal agencies, a consequence of not having filed a tax return yet. Insurance is a non-starter, and Eric believes their prospects for getting a bank loan are nil. Taking on more investors, which they had already done to open the second location in the first place, is simply out of the question.
"To give away another chunk of the business to replace what we lost would have been daunting," Eric explained.
Instead, some of the initial investment to open up the Red Hook location is being used to rebuild the store. Some relief has come by way of a $4,000 grant from Restore Red Hook; even more through a successful $25,000 Small Knot campaign. (In respect to the circumstances, the company waved their 10% fee and funding requirements.) In an email sent this Tuesday, co-owner Matt Ross stated that they believed the kitchen would be operating by mid-February and that the store would be open to the public by March 1st.
"The business here [in Carroll Gardens] helps offset some of the losses there, but it's not like we make any money," Eric said. "But it hasn't been as bad for us as for people who only have one business and got wrecked."
One such person would be Fany Gerson, the owner of La Newyorkina, whose initial struggles we wrote about in late November. Things have only gotten worse for her. Like everyone in Red Hook, where her production kitchen is located, she got slammed. Her lack of a brick-and-mortar space has dampened her visibility, as well as disqualifying her from getting a loan through Restore Red Hook. Because her building's main gate is electronic, her production kitchen was inaccessible for a full three weeks after the storm. Until then, she had no idea how bad it was. The timing, in any case, could not have been worse. Talks with investors were moving ahead, and her dream of opening a brick and mortar shop was materializing.
As with many others, she lost everything: specialized popsicle machines (particularly difficult to swallow, due to the difficulty of acquiring them), three freezers, two fridges, several ice cream carts, all of the holiday goods she produced, and copies of her books she cannot come to throw away. Her commitment to the Columbus Circle holiday market was going to cost her double as a result of the damages, but she saw no other way. Poking around the kitchen, Fany found a single gas stove that still worked. For her, the eternal optimist, this was a ray of light.
"It's been heartbreaking, it feels like you have to start over, and it's tough," Fany said. "How can I take a loan out when I'm not where I was before?"
The equipment will cost $100,000 to replace—something Fany must face alone—but at the moment she is just figuring out how to get get rid of it all. Her sole consolation comes in the form of an insurance clause covering temperature changes, necessary because of the controlled environment her popsicles require. Still, the same old insurance woes pop up again.
"They came and visited and said they would get back to me," she told me in late December, "But no one has. And no one's returning my calls."
What comes next is not entirely clear. Fany is approaching the recovery one task at a time, and we hardly touched on the subject of when she would be at full capacity again. She still hopes to open her store in 2013—"maybe in December," she laughed. For now, she will be doing more consulting work at Bed-Stuy's Dough, for whom she developed the doughnut recipe. Despite her affection for the space, she will have to leave Red Hook behind; in December, she told her landlord that she could no longer afford the rent. Finding a kitchen space is no simple task, and Fany's hunt is further complicated by her popsicle machines, which need extra ventilation and a three-phase electricity system.
Industry friends have lent Fany a helping hand. Julian Pylter of Melt Bakery lent her his kitchen for the Colombus Circle market, the men of Big Gay Ice Cream Shop have offered to let her produce pops in their store, and the owners of Dough have offered her their kitchen during down-time. Wayne Surber of Lonestar Taco, who met Fany at the New Amsterdam Market, has been selling besitos picantes, adapted from her recipe, through his company. All profits will be donated to La Newyorkina, but his intentions are bigger.
"We're small potatoes, but we're hoping to inspire people. It's more about raising awareness," he explained.
Skeptics peering in from the fringes of the food world might ask why these two places, Court Street Grocers and La Newyorkina, demand our attention. They are not, after all, woven into the fabric of our city like, say, the severely damaged Totonno's. But their significance can be found in what they are attempting to accomplish: not trend hopping or knocking the noise up a few decibels with the same old junk, but feeding the wellsprings of the New York City dialogue. When you hear Fany talk about her dream of opening up an American-style ice cream shop spun with Mexican sorbet and candies for toppings, you're listening to someone speak about establishing a legacy.
"Closing down is not an option for me," Fany insisted. "One of the things I was so humbled by in the research for my cookbooks was how the less people have, the more resourceful they are. I have a bigger mission: to share the sweetness of Mexico. It's bigger than my dream—or any desire."
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.