How Brooklyn's largest food festival raised—and broke—hopes for food businesses on the brink
For businesses recovering from Hurricane Sandy's devastation—those driven deep into debt, others looking for new homes—no opportunity to regain lost sales has been too small. So when the Great GoogaMooga offered some the opportunity to sell food at a three-day food festival for 100,000 people, restaurants like Kasadela Izakaya and Caracas Rockaways felt that they couldn't pass up the opportunity.
But as we all know by now, GoogaMooga didn't go as planned. What began as a gesture of goodwill ended with poor communication, overestimated sales, and possibly thousands more dollars down the drain for restaurants already on the brink.
For the much missed Kasadela, GoogaMooga looked like a blessing. The Alphabet City restaurant sustained enormous damages from flooding during the hurricane. A post-Sandy fundraising campaign raised $17,000, but fell short of the $50,000 the owners needed to continue. In February, they told the Village Voice that they received no insurance money and were kicked out by their landlord. Their situation looked grim, until GoogaMooga organizer Superfly came along.
Kasadela was a returning vendor from the first GoogaMooga, and the owners were given a sweetheart deal. They could participate free of charge and, sources tell us, Superfly even helped them raise the money they needed to make a go of it. The plan was to use the profits to help re-launch their business.
But it didn't work out that way. Sunday's festival was cancelled due to rain, leaving the owners with product they had to race to sell at an independent pop-up. We couldn't reach Kasadela's owners by press time; their next steps—and whether they'll be able to get back to business at all—are uncertain.
The Rockaway Beach Club, a partnership formed between Caracas Rockaway, Rippers, Rockaway Taco, and Motorboat and the Big Banana, was coming off its inaugural season when Sandy hit in November. Each of their three buildings (at Beach 86th, 97th, and 106th Sts respectively), which the Beach Club leases from the Parks Department, sustained damage from the storm. At the Beach 97th Street building, the floor was completely washed away along with half of their equipment. According to owner Maribel Araujo, the damages have cost Caracas $100,000.
Caracas has had to tackle that debt without aid. Like many businesses in New York, the Beach Club did not have flood insurance when Sandy hit, and as they missed the 2012 application deadline, they were only able to seek it out months after the storm. But despite the lack of coverage, there was the hope of a Small Business Administration loan, which Maribel applied for in December.
"In March or the beginning of April I got a call from the SBA saying that because I am not a U.S. citizen my application was rejected. I was totally counting on that money. And it blew my mind," Maribel told me, "because I have what the U.S. government calls a business visa. The visa is given to the business through my person. I'm paying taxes the same way any U.S. resident or citizen is."
Meanwhile, the rebuilding effort of the Rockaway Beach Club's three buildings has been complicated by the fact that the city is their landlord. The city's efforts to help reconstruction haven't been too speedy.
"We were hoping to take the opportunity to—knowing that this is something that could happen again—maybe give the city some time to really look into the options and what other countries do in situations like this," Maribel said.
The partners proposed to the city that the concessions be put in shipping containers with wheels so that they could be moved in the event of another hurricane or just to accommodate the changing shoreline. Instead, the city elected a more traditional engineering route, using "super-solid, huge foundations." Until the boardwalk, which serves as the community's artery, is reconstructed, the concessions this summer will be more like islands.
Maribel expressed concern about losing the momentum they built last summer. "It's a whole new world. We don't really know what our mobile vendor situation is going to be. We have been trying to anticipate it as much as we can, but it's really hard to get the right information from 20 agencies."
Getting Caracas Rockaway back this summer has meant moving ahead without any of the expected loans, submitting to the government's approach to rebuilding, and dealing with a heavy dose of bureaucratic red-tape. After all these headaches, GoogaMooga offered an opportunity for hope.
Earlier this year, two of Maribel's partners in the Beach Club, the Meat Hook (part of Rippers), and the Big Banana, approached Superfly with a special request. They asked the organizers to invite Rockaway businesses and, in turn, take a reduced commission to help them get back on their feet. Maribel was understandably hesitant to take the risk. But with the rejection of her loan application, she felt GoogaMooga was her best, if not only, option to get Caracas Rockaway out of its hole. The government had skimped on her, and with no other recourse, the chance to wipe out a third of that debt in one fell swoop proved too enticing.
While much has been said about Sunday's cancellation, Maribel insisted that weather wasn't the biggest problem. Vendors would have been stuck with literal tons of leftovers even if the final day were not cancelled. Wary of repeating the same mistakes that plagued the first GoogaMooga, notorious for its extremely long lines and severe food shortages, Superfly provided vendors with data on festival attendance that "basically pinned [them] to [excessive] numbers." Caracas was led to believe they'd need 4,000 servings of food. No customers wanted to buy water, because it was bottled tap priced at $3 a pop, but vendors were encouraged by Spectrum Concessions to pre-order in bulk.
"If you pre-ordered from them then they would deliver it to you at your booth on Friday. Otherwise you'd have to go to wherever they were with your hand truck and make 20 trips," Maribel told me. "They didn't require you to order so much, but you would ask them and they would say, 'oh, you're going to sell a lot of water. That was the case last year.'"
Their biggest hit, though, came from operating costs. Vendors were given an assigned booth, with an amount of equipment and staff that needed to be approved by the organizers. As with food, Superfly overestimated what was necessary.
"The people who were in the charge of the vendors, the culinary team, they were really amazing people," Maribel said. "They were professional and really into it. But they were following guidelines from the owners, so it was like, 'my boss is asking me to make you produce triple the amount of the food you are going to be able to sell just to make sure they don't look bad on that end.' Even with the most amazing weather ever, we were not going to sell what they made us prepare for."
Like the owners of Kasadela, Maribel thought GoogaMooga would help Caracas Rockaway get out of that gaping hole Sandy punched in her business. She had expected to sell $36,000 worth of food, but ended up selling only $9,000. When we talked on Wednesday, she estimated that she'd end up losing $6,000 to $8,000. Superfly, granted, did offer insurance to vendors, but it was at the cost of 2% of their projected sales. In an article published on May 24th, fellow vendor Allison Robicelli wrote that Superfly would be compensating participating businesses with "refunds [for] many of the fees they paid." Considering that rentals alone cost them $3,600, this is no small thing.
"I really feel for those guys, they really took a kick in the gut with this thing. For what it's worth, however, Superfly has gone above and beyond to do right by vendors. Mistakes were made and things didn't go according to plan, but Superfly has owned their failings as much as any organization that I've ever worked with," Christophe Hille, co-owner of GoogaMooga participant Northern Spy Food Co., wrote to me in an email this morning.
"I can't elaborate on the specific financial compensation that they've offered, but it's far more than I ever would have anticipated and was offered with a minimum of pushing on our end," Christophe comtinued. "I don't know what other vendors have received, though I'd assume it to be proportional since we're in no way a special case. And if anything, I would think that Superfly tried to provide extra attention to the Rockaway vendors and hope they did. Their speed and good intentions should serve as a model to insurers everywhere, who barely ponied up a cent for anyone in NYC post-Sandy."
For Caracas Rockaway and Kasadela in particular, GoogaMooga was a lost opportunity, another setback out of their control. Somewhere along the line there was a miscommunication, either between Superfly and the Prospect Park Alliance or Superfly and their vendors. Just one hour after a vendor coordinator dismissed Maribel's concerns over cancellations, GoogaMooga was called off. But these squandered weekends are not something these businesses can withstand. What was an earnest attempt by Superfly's culinary team to help businesses affected by Hurricane Sandy was seemingly undermined by management's insistence on skewed statistics that benefited only themselves.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. 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.