Why Sandy-Damaged Restaurants Are Staying in Flood Risk Neighborhoods
"My great-grandmother started this in the 1930's, and she created a sauce. And, with that, we're still here through the years," says Helena Randazzo, daughter of owner Paul Randazzo, of the legendary, eponymous south Brooklyn restaurant that earned a star from the New York Times last year.
"When the storm came, everything was ruined. We didn't really have the money to go on, but we did it for them. We're still in a deep hole. The only reason we're going on is because we've been here so long and we have to. Too much pride."
Hurricane Sandy devastated Randazzo's, which sits on a block in Sheepshead Bay that straddles the water and was once home to shouting, surly longshoreman. These days, the boats tend to be for recreational use. The restaurant received some financial support from "loans and funds," Helena said, but nothing from FEMA. "It didn't work," she said. Her own house, she told us in September, is still being fixed.
When asked what got them through the devastation, Helena said, "Coming back strong. Wanting to be here another 35, 45, 60, 80 years. We built it a little stronger. It doesn't look the same, and I'm still not used to it. But eventually it will feel like it used to, maybe."
The restaurant is not the only thing that's changed. "It's still not back to normal. We had a nice few days in the summer. But it doesn't feel like our neighborhood people are around. There were a lot of homes around here that were affected, and a lot of people just disappeared. They just didn't come back to their houses to fix them."
In some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the hurricane, many ignored by the rest of New York during the best of times, not everyone returned after the clean-up crews left. My own great aunt never came back to her home in Breezy Point, where she had lived for decades and my father played as a child. Flood waters destroyed the house's electrical system, and mold invaded. At her advanced age, repairing it was too great a task.
One year after the storm, rising insurance costs drive many residents out of historic communities like Breezy Point and Long Beach. And as climate change becomes more severe, some are wondering what may happen to areas along the coast.
As some flood zone residents accept buyouts of their property, others are asking: are longstanding coastal communities at risk of another massive flood worth redeveloping? For some restaurants, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
Down in the Financial District, where businesses struggled like nowhere else in Manhattan, the beloved Barbarini Alimentari was inundated with six feet of water. Owners Claudio and Linda Marini and Adriana and Stefano Barbagallo lost nearly everything, from inventory to furniture imported from Italy, on their $1,000,000 investment. Their losses were compounded by the slow pace of getting back to square one.
"If you're a small business and you lose your income and your business, every day is costing a lot of money. This was a pretty substantial business we had, to lose it overnight is just devastating," Marini told us.
Their restaurant never reopened, but the owners stayed. They opted to amicably split ways, a decision that took some time because of the scope of rebuilding and the hurdles required to get out of their lease. The Barbagallos elected to open a new restaurant in the Barbarini space, while the Marinis felt that, if they were going to start from scratch, they wanted to be on higher ground. They will be opening a new restaurant and salumeria, DaClaudio's, sometime early next year.
Barbarini didn't have the legacy of Randazzo's. But it did serve a community for seven years and grew a loyal following. The Marinis didn't want to abandon that. "We didn't want to just pack up and leave," Linda told us. "We see our customers all the time. They encourage us day by day."
Community support has helped the Marinis soldier on. But they have other reasons to stay. They want their children to grow up surrounded by people who know them.
Ben Schneider, co-owner of Red Hook's The Good Fork, which reopened on New Year's Eve, spoke in similar terms of the support he and his wife, chef and co-owner Sohui Kim, received from customers, and how it pushed them to reopen. He admitted that they would experience many of the same problems in the event of another Sandy—"there's only so much we can do; we have limited space and have to use all the space we have"—and that they are taking a calculated risk. Relocating was too expensive to be considered, and, in any case, he felt that customers wanted The Good Fork they knew and loved.
"It's a very difficult business, but also one that we love. I didn't want [Sandy] to be the way we went out," Schneider said. "It became quickly apparent that this was the way a lot of other people felt too. The amount of support to want us to stay open was really amazing, and made it a no-brainer that we would rebuild."
But nowhere else, perhaps, was the decision to stay harder to make than in the ravaged neighborhoods of Staten Island's South Beach. There seaside restaurants like John and Joe Toto's, whose owner lost his home and restaurant, and Marina Cafe, suffered so much damage they did not reopen until this summer. Their prolonged closures were not the product of complications like Il Brigante's geothermal nightmare or red tape, but pure devastation. When I went to Staten Island the week after the storm, we drove by the remains of Puglia By The Sea. All that was left was a sign and some support structures. It looked as if the restaurant had been ripped out of the ground and tossed out to sea.
Among the Midland Beach restaurants devastated by Sandy was the long standing pizzeria Nunzio's. The pizzeria has been in owner Robert Whiteaker's family since 1942, and he himself has run the place for the last 44 years. Whether he should be or not, Robert is not afraid of another Sandy coming anytime soon. He spoke plainly of his commitment to his business and the place where he grew up.
"I like to give back to the community, and I like to work," Whiteaker said. "I got nothing from insurance, but there was never any question of closing. I used all my own money, and I'd do it all over again. Everybody came back and more. Our customers are faithful, I work here seven days a week and I see the same faces here day after day."
While Robert Whiteaker's Nunzio's is deeply woven into the fabric of Staten Island, other chefs and restaurateurs we spoke with owned places that were considerably younger. Jersey City's Thirty Acres was less than a year old when Sandy hit and suffered comparably insignificant damages.
Mom and pop owners Alex and Kevin Pemoulie knew they wanted to open in Jersey, but their decision to open Jersey City was based, largely, on wanting a walkable location. Sandy entrenched them in their community in a deeper kind of way.
"I don't know how everyone else feels, but to me it felt like the city came together after Sandy in a way that I just hadn't seen before. It's just like everybody was really trying to take care of each other, a lot of people were homeless and had no power for weeks," Pemoulie told us. "We opened up our restaurant and it was kind of like a town hall. People would just come in and hang out all day. We met so many new people, and they're still our customers now. We got closer. Not just as business owners, but as citizens."
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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.