One Year Later: The Food Industry on Coming Together After Sandy
Yesterday, we published part one of our two-part check-in on New York's food industry one year after Hurricane Sandy. We spoke with 21 businesses about their stories, about their struggles, the broken promises made to them, and how they're doing today. Today we return with the second act: tales of community togetherness and resilience, their takeaways from the storm, and a few conclusions of our own.
How Communities Came Together
Caroline Parker and Kevin Moore spoke about both the power of community support and of a hot meal.
I remember I had been working with a woman for years prior, in an antiwar group, and she came in. We had worked in so many circumstances together talking to people who were affected by the war and had lost loved ones. And she all of a sudden walked in and asked, "What can I do?" She was here to help me, help us rebuild. There were a lot of people who would just come in and help out and give fair prices or do little bits and pieces for free. It reinforces your feelings about your neighborhood, and reasons for being here.
This marble bar is an amazing story. We made a phone call, looking up marble in Red Hook or Brooklyn and we came to a business called Red Hook Marble. This guy had already left the neighborhood, way before the storm, but he hadn't moved all of his marble and was trying to get rid of it. He told us he had extra pieces sitting over on Beard Street, go and look and choose. He found us a person to cut it, and here we are are.
[Restore Red Hook] were the first people on the ground. From day one, they helped us cleaned up, brought supplies, general support. The force of a community, they just pulled everyone together.
Noah Bernamoff brought up the grassroots efforts that took the place of broken promises from the government and insurance companies.
The only program designed to help is the power of community. That was the only thing there to help after the storm. There was Restore Red Hook with an $8,000 grant. From a financial perspective that was a drop in the bucket for me. For others it made a greater difference. But the meaning behind it is immense.
There was a group called Red Hook Volunteers that had no money whatsoever; they were set up in the VFW on Van Brunt Street, and were a sort of offshoot from Occupy Sandy. They were sending volunteers down for weeks after the storm. Volunteers would just go down to Red Hook looking for projects to help out on, go to the volunteer office and they'd send them our way. Even little things like, I'd go Court Street Grocers for everyone that was working in Red Hook and just the little desire to help, that extra tray of coffee that they gave us, those sandwiches and granola bars they gave us free. Everybody giving of themselves, that was really what got us through. It certainly wasn't money. Psychological motivation to keep at it was definitely driven by the community itself.
If some of our vendors had not been who they are we would not have made it. I called them up and said, "Guys, I don't know when I'm ever going to be able to pay you again, so you have to tell me right now if I'm still your customer or not." Luckily, 90% of my vendors said we're with you all the way, companies like DeBragga and Spitler who supply our meat. Those are our biggest bills obviously. I don't know what I would've done if they hadn't been so accommodating and sympathetic to our situation.
Ian Marvey spoke about the year-long setback at Hometown Barbecue caused by Sandy, and how pit master Bill Durney came to help out anyway.
We had hundreds of volunteers for the first month when we needed it, each weekend. What was amazing about Billy Durney from Hometown is that he was affected by the storm, but that didn't stop him from doing a lot of work. There were people like Billy doing it, and you'd go to the bar and somebody would just order pizza—come in with 10 pies—and lay them out for everybody. I would go next door to the Ice House, grab 100 wings and bring them back. That still exists. Red Hook was a tight community before, but there's more caring and sharing than there was before.
Brad Finkel of Hoboken Farms:
When we finally got the warehouse back, that warehouse was one of the only things in that area—in Hudson County—that had power. We told all of our friends that we have a freezer, it's working now and kind of empty because we had to throw out all of our stuff, so we were able to actually help out a lot of people and save tens of thousands dollars of other peoples' product. I was honored to do it.
Able to move their product from the powerless Hana Kitchen to a second space in Hell's Kitchen, Scott Bridi's charcuterie company was largely unaffected by the storm. He found himself, like many culinary professionals, helping others in greater need.
We just happened to be in the position where we didn't lose anything but were not able to produce or distribute, because we didn't have power or gas. It affected us in a very short-term way. So we went out and tried to help in whatever way we could, which I did for a week after the storm. I helped Allison Robicelli for the first week, and after that I went out and ran a soup kitchen that was about a block from the Red Hook Initiative. It was a pretty powerful experience. All those residents we were serving didn't have power for weeks.
Rockaway Beach Club
Rockaway Taco suffered major damages at their beachside concessions commissary kitchen, but were fairly fortunate at their Beach 97th Street shack. As the storm hit after their season was over, they lost no inventory. They did lose a decent amount of equipment, though not everything, and had to rip the walls out and use propane heaters to kill the mold. Sensing a community need, Andrew Field and his crew raced to open the shack back up.
We opened [the shack] the earliest we ever opened. We were trying to shoot for weekends in April because of the whole vibe of the neighborhood. Everybody was down and putting their heads down to continue to work to put their homes back together. We felt, not a pressure, but a desire. Come, tell us your stories, eat with us and take a break. The moment we opened the doors on Friday there were people coming with big smiles, saying how glad they were for us to be back. It was probably 75 degrees, it was warm, a great mark in the beginning of the summer. The power of a meal—that was exactly what was in our minds. We need to do this as fast as we can, to get open to restore some sort of sense of normalcy to our neighbors.
Takeaway Lessons from the Storm
For Patrick Martin of Heritage Meats, the storm's community-building crisis doesn't mean a new market is in place.
I think what we realized is how the Essex Street Market is run the rest of the time. Not during the hurricane. We're like, what happened during those critical 96 hours after hurricane Sandy? When the questions we should be asking is, what is part of the everyday that we need to fix for the future? We were hoping that post-Sandy would cause a renaissance for our businesses, people appreciating that we're still around, but, you know, it's not just the people. They have want to come, and the market has to look like an attractive place and a fun place to bring your family.
I'm operating at a loss and hoping that once we open, it'll all be worth it. While the whole process was really frustrating, the positive side is that the restaurant is going to be much prettier, efficient, and better in every way than before.
Added Value Farm
Ian Marvey spoke of how Sandy reinforced his mission and resolve, and the improvements they were able to make to the farm.
There was some talk of giving up. The second week my brother in Seattle said if you want to get up and go, you're welcome. I made the personal decision to not make any radical decisions for a year after the storm. On an institutional level, there was the opportunity for Added Value to continue its mission of promoting sustainable development through youth empowerment and urban agriculture. To now be a place where we can highlight the issues of global climate change is almost a second calling for the organization.
One of the many phenomenal things is none of us were disaster recovery specialists, none of us knew anything about this, but now we have a group of people that are studying it, talking about it. We have a food task force talking about what could, should need to happen in our food system right here in Red Hook so that after the next storm we're taking care of ourselves. What's exciting is the depth of soil here is now two feet. Now we'll be able to put in cane fruit, trees, asparagus, things that we hadn't been able to grow here before. I'd like to bring in some dwarf apples and do some education about how people can grow a large amount of food in a small space.
La New Yorkina
I allowed myself a couple of minutes to think, "Alright, I'm going to throw in the towel." Just to think, if I wanted to just walk away from it and it would be understandable and that would be okay. But that's not really who I am or what I wanted to do. I took from the experience that I want to come back and come back stronger and more focused and make the best out of a bad situation. It's not what happens to you, but the attitude you take towards it and what you do with what happens to you. I felt that I wanted to have a strong summer and be more focused, do little things I've been wanting to do for a long time. As crappy as it was, I still felt fortunate. I still have a support system, a home, I have some savings. I was brought up to be a fighter in Mexico. Growing up there, it's about making the best out of what you've got.
Well first of all I was unbelievably nervous. You're woken up in the middle of the night saying, "Oh my God, I hope—how are we going to do this?" And then it gets pushed into people's lives. How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to pay Frank, Cesar, Tommy, Dave? They are all fathers and sons trying to support families, and if I don't come through for them how are they are going to come through for the people that need them? That was a tremendous amount of stress, but also a real honor to be able to figure out how to work as a team.
It's given me a bit of a go-for-broke mentality, because if you're just going to wait around, hoping things happen, then some day a storm is going to come and eliminate your dreams anyway. It's such a real thing. I'm not waiting around for something to happen, take it slow and build it slowly, if I want something to happen I'm just going to have to figure out how to do it and go after it.
Allison Robicelli has mentioned in the past that she feels awkward to be included in the new Brooklyn food scene since that's where she spent her whole life. But the storm changed things.
I think Sandy was the thing that brought out who we really were, because I was just incensed by the way native Brooklynites and New Yorkers were being treated.
Where to From Here?
Last fall, we ran a brief post imploring you to do your holiday shopping online with MadeInNYC, the local and small business advocacy organization. That call for support still stands. From the Lower East Side to Brighton Beach, businesses like Saxelby Cheesemongers and New York Bread told us that they took on substantial debt in order to survive.
The storm hasn't left New York and its consequences are still very real. As Brad Finkel told us, "what's lost is lost." Clients disappeared, demand dropped, and some loyal customers left. As a result, people are still very much hurting, and most of their stories remain untold.
When we spoke with Christophe Hille about Northern Spy's streetside barbecue the week after Sandy, he admitted to feeling uneasy about the support his restaurant received.
"I think we all felt self conscious afterwards about the whole 'support lower Manhattan' thing. You know, we don't really need support. We just need regular business," Christophe told us. "Everybody was demolished, so how do you support one over the over? There was a lot of social media stuff like "Save Lower Manhattan." We didn't need saving. The Rockaways needed saving. Un-flooded East Village didn't need saving."
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.