Anatomy of a Recovery Effort: Why Governor Isn't Reopening After Sandy

Post-Sandy repairs in the dining room. [Photograph: Governor]

"Honestly, we felt we were just hitting our stride and then kind of tripped."

So began Chef Brad McDonald of Governor when I spoke with him in late November, a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy pummeled his brand-spanking new dining room with four feet of water. That dining room had only just started welcoming its community in Dumbo, but already McDonald was lauded for his innovative menu, and had been given two stars by Pete Wells at the New York Times. At the time of our discussion, McDonald seemed shaken but not defeated, focusing mostly on making sure his staff felt secure that, eventually, they would have jobs to return to after massive reconstruction was completed.

The food community poured out support for Governor, with teams at Eleven Madison Park and Momofuku's Booker and Dax hosting expensive benefit dinners that were well covered in the media. Together with a GoFundMe account, the group raised $42,000 in private donations. They received an additional $50,000 from FEMA and the FDA. But with a total loss McDonald estimated at around half a million, it wasn't close to enough.

Dining Room

The dining room before the storm. [Photograph: Alice Gao]

Word quickly spread Monday that Governor will not reopen. Further, McDonald has parted ways with owners Tamer Hamawi, Elise Rosenberg and Emelie Kihlstrom. They'll continue focusing on restaurants Colonie and Gran Electra, and he'll take some time to spend with his family before planning his next move.

The news was met with mingled support and anger amongst the public. Many immediately demanded to know where the donations ended up or are going and accused the group of pilfering from more worthy charities. A quick following statement assured the public that all donations will be returned.

Some questioned the credibility of donating to the restaurant in the first place, instead of older establishments also suffering or, plainly, individuals who had lost their homes to the hurricane. To that, owner Elise Rosenberg relayed to me in a phone chat yesterday, "The first thing I thought when the fundraisers started happening was that there are people that still don't have electricity or heat or homes, and that money should go to people who don't have a roof over their head first. But the community has been amazing."

It was that community support that seemingly encouraged the group's owners, even when lawyers and accountants were telling them that reopening was a near-to-impossible feat. "It became almost an emotional, not a financial decision. The amount of money that we'd have to put forth to rebuild was mountainous, but the support was overwhelming—the food world had rallied behind us to see us rebuild, and we were desperately trying to do anything we could not to let those people down."

[Photograph: Governor]

Financially, the missing link was was flood insurance. "We were told from the outset that we couldn't get flood insurance. We found out later if we had applied through FEMA we could have, but our insurance company made us believe that wasn't possible at the time. We didn't get a dime." Their only options were loans that would have put them even further in debt, or a magical grant that would have changed the outcome of this article completely. But neither came to pass, and the team couldn't keep treading water. Governor was sinking again.

With the community in their corner and funds against, manpower was essential, but in late December, McDonald made his decision to leave New York and spend time with his wife and two children, the second who was born only weeks after Governor opened. "I'm sure he felt the burden of having to provide for his family in a very large way. And I just think that at one point he just sort of had a wake up call and thought it was too much. It wasn't completely the straw that broke the camel's back, but it was certainly the beginning of the end. Governor was Brad's idea—it was very much a chef-run restaurant and a platform for his talent, vision and experience."

Recognizing the sensitivity of this situation, Rosenberg finished, "I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision for him and I can't say it hasn't made things a little difficult on our end, but I wish the best for him, truly."

As for McDonald? He's been silent, for now.

I'd been in an email exchange recently with the Governor's PR team about a second interview to check in on their progress and complete the intended piece, and only Tuesday morning realized why it was never set in stone. A condensed version of our interview is below, McDonald's heartening words now ringing bittersweet.

[Photograph: Alice Gao]

This interview was taken with Chef Brad McDonald November 28th, 2012.

At what capacity was the restaurant functioning when the storm hit? The funny thing is that the three days leading into the storm were the best days we'd had—definitely the most fun. The Thursday night before we had hosted Daniel Klein and Sean Brock for an event; the following day we ended up cooking a private lunch for one of my wine idols. Honestly, we felt we were just hitting out stride and then kind of tripped.

How many covers were you seeing? On the weekends we were doing 100-110 people, which is good for us. Weekly we were hitting 65 on average. So we had a full restaurant and had gotten to a point where we just thought soon we'd be as busy on a Tuesday or Wednesday as we were on a Friday or Saturday.

Did you feel prepared for the storm? We were so busy in those three days up to it that it didn't hit me until Saturday afternoon that there was a storm on the way that day. We put about 18 inches of sandbags up to the door, and we didn't think the water would come up past that height, that's for sure.

There are fundraising dinners going on all over town, a few supporting your restaurant. What's your take on them? I think they're absolutely amazing. More than anything—regardless of the dollar amount—it's the momentum that's attached to them. I'm not a very reactive guy on the outside; I try to stay calm. I can easily empathize with the feeling of, "Oh, it's just a piece of property, it can be rebuilt, it's not that big of deal." But there are 35 employees essentially out of a job. It becomes heavier that way. Keeping the momentum, letting them know that things are going to be built, there will be a solution to this... if these events do nothing more than that, they've accomplished a whole lot. Everything is going to come back; everything they've worked for is going to come back, hopefully in a bigger and better way.

Lobster Consommé, Apple, Fennel ($12)

Lobster consomme, on the menu before the storm. [Photograph: Alice Gao]

You seem to be feeling pretty optimistic about this, but you've suffered quite a blow after putting so much work in to get your restaurant flowing. What good would sorrow do me? There are days that you feel heavier at the end of the day than others, but that's just because you never expect to be rebuilding your restaurant three months after it opened. If I'm sorrowful at all it's very fleeting. It's more of a matter of wanting to get my guys back in their chef coats and aprons.

What's the response been in your immediate community in Dumbo? We are a small neighborhood with not a lot of restaurantoptions, so obviously taking one of those away impacts the entire neighborhood. We knew a lot of our neighbors beforehand, and we're getting to know a lot more of them now. That's very rewarding—to be sitting at one of the bars here in Dumbo at any given night and having someone come up and just say, "we feel for your loss and we're looking forward to supporting you when you come back." I do hope when we come back we'll be busier than ever.

You've steered a relatively young team in terms of history together through a really rough situation. Has it taught you anything about being the leader in this position? I've learned a lot. I've learned that it's necessary to project confidence onto your staff to let them know that they're your number one concern. It's important at this point to be very engaged and not make any promises—it's such a delicate situation, getting rebuilt. You let them know that you're here for them; that if there's an opportunity for them that comes along that they need to take, they're more than welcome to do that, and they can be assured that there will be a job for them at some point down the road when we get our doors reopened. The best thing to do is just promise that you're going to find an opportunity that's better, and come back stronger on the other side.