"I live right by the water. I could see the storm surge and the boardwalk get dislodged," Robyn Hillman-Harrigan told me as she explained the origins of the Rockaway Rescue Alliance's Shore Soup Project. "The destruction was everywhere, there were smashed cars everywhere, you really couldn't drive anywhere because there was mud and sand in the streets. We had done this business [Shore Fruit] and we already had this mobile vending cart, and this ability to make food and put it in the cart and ride around and offer it to people. And that's what we did the day after the storm."
The Rockaways were one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy in New York City, subject to crushing waters that flooded homes, carried away whole buildings, and provoked one particularly devastating fire. Seven months later, the devastation lingers. The boardwalk, one of the community's few public gathering spaces, is still gone. By Robyn's estimations, it won't return for a year yet. But the concrete supports remain, haunting the beach like ghastly apparitions.
In the wake of the hurricane, volunteerism was high in the community. After being holed up in their homes for 24 hours, residents swarmed the streets to check up on neighbors. People were cold and wet, without gas or electricity, some with no homes and nowhere to go.
Robyn Hillman-Harrigan and Lillian Gerson, co-founders of the mobile boardwalk vendor Shore Fruit, realized something needed to be done immediately. They began by offering hot beverages, and started delivering meals to people with their Shore Fruit tricycle. A station was set up on Beach 59th Street, near the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings, from which they would reheat and distribute meals. But Robyn felt there was a more effective way to reach those in need. On day six, they pulled back and set up a kitchen, bought delivery bags and takeout containers. They cooked out of Robyn's kitchen for six weeks, then were able to use Rockaway Taco's kitchen for five weeks.
Cut off from their gas and electricity supply, Robyn's impromptu organization ran their operation with propane gas burners and a generator donated by 596 Acres. All of their kitchen gear—including commercial prep tables, immersion blenders, and knives—was donated. In those first days, a friend upstate collected produce from small farmers, who donated out of their own pockets, until GrowNYC stepped in. Their commitment to helping food distribution hubs like the Rockaway Rescue Alliance allowed Shore Soup to continue their efforts for months. But the group was adamant about feeding people more than just survival rations.
"We wanted to give them healthy food. Slow cooking, really beautiful soups. Beans and rice, to make things that are really warm and filling. People were really cold, in shock, scared, and confused. Trying to figure out how they were going to deal with losing their house, having water in their building or being on a high floor without power," Robyn said. "We knew we couldn't solve all of those problems, but what we could do is just give them something that would give them a little bit of encouragement. That would help them get through the day and let them know people were thinking about them."
With Shore Fruit, Robyn and Lillian worked to provide a healthy, organic alternative in their fruit kebabs to a neighborhood saturated with processed and packaged foods. Shore Soup preserved that philosophy, shifting the focus to nutritious soups as a form of relief. When we first met, Robyn talked about the lack of access to organic produce in Rockaway, and getting people to savor beet and black bean soup.
"It is about re-exposing people to acorn squash and parsnips, even vegetables they don't see that often. Realizing these are good, these taste good, these are good for me," Robyn said.
The Shore Soup initiative, which provided the community with 600 to 1,000 meals a day, lasted from the day after Sandy until roughly two weeks ago. (The service will continue to be available for homebound people.) In the time since the hurricane, the Rescue Alliance has served 50,000 meals. After months of serving meals, Robyn saw her opportunity to take the time that they never had to plan their next move: establishing a permanent space and "building something in the community for the community."
Their vision? The Rockaway Shore Relief Restaurant, a pay-as-you-can restaurant that will employ local youth and create a much needed community space. The pay-as-you-can model strips away some of the perceived indignity of a soup kitchen; it doesn't rely on what Robyn calls the false dichotomy of the benevolent savior and needy victim.
"The thing is, it's been a clear feeling since the storm that there's a little bit of space for change now," she told me. "With all this volunteerism, people start opening their minds up to sharing and the idea that we're all part of one community. If we can harness that and create a space where people can still come and volunteer and support a social good as well as a good restaurant, it's a positive. It becomes an institution."
Starting a not-for-profit business meant they needed their capital upfront. To that end, Robyn created a Kickstarter campaign. After raising half their necessary funds ($12,500) in the first week, the campaign has since surpassed their goal of $25,000 by over $3,000 in the nine days since I first met Robyn. Their idea, it appears, has resonated with people. Three donations of $5,000 have come in, including two from an executive at Red Hook's Cumberland Packaging and one from an Italian citizen. In his message, the Italian benefactor cited "progressive cafes" in Italy, where customers buy two coffees, one for themselves and another for a future customer. Many others have sustained the drive with smaller sums.
For Robyn, the Rockaway Shore Relief Restaurant is an extension of what she and Lillian were trying to accomplish with Shore Fruit. At the moment, the plan remains to begin with a food truck and then transition into a permanent space. (If enough funds are raised the food truck phase will be skipped.) Once it opens, the restaurant will also serve as a space for community groups to do workshops. While they intend to employ local youths, volunteers will still be needed. Robyn hopes the chefs who have helped out will continue to do so. Many, she tells me, have expressed their desire to stay involved.
In terms of what they can accomplish, Robyn sees no limits. Rockaway Shore Relief is now working with the Queens Library to run health classes,and is working with a legal group to offer legal sessions. Keeping in line with their holistic approach, the group has established the neighborhood's first CSA, which will run from June through November, and are looking to partner with Grow NYC to start a farmers market.
But the restaurant is as much about feeding individuals as it is about the community, one that is hurting and has long been neglected.
"I knew I always wanted to do something involved with social justice," she told me, "and I saw it as a combination of my various interests ... You don't need a lot of money or infrastructure if you want to feed a lot of people. You just need a lot of intention."
The Rockaway SHORE Relief Restaurant's Kickstarter campaign will run through May 4th. To donate or learn more about the project, visit their page here.