Hurricane Sandy and the Hard Lessons It Taught 3 Seafood Businesses
Editor's Note: One year after Hurricane Sandy laid waste to countless businesses and homes across the eastern seaboard, we take a look back at those dramatic few days. For more, check out all of our Sandy Anniversary coverage.
One year after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast, countless homes and businesses are still recovering.
After several days -- and for some, several months -- without power, heat and water, many business owners needed to face yet another hurdle: dealing with insurance companies to get their operations back up and running. And though some have fared better than others, their pain and losses are no less diminished.
On the anniversary of the devastating (and costly) hurricane, we’re still learning of the superstorm's lasting impact on the communities left in its wake. Here are the striking recovery stories of three New York City-based entrepreneurs whose companies were devastated by Sandy:
The Lobster Place
Ian MacGregor is the CEO of The Lobster Place, a seafood supply company with a storefront in Manhattan's tony Chelsea Market. The operation is the largest seafood market in the northeast, with a wholesale operation in the Bronx that caters to hundreds of fine restaurants, hotels and caterers in the metropolitan area. Sandy hit both operations in different ways.
Its retail storefront in Chelsea Market didn’t have storm-related damage to the structure itself, but was closed for about 10 days thanks it its location, which was effectively on lock down while the power and transit systems went down after the storm. Without electricity, MacGregor says about $100,000 worth of perishable inventory spoiled. Plus, people weren't shopping.
And while The Lobster Place's warehouse uptown also didn't suffer a direct hit from the storm, it might as well have been shut down, as it couldn't supply many of its clients, area restaurants and hotels shuttered by the storm. In total, The Lobster Place’s losses mounted to about $250,000. The insurance company paid out only a fraction of this loss, forcing MacGregor to reevaluate the future of his businesses.
"Never assume your insurance policy is a panacea for a big disaster," says MacGregor, whose parents founded the company on the Upper West Side in 1974. "It’s really important to take the time to fully understand how your insurance dollars are mitigating risk."
Despite its losses, The Lobster Place still managed to bounce back. In January, the Chelsea Market shop underwent a major three-month renovation adding 4,000 feet to its footprint. And within the last few months, MacGregor's company opened Cull & Pistol, a sit-down seafood restaurant, also in Chelsea Market.
"Our emphasis remains to provide a product we can stand behind to both retail and commercial customers, to treat our vendors fairly and to value and recognize the contributions of our employees," he says. "Natural disasters don’t change that."
The Water Club
The New York City dining institutions -- one based on the edge of Manhattan's waterfront and the other just under the Brooklyn Bridge -- were founded by the same entrepreneur, Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe. He has long claimed to feel at home on the water and saw enormous success with both restaurants.
But since the storm surges caused water to both restaurants to flood, he has since been humbled. After a year of renovations, The Water Club only just reopened this month, while The River Café remains closed and may reopen by the year’s end. Industry veteran and lifelong New Yorker O’Keeffe notes that lessons learned from Sandy were tough ones.
“Don’t underestimate the power of a storm,” says O’Keeffe. “We were ready but this was a very hard storm, so even though we thought we were prepared, Hurricane Sandy became the new normal. For someone like me who’s been [living] on the water my whole life, Sandy’s high tide surpassed anything I’d seen.”
How will he stave off destruction from future storms? "We have kept our business model the same but learned to approach the physicality of our restaurants differently," he says. "We worked everything to be hurricane- proof for the future… Everything is fireproof, waterproof, bacteria proof. If another storm hits we hope to hose everything off and open up again."
With seven restaurants along New Jersey's coastline and three additional locations in Florida, Chefs International knows a thing or two about natural disasters. Still, Sandy was like nothing Bob Cooper, the president of Chefs International, had ever seen before.
While each of the company's restaurants lined Sandy's path, the most significantly damaged stores are located in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. and Belmar, N.J. Not even the corporate headquarters, also in Point Pleasant Beach, was left unscathed.
Over four feet of water flooded one of the company's star restaurants: Jack Baker’s Lobster Shanty and adjoining Sunset Ballroom. The location lost inventory, property and equipment. And even the lobster tanks were totaled after the storm.
Coupled with the losses among local employees -- homes, cars, their children’s bikes and toys, all washed away -- and the impact hit even harder. "Every employee made themselves available regardless of what happened to them personally," says Cooper's assistant and longtime Chefs' employee, Suzanne Kremp. "Most people who could show up to work did. But not to serve customers: They were there to rip out dry wall, tear up carpets, count destroyed inventory, take photos, scrub bathrooms, kitchens. It was an amazing effort on everyone’s behalf."
Within six weeks, the company managed to refurbish the Sunset Ballroom, while the Lobster Shanty's dining room reopened for business in May -- just in time for the busy season.
"Our business was seriously impacted by the consequences of the storm," says Kremp. "However, our job is to ensure we get things back in order as quickly as possible and to let everyone know that the Jersey Shore is, and will always be, a beautiful and fun family destination."
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