Tracy Vaught, owner of three Houston-area restaurants, was very young when Hurricane Carla hit her hometown in 1961. The category 5 storm was known as the worst in the area's history, but Vaught disagrees. Hurricane Ike was worse.
More than two weeks since the category 2 storm hit the Houston and Galveston areas, local restaurants are still struggling. Many have suffered extensive damage and loss of wine and food. Some owners are trying to pick up the pieces, literally, of their restaurants. But for others, business is booming, due to an influx of returning locals and visitors (mostly relief workers and police), who just want a warm meal.
Vaught feels her city's pain, but she was lucky. Her restaurants, Backstreet Café, Hugo's and Prego, all Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winners, opened within days of the storm to feed famished locals as well as police officers, emergency relief workers and others who were brought into the area from all over the country to help rebuild. Power is still out for some businesses, but luckily, Vaught's restaurants regained power fairly quickly thanks to minimal water damage.
"It's the first time in my lifetime that I have seen anything this devastating happen to Houston," she said. "It took the city about two weeks to get back to mostly normal. We have people that still don't have electricity, so it's quite difficult."
For Alex Brennan-Martin, co-owner of Brennan's of Houston, the loss was far greater. The restaurant, founded by the Brennan family (of New Orleans' Commander's Palace) in 1967 in a historic building, suffered a fire the night of the storm, and the entire second floor was gutted, taking with it their entire stock of wine and food. Several people, including Brennan-Martin, were at the restaurant when the fire broke out just before midnight, and wine director James Koonce and his 4-year-old young daughter suffered serious burns.
Disasters are becoming far too familiar for Brennan-Martin. Commander's Palace, managed by his sister and mother, had to be completely renovated after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Brennan-Martin helped lead charitable efforts to raise money for New Orleans restaurateurs. Now he's raising money for Koonce and his daughter.
As for the restaurant, the roof is falling in, and workers are doing everything they can to salvage the historic building's brick façade construction. "We're very hopeful that we can retain the walls," said Brennan-Martin. "With the roof, we're using different supports to save as much of the old character of the building from 1929."
"Unfortunately our wine and food was wiped out," he said. "I'm kind of a Burgundy freak, and all of our great Burgundies are gone. [We also had] a great New World wine selection, and it's all gone. That's a 100 percent loss."
The Brennan family continues to meet with insurance companies and architects to plan rebuilding, but "it's no small task" said Brennan-Martin. "We're using all of our efforts, but we remain cautiously hopeful," he said. "If we didn't have a fire and 90-mile-per-hour winds, we wouldn't have the damage that we did."
Café Rabelais, a Best of Award of Excellence winner, was closed for 10 days following the hurricane. But spirits among Houstonians were high at owner Christophe Paul's other Houston restaurant, Max & Julie, even on the night of the hurricane, when the restaurant remained open for service until 9 p.m. Paul provided food and drink with a limited menu for the night, and made sure to close up in good time, for the safety of patrons. "The night of the hurricane people just wanted a last meal," said Paul.
Luckily, Max & Julie suffered little water damage and opened again for business with a limited menu the day after the storm. Paul managed to save his supply of wine with generators following the storm. "The next day it was a little hectic," he said. "We were extremely busy. A lot of people wanted to go out, but there were limited restaurants."Paul believes Houston was fortunate, considering. The overall damage was nothing compared to Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula, which were badly hit. "If Houston only has to worry about power outages, things aren't too bad," he said. "It's nothing anyone can complain about considering how Galveston has suffered. It puts things in perspective."
Galveston residents were only allowed back onto the island on Sept. 24, and restaurant owners are still assessing damage. Few have re-opened. Some businesses were completely washed away.
Back in Houston, Vaught believes that the most important thing restaurants can do at a time like this is simply be there for everyone. "After the storm, when you are one of the few restaurants open, people are very thankful," she said. "Even if you are short-staffed, they understand, because they are tired of eating peanut butter and jelly. Everybody is tough and getting to work."