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How Will Florida Restaurants Regroup After Irma's Devastation?

The monster hurricane lashed parts of the Caribbean and the Sunshine State
Photo by: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Surveying flood damage and fallen trees in a Naples neighborhood

Emma Balter, Julie Harans, Lexi Williams
Posted: September 13, 2017

Peter Althius finally made it back to Snappers yesterday. Althius is the owner of the popular Key Largo, Fla., restaurant, with multiple rooms and an outdoor bar that offers beautiful ocean views. When Hurricane Irma bore down on the Florida Keys and the state issued mandatory evacuation orders, he left for Sarasota.

He came home to devastation. The outside bar area was completely destroyed, and inside a mess. Walk-in coolers and freezers outside were carried away by the storm surge. Depending on what the insurance company says, he plans to either rebuild around part of the building or simply demolish it and start over. He's hoping to reopen in three months.

A few hours north, in West Palm Beach, Marcello Fiorentino was breathing a sigh of relief. His Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning restaurant, La Sirena, is a mere half-mile inland from the Intracoastal Waterway. "There were mandatory evacuations for the island of Palm Beach—we're just across the Intracoastal from there," Fiorentino told Wine Spectator.

Fortunately for Fiorentino, Irma's unexpected westward turn spared much of Florida's east coast the worst of the destruction. "We were very fortunate that we didn't get what we thought we were going to get," he said. "We're ready to get back to work."

But Irma did not spare the power grid. Along with some of the 6 million other Floridians, La Sirena was still dark as of Wednesday morning. Fiorentino is using generator power from a neighboring gas station to keep his wine cellar cool.

From the Caribbean to Charleston, S.C., Irma has left a trail of debris and broken dreams. Almost 4.4 million Florida homes and businesses remained without power Tuesday night, according to state officials, and about 110,000 people remain in shelters. Florida Power and Light said most customers on the east coast of the state would see their power restored by Sunday night, while those on the west coast might have to wait weeks. At least 63 people have died, including 20 in Florida, according to the Associated Press.

For the restaurants, these days have been about making sure staff members are safe, assessing damage and helping feed the community. In the Caribbean, many of the restaurants depend on tourists, who may not return for some time. Florida is home to 39,000 restaurants that employ more than 1 million people and generate nearly $42 billion in annual sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. From small cafes in Little Havana to legendary steak houses in Tampa, they're all focused on getting back on their feet.

The Caribbean

Irma's path ran across the Leeward Islands before hitting Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Bahamas. Waves 36 feet high smashed against buildings on the shore in Havana Sunday morning. The prime minister of Netherlands announced that 70 percent of the homes on the Dutch half of St. Martin were damaged or destroyed.

Melinda Blanchard owns Blanchards Restaurant and the Beach Shack on the island of Anguilla. The Beach Shack didn't suffer too much damage, she said. Blanchards was hit a little harder; roofs and shutters will have to be repaired, and all the outside landscape—trees, bushes—has been destroyed.

"We haven't even gotten our generator going, because the battery has to be charged," Blanchard said. "Even though we didn't receive a lot of structural damage, the debris is so thick and so much in the way that you can hardly get to the building." Her staff has been working on clearing the way for the past two days, just so that they're able to walk around.

But that's not what Blanchard is focusing on right now. "Once I saw the restaurant was standing, I've been focusing on the community," she said. Her family has a nonprofit, the Blanchards Anguilla Children's Fund (BACF), through which they are now soliciting donations for hurricane relief. As of Tuesday morning, they had already raised $325,000.

"About 90 percent of electricals are down, so they're estimating the power won't be on for four months," she said. "We are speaking with everyone in Anguilla to find out what the biggest needs are."

On the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, rescue and relief efforts were also the focus. Patrick Kralik's restaurant Balter was thankfully not too affected, so the Army veteran has been aiding people on neighboring St. John and St. Thomas.

He had invited his staff to hunker down at the actual restaurant during the storm. They are now safe and were able to reopen the restaurant; they have so far cooked for 150 people in the community. "We're getting a bunch of evacuees from St. John and St. Thomas and they're all coming to St. Croix," said Kralik. "We're serving so they can have a hot meal."

Storm Surge

Irma was originally forecast to hit Miami and Florida's east coast, but shifted west, with the eye crossing the Keys near Key West, then hitting the Florida mainland near Marco Island.

Peter Vauthy, vice president and executive chef of Red, the Steakhouse, took no chances. The Miami Beach restaurant served its last steak dinner Wednesday night before closing up to make preparations. On Thursday morning, Miami Beach residents received mandatory evacuation orders. "This was going to be the storm that set Miami back 20 years or more," he said. "If this storm hit the way it was supposed to hit [I feared] there would be nothing left of Miami Beach. I was expecting the restaurant to be gone.

"Some of my staff went to the west coast of Florida to avoid the storm, and then the storm went west, so they had to come back to the east coast at the last minute," Vauthy said.


A Trail of Pain

Photo by Patrick Kralik Photo by Peter Althius Photo by Peter Althius Photo Courtesy of Campiello Photo by Erin Fischer Photo by Erin Fischer Photo by Yin Bogu/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

"This storm affected every single county in the state," said Gene Sullivan, executive vice president and general manager of Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits Florida division, which resumed distribution operations Tuesday morning. While he reports that his 2,500 Florida-based employees are accounted for and all facilities are operational, the same cannot be said for his customers.

Althius of Snappers was one of the few able to get to the Keys; authorities began allowing limited access on Tuesday morning. More than 90 percent of the buildings on the islands are estimated damaged. The supermarket in Key Largo has just opened back up with very bare shelves, he reported. Water and gas shortages are a real problem.

On the southwest coast, a storm surge flooded neighborhoods in Everglades City, Naples and Bonita Springs. Dinah Leach, wine director at Angelina's Ristorante in Bonita Springs, reported waist-high water and power outages throughout her area on Tuesday and limited access to phone and Internet. She used a kayak to transport perishable food to a neighbor's house with a generator, unable to leave her driveway without submerging her car.

"We are completely under water," Leach told Wine Spectator via email. Since Leach can't get to Angelina's or contact any of its employees, she still has no idea about the extent of the damage. "I'm very concerned for our wines at Angelina's. Those are all my babies!" said Leach. "I have to trust [that] our generator for the wine tower is working."

Michael Klauber, the owner of Michael's On East in Sarasota, has seen his fair share of Florida storms. Irma, however, was different. "This one was really scary," he said. Klauber shut down his restaurant after dinner service on Friday and did his best to secure the property and the perishables inside. The storm left the restaurant without power, but Klauber says the cellar and walk-in coolers maintained a proper internal temperature. There were some leaks, but no major water damage.

Over the weekend, the restaurant served as a makeshift shelter for a handful of staff, friends, family members and a few homeless people. "We have a pretty large banquet facility, and it's a very strong building," Klauber said.

"What's really awesome that I'm seeing is that people are really volunteering to help others that need it," he said. "I see whole neighborhoods collecting trash and tree branches together, so it's very impressive the way everybody's helping each other out."

Tampa Hunkers Down

Irma spared Tampa from the storm surge. That didn't mean the wind and rain wasn't fierce at Bern's Steak House, a beloved wine destination for decades. "Because the hurricane had a really hard time making up her mind, to be honest, we were prepared for the worst," said Brooke Palmer Kuhl, Bern's director of public relations.

The team purchased a refrigerated truck for perishable items and closed the restaurant early on Saturday. Palmer Kuhl emphasized that the safety of their guests and employees was always the primary concern. "It wasn't about the wine; it wasn't about the restaurant," she said. "All that can be rebuilt. We can't rebuild people who have worked at our restaurant for 40-some years. You can't rebuild that sense of family that we have."

Employees remained in contact with one another through a text chain. When the storm passed, they learned that Bern's had sustained power outages in parts of the restaurant, but that the temperature of the coolers and Bern's massive cellar of 500,000 bottles had not been compromised.

Rising Waters

On Florida's east coast, Jacksonville residents watched as the St. John River, already swollen from recent rains, began to overflow its banks as Irma passed. Many neighborhoods downtown still had water Tuesday. Irma was so large that its impact was felt all the way in Charleston, S.C., where the sea rose up and swamped parts of the historic downtown area.

In Miami, streets flooded in some neighborhoods, including the vibrant Brickell area. Two large construction cranes toppled during the storm. But overall, city residents were breathing a sigh of relief that they had escaped the worst. Though power was still down, on Tuesday they were venturing out and cleaning up fallen trees and debris.

By Monday afternoon, Vauthy of Red, the Steakhouse had checked in on his staff and got news that his restaurant looked to be in good shape. Only he couldn't get to it. Roads into Miami Beach were blocked until 8 a.m. Tuesday. "My phone has been blowing up nonstop from a lot of my guests that live in the [area] that want us to be open."

Making the best of a bad situation, Vauthy rounded up his employees that stayed in Miami for a homemade meal of osso bucco—made without power on a charcoal grill. "We celebrated the passing of the hurricane with a bottle of Sine Qua Non Poker Face, which was a perfect accompaniment," Vauthy said.

The steak house opened for a full dinner service Tuesday evening. "Amazingly, there are still people that were dislocated from other parts of the state, including the Keys, that have joined us for dinner," he said. "It's important to get back to business and do what we do."

Relief efforts are just beginning for what will be years of work. Those wishing to make donations can find worthy assistance programs using CharityNavigator.org.

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