Tuesday, October 22, 2013

North Jersey restaurants hardest hit by storm recover from Sandy

Watching customers stream in for heaping plates of pasta and chats with Aldo Bazzarelli and his daughters, you'd never know that almost a year ago, Superstorm Sandy soaked their landmark Moonachie restaurant with waist-high floodwater.

Business has boomed since the 42-year-old Bazzarelli restaurant reopened in January — many first-timers said they dropped in to support the rebuilding efforts, while hundreds of regulars missed their second kitchen during the two months it was closed. "It was definitely a lesson that you mean more to people than you thought you did," says Aldo's daughter, Susanna Bazzarelli Teixeira.

The Bazzarellis' other lesson: that they can depend on the little people so much more than the big. They are still struggling with an insurance company for payments, but another insurance broker was so moved by their plight that he threw a benefit party at the restaurant and handed them the $2,000 in proceeds.

Despite the swarm of federal and state elected officials at their reopening, the family ultimately applied for no public money. They say they were turned off by the tedious paperwork process and interest rate of the loans offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Instead, they opted to raid Aldo's retirement account and remortgage his house (at a lower rate) to finance most of their $300,000 in repairs.

"If we would have waited, we would still not be open," said daughter Denise Bazzarelli. After her boyfriend, Carlos Moscoso, received one of the so-called recoupment letters from FEMA, demanding back money it said it erroneously paid him after a disaster (in his case, Hurricane Irene), the family decided to steer clear of the federal grant process altogether.

They did get one grant from a private group — The Bergen County Community Action Partnership, whose $3,000 they used to replace their ruined chairs — as well as donations from friends and neighbors. Home Depot employees who saw Aldo coming in for construction supplies later became dinner customers. Some of Aldo's staff even told him that he didn't have to pay them right away when the restaurant first opened. Aldo said that without his customers and friends, "I don't think we would have been able to do anything. I wouldn't be able to pay my bills."

While Bazzarelli suffered some of the most significant losses of any local restaurant during Superstorm Sandy, its publicity and long, loyal following helped it rebound the fastest.

One restaurant in Little Ferry, Il Cinghiale, had been open just 18 months and had just started to build a following when Sandy destroyed it. Without flood insurance, owner Nicola Moncada knew he couldn't recover, and opted to leave. He now runs Ristorante Benissimo in Madison, where he says he occasionally gets customers from the Bergen County area.

Bazzarelli's neighbor, the 8-year-old Dolce Novita, was closed for 18 days after Sandy. But upon reopening, owners soon realized that many of their regulars had been flooded out of their houses and were nowhere to be found at dinnertime.

Business plummeted 40 percent from this time last year. Owner Richard Vukaj said he received some insurance money, for which he was able to fix his dining room, but his roof is leaking and he has no more money for repairs. "I need another $50,000 to $100,000 to make the place what it was before Sandy," he said. Thankfully, Vukaj has been starting to see more familiar faces in the dining room. "Most of the people are moving back, now [that] their houses are fixed. They come in more often to eat."

In Carlstadt, Sandy covered the 14-year-old Gianna's Restaurant with eight inches of water. Owners got up and running after three weeks, but the usual busy holiday season was a wash — many of the nearby companies who always held Christmas parties there were flooded and couldn't afford to celebrate. Even now, "I think a lot of people are having a hard time from being closed so long," said owner Paula Graziano. Business remains hit or miss.

The one bright spot: With its location near the Meadowlands, the Italian restaurant is already getting business from those working on the Super Bowl. Graziano hopes they spread the word. "During the Super Bowl, I think we're going to be crazy busy," she says. "I hope so."

Email: ung@northjersey.com Blog: northjersey.com/secondhelpings Twitter: @elisaung

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I heard that there are so many people still homeless or didn't get the insurance needed to recover, even when they had insurance. (: K.