A year ago, Hurricane, or Superstorm, Sandy and all her wrath took aim at the Northeast, affecting millions of people and thousands of businesses. Acqua at Peck Slip, located down off Manhattan’s Seaport, was one of many restaurants that suffered severe flooding and extensive damages. Unlike some of their less fortunate counterparts in the neighborhood, Acqua at Peck Slip was able to reopen quickly and continues to thrive a year later, despite losses due to Sandy and continuing challenges in the area. We spoke with General Manager Niki Berti, who reflected on the damage, rebuilding, and being back in business at Acqua at Peck Slip.
There was a bit of warning before the storm. Remind me, what steps did you and your staff take to prepare?
We did everything. We taped the windows and bought sandbags to put in the front, and, obviously, that was useless. The hurricane started, and water started flowing — from the sewers, from sinks, from drain holes, from the toilet. Eventually, the river overflowed, so no matter what we would have done, it would have been really bad.
Before it was a street, Peck Slip was a boat slip (Ed. Note: It was filled in in the mid-1800’s.), and we are now on a landfill. A block west is Water Street, where the water once started. It’s kind of ironic then that the water stopped at Water Street. It took back what we took from it.
The damages were extensive.
The basement was fully flooded, and we had a lot of food and wine that was lost, about $30,000 worth. Then, all the equipment and fixtures – fridges, ice boxes, freezers, the stereo, computers, ipads, ipods, POS system — were gone. The bar. The electrical system. That was the water line (see photo below).
What was the recovery process like?
When we were first here after the storm, there were no lights, no electricity. The smell of mildew was terrible. But, we were very, very lucky. The staff helped us demolish the place. We had a company come in and bio-clean it, because this was filled with sewer water. So, everything was completely disinfected. Next, the City came to measure and do whatever they had to do. Finally, we could go on and rebuild.
A lot of the businesses that were destroyed were owned by corporations, and that meant that they were waiting on insurance money to come through before they started rebuilding. A year after Sandy, those businesses are now finally starting to reopen. In that way, our landlord on that way was very helpful. He said, “Just build.”
What was working with the City like? And how about finding the funds to reopen?
The City was very helpful because they were able to grant us loans at a low interest rate. We also have to thank Goldman Sachs for that, I must say. They gave us a lot of loans. Also, thanks to NYC Business Solutions and Robert Walsh, who gave us $35,000 in grants. It’s still a fraction of everything, but it is very helpful.
And, with what I thought was an extremely generous and smart social rebuilding campaign, you raised funds, offering folks who donated a gift certificate for the amount they gave. How successful was that?
A lot of restaurants were asking for money, but we didn’t want to just ask for money outright from customers, so we thought this was a good way to reach out to the folks who knew us, liked us, and wanted us to come back. For customers and friends who pitched in, those donations became gift certificates. Some diners didn’t even want to redeem them. One customer donated $500 and insisted he didn’t even want a gift certificate. With 144 people giving, we wound up raising close to $7,000.
You’d set an initial goal to open within 30 days. Did you meet that?
We opened five weeks and four days after the storm.
Were you able to hold on to your staff while you were rebuilding?
We were able to keep all the staff, except two.
How did the ongoing perception about the Seaport area being so damaged hurt or help you in the months after reopening?
Before Sandy, this area was just starting to be known to New Yorkers. For a long time, it had been mostly tourists coming to the Seaport and Wall Street and neighborhood diners. Then, other people were starting to find us, coming from all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, and New Jersey. Sandy took this away. Fortunately, we have still been very busy because we were one of the few restaurants that reopened so quickly, so people continued to discover us. We now have a very solid, regular clientele.
Do you know of any restaurants that weren’t able to reopen?
Our next-door neighbor, Grandma’s House, for one. Kevin [the owner] put everything he had into it. He was open for about three months and was getting people trying it, people were starting to hear about it. Then came Sandy. Unlike Acqua, Kevin wasn’t able to secure any loans or grants because his restaurant was open for less than a year. He lost all of his investment, his business, his lifesavings. They are demolishing the business now. He tried in every way, but he couldn’t get any help.
On top of Sandy’s destruction, you have been dealing with seemingly eternal D.O.T. construction right on Peck Slip that has closed the road to cars and is concealing the restaurant from a great deal of foot traffic. Do you know when this will be completed?
This is a nightmare that will continue to affect us. We are hidden. As the area was recovering, people were forced to find us because there was nothing else. Now, other restaurants are reopening in the area, and this is supposed to take two to three years. They’re supposed to build a park of sorts there, but, as of Thursday, I asked the street contractors if they knew when the park construction would start. They had no clue and said there is not a start date. Also, they are tearing down the building across the street to build a new school. It will be a P.S. school, K-5 with 800 kids. Our chef is excited, as he has participated in several school lunch programs to create healthier meals for students. So, when the school and the park are open, in two to three years, it will be very good for us, but until then, with the construction, there will continue to be a little struggling.
Any advice for others or lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy?
If you know it’s going to happen, rent a truck and store everything on higher ground. Be insured. If nature wants to hurt you, there’s not a lot you can do. Nature still owns the world.