For restaurants in Houston, September couldn’t have come and gone fast enough. Most places are still feeling the effects of Hurricane Harvey, from slower business in general, to staff that’s still dealing with destroyed cars or homes, to the residual financial strain of days- and weekslong closures and the looming, potential financial threat of a proposed property tax hike.
"The city is still off-kilter,” says Jonathan Horowitz, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, “I’ve been talking to a lot of people, and they all say the same thing. It’s not quite right yet.”
But for restaurants attempting to simply recover and reopen after flooding, it's not even close to being normal.
"The biggest problem with flooding," Robert "Bobby" Jucker of Three Brothers Bakery says, "as a business, you don’t get paid for any loss of business. They just pay you for damages. So, insurance is a tough, tough deal. It’s not I’m so sorry you’ve been in a flood. Let me write you a check. You have to prove what you’ve lost, even though you’ve got water out the doors. It’s a big process. A flood adjuster is assigned. They have to gather all your information. Serial numbers, models, part sizes. You've got to do all this research, get vendors to price it. God, if you’re not prepared for this and can’t back it up? It’s a long, horrible road. We’ve kind of learned in four floods and one tornado that you’ve really got to be prepared and have your stuff saved in the cloud."
Before the electricity went out at Three Brothers Bakery, 4036 Braeswood, this time around — when Harvey rolled in on the night of August 26 — water filled the parking lot, rose to the level of the push bar on the door and started pouring inside the bakery. By Sunday, it was flowing like a river between the front and back doors, lifting and spinning buckets, a cart and custom-built maple tables. The ice machine, complete with 800 pounds of ice in it, was picked up and flipped over. In the kitchen, the water did so much damage it even destroyed the sour starter for the bakery’s beloved rye bread.
“This was the first time it wasn’t a total blackout when it flooded,” Jucker says. That is to say, some of this was even captured on security camera, a perverse keepsake. “It’s a nightmare.”
Hurricane Harvey was the third time the bakery has flooded in three years. Around the bakery, the neighborhoods are stacked with debris, the landscape perhaps forever changed this time around. At least that’s what Jucker fears most. Thousands of homes in the Meyerland, Braeswood and Bellaire neighborhoods that surround the bakery were completely inundated with water for the second time in two years. Some neighboring businesses are not coming back. A couple that were regulars already decided to move back to North Carolina. With FEMA buyouts looming, Jucker wonders if the neighborhoods will become sparser, forever changed to the detriment of the community.
For the bakery itself, the aftermath of the latest flood has brought stress aplenty. The location serves as the central production kitchen for all of Three Brothers' catering orders and storefronts, but after a thorough cleaning and remediation, it has only been running on half days for a little more than a week.
The cases are about a third full, and a certain amount of kitchen equipment is faulty. “Components, once they get wet, they just start failing,” Jucker says, but it doesn’t happen all at once. The other day a full rack of cakes was baking when the oven failed. His custom-made kitchen equipment, including sheeters and ovens, has to be outsourced from Europe or New York, so replacing parts isn’t an easy process. Same thing with replacing the bakery’s flooded truck. Jucker found a replacement just fine, except that it was in Maryland.
“Our biggest challenge is just losing all the equipment and having to rip things out and not being able to get a loan. Having this happen three times over three years, our books don’t look so great, you know; the bank doesn’t want to lend money.”
Despite the sentiment, Jucker has gotten a disaster loan, as he did during Ike, to help cover some costs, which he estimates will run about a million dollars. How else will he cover up-front costs? “American Express. You know, what are you going to do?”
The bakery has spent more than $30,000 in premiums for flood insurance, and received $1.5 million to fix, rebuild and replace the items lost to previous flooding. Jucker says he wishes the government would offer loans to help small businesses relocate, but understands that will likely never happen. "We’re going to be okay. It’s just hard right now. I really don’t want to do this again. I’d rather be in the process of trying to grow this business, versus every year rebuilding everything I have."
“Closing a restaurant for a month?” Paul Miller, owner of Union Kitchen, says. “Well, it sucks for staff. And you're closed, but the bills don't stop."
On Sunday, August 27, Miller stood inside the Memorial location of his eatery, along with his wife and two employees, a general manager and a chef, watching the blistering rain come down as water rose slowly in the parking lot.
“We started to see the writing on the wall and got out of there,” he says. When he returned the following day, the restaurant had taken on a foot of water in the dining area and three inches in the kitchen. "Thankfully, everything in the kitchen is made to get wet." That being said, the eatery didn’t have flood insurance, though it does have loss of product and loss of business policies. Miller says, "Hindsight is twenty-twenty."
And having to close for that 28 days to gut and rebuild the restaurant was, as he puts it, "a logistical nightmare."
Some staff were able to get hours doing remediation work, everything from squeegie-ing to scrubbing floor-to-ceiling with microbial cleaner. A contractor was able to get in and out relatively quickly, leaving the restaurant with a new color scheme, new carpet, a new bar, light fixtures and a paint job. The group's Bellaire eatery also suffered extensive damage to an electrical panel, which proved just as tricky to repair.
Miller says that 100 percent of the staff at Memorial was able to keep their jobs. Managers found ways to fit them into schedules at sister eateries, but as the Press has heard previously from other restaurant owners, that's not always easy — it's been a rough month for many servers, undoubtedly. "We tried to get them close to the number of hours they normally have," Miller says. The restaurant group was also lucky enough to have savings to support Gr8 Giving, which allows employees to apply for grants. Around 14 of the 400 employees were devastated by the flooding, and a dozen more sought financial help for bills.
One of the easiest parts of the ordeal was, surprisingly, the ease with which the health department allowed them to reopen. "We called them and they came out the next day. It was basically an opening inspection and they gave us the thumbs-up." Customers and regulars too have been returning steadily. "I have no complaints about the level of business."
The challenge now, Miller says, lies in helping staff resume their normal hours and day-to-day welfare. There have been some supply issues as well. Earlier in September it was hard to get meat. Now there's the fact that the cost of avocados has shot up again, this time hovering around $90 per case, which has nothing to do with the storm, except for being the cherry on top of a money-owned cake.
“We walked around giving high fives,” Miller says, thinking back to the moments after his health department inspection, back when dealing with insurance adjusters and invoicing weren't yet at the forefront of the day-to-day. “Now we’re sitting on a really big bill.”
“If you know our street, it’s substantially lower than our building," says Josh Tortorice of Rao's Bakery, 6915 Cypresswood, in Spring. "A police station next to us is lower to the street, and it gets obliterated with every flood. But we've been here since '06. In April 2016 the water got close, but didn’t get in our store. A lot of people around us flooded. I honestly thought, we can handle it."
That being said, the bakery did not have flood insurance.
On Sunday, August 27, one of Tortorice's employees was able to get past a roadblock and go to check on the store. “Meanwhile, he’s flooded out of his apartment. He Face-timed me, and that was around 3 p.m. The water wasn’t really high inside yet, maybe six inches." The doors were sealed and holding back two feet of water, which was gurgling up through the bakery's drains. "He turned the power off and got out of there."
By Monday, that employee had to be rescued by the Cajun Navy. The water inside the bakery had risen to about three feet. There was water inside for a total of four days. Employees were able to get inside to start cleaning and tearing things out on August 31, but Tortorice was stuck at his home in Beaumont because of flooding.
“I was dealing with my own problems here,” he says. "We were just getting hit when Houston was starting to recede."
Rao’s started in Beaumont in 1941. The Tortorice family bought the original location in 1998, and has since expanded with a total of four bakeries. His problems there included bakery locations having no potable water and some water damage, not from flooding but from damage to the ceiling.
The Rao's in Spring has 25 employees. Some lost everything. Others couldn’t get out of their homes or apartments. "The guy who checked on the store, his truck washed away but they found it and somehow it still worked. His girlfriend's car washed away. One lady left her car at the bakery, and the water got up to the glove compartment. It was ruined. She is a single mom. Ruined transportation. Her mom was in town from the Ukraine and the storm hit. I don’t even know what that was like for them. FEMA put them up in a hotel. "
The community has jumped at the opportunity to help Rao's rebuild, with former employees, friends and even strangers who "did all the mucking and trashing of everything themselves. It was really incredible."
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Currently, Tortorice is hoping to open for the holidays. He doesn't yet know the full extent of kitchen equipment damage, but all the showcases need to be replaced. "We’ve got Sheetrock and tape and texture going on, but haven’t been given a date on when it will be complete," he says. They're at the mercy of contractors, and right now in Houston, contractors are busy. "We ordered our showcases. Given the okay on plans. Building cabinets. It’s basically a build-out. We're starting over. It's 2006 all over again."
On top of this, somebody went and stole the beloved life-size Elwood Blues brother off the patio last week for no good reason. "It had screws on the bottom. It was fastened down. It’s crazy that someone stole that."
Fortunately, Tortorice says, the year has been good to the bakery so far, and the family is able to help some employees by transferring them to Beaumont, including housing on top of wages. But facing numerous bills and an indefinite closure, the bakery is starting to approach the point of needing a loan.
"We never thought it would flood, like I said. Everything is out of our pocket. We’re paying."