Back To Business - Bouncing Back After Sandy
Rockaway is back in business a year after Sandy, even if it’s not quite business as usual. In its wake, Sandy left a trail of damaged stores, offices and companies. Some bounced back quickly, some never did at all. Some struggled mightily for months and some sprung up from the ashes.
Although damage was vast, there are signs everywhere that Rockaway is blossoming.
In the initial days and weeks after the storm, some local businesses put money making on the back-burner and devoted their time to serving the community in any way they could. Dalton’s Seaside Grill sustained significant damage and lost all of the equipment and stock in the basement to floodwater. However, owner Chris Dalton and his brother, Michael, devoted their time to helping the neighborhood. “It wasn’t a time to worry about the bar and restaurant. We were worried about the community,” Dalton said. They opened up a soup kitchen and offered free food, water and supplies. “It turned out to be a really good move because the turnout was awesome. A lot of people got good use out of it.”
Suncycle Studios also opened up as a supply center with Kenny Pena grilling up hot meals for residents while other staff members collected and distributed coats, blankets, shoes, canned goods, baby items and cleaning supplies to those who needed it. The studio was open for exercise by December and free classes were offered throughout the month before the studio returned to normal operations.
Many local business owners are also Rockaway residents and had to balance repairing a home while trying to get business back up and running again. Katy Bree Grey, general manager of the Bungalow Bar says the Tubridys, who own the restaurant, spent much of their time focusing on the community and helping out their families. “They didn’t think about the bar for the first few weeks. They were getting out and helping friends and family whose houses were destroyed,” Grey said. “It took two to three weeks before they decided that they had to reopen for the community.” Ellen and Tom McDonagh, who own the Blackwater, had to deal with repairing their home basement and replacing their boiler while struggling to get the bar back up and running. “The storm would have just crippled us if we didn’t start and rebuild,” Ellen McDonagh said. She noted how important it was for all businesses to make a comeback after the storm. “If businesses didn’t open, the neighborhood wouldn’t be doing so well. Without business, what kind of neighborhood would you have? You need business for economic growth and jobs.”
Sandy gave some business owners the chance to make big changes. Through the Small Business Storefront Improvement Program, nineteen business owners on Beach 116th Street received a full storefront makeover, leaving the block looking better than before as stores have new awnings, signs and outside designs. Beach 116th Street was also joined by Curran’s Superior Meats, which moved from its former location on Beach 129th Street.
Some restaurants have had the opportunity to redo the inside during the recovery process. Rockaway Seafood Company had a complete transformation as owner Christopher Miles reopened the location as a Mexican restaurant this October. The Bungalow Bar, with the help of Spike TV show, “Bar Rescue,” was able to get a complete makeover as well. “There’s definitely a big difference,” Grey said, noting that the bar is much brighter than before. Bar Rescue helped repair the restaurant and provided them with lamps, TVs, a juke box and more. The restaurant was fully open in time to kick off the summer season on Memorial Day weekend.
Some businesses opened up as much as they could in desperate times. Sandy shut down The Wave for the first time in more than 100 years after the entire downstairs office was destroyed by water. “We had to come back to get information out. It was important for us to be there,” publisher Susan Locke said. New computers and furniture had to be bought and The Wave staff moved to a compact upstairs space. The paper was back in print on November 30th, 2012, a week after the office had electricity. Thai Rock opened up the back deck for the summer, even though the inside was still being renovated. The back bar was open and a limited menu was available while Rockaway Jet Ski was in operation throughout the season on the bay. The inside of the restaurant opened to the public on October 4th.
While some businesses were able to return, many old favorites have not come back yet. Fire damage took out entire buildings completely during the storm, leaving some businesses reduced to ash. The Harbor Light restaurant in Belle Harbor is still not back, but plans to rebuild are in the works. An entire strip of businesses were lost along Rockaway Beach Boulevard. Some of them including Nationwide Insurance, Lew Simon’s office, Papa John’s, Dr. Ilya Kleyn’s medical office, Rockaway Perfume, the European Hair Salon and Leon’s Shoe Repair. Some of these businesses have since reopened in new locations, like Leon’s Shoe Repair which is now open across the street from the fire zone. A majority of the burned down lot, from 114-02 through 115-02 Rockaway Beach Boulevard is currently up for sale as a commercial/ mixed-use development site by CPEX Real Estate. The price tag: $2,950,000.
Despite having different challenges to overcome, many business owners seemed to share in the fact that they had to come back on their own. They explained the struggles of trying to get help from insurance companies, FEMA and the Small Business Administration without much luck. Local businesses suffered huge losses and for the most part, were left to pay for them out of pocket.
Rockaway has also seen a boom in new businesses since the storm. Robin Scott, co-owner of the new Playland Motel said he and Jamie Wiseman had purchased the property three months before Sandy and had already started doing work to transform the building. When the owners purchased the old Tap & Grill from Andy Cholakis, they kept a promise to him that they’d take good care of the property. They weren’t expecting five feet of water to ravage the place, but they were determined to pick up the pieces. “We were never going to leave it,” Scott said. “It took a lot of fighting and hard work, but we got it back and operational as quickly as we could.” In the first few weeks, Scott says he and Wiseman devoted their energy to helping the community before working on the building. The building, complete with motel rooms, a bar and restaurant featuring brick oven pizza, officially opened on July 3rd and served as a hip new hangout for locals and visitors over the summer.
Rockaway also got its first wine bar since Sandy. Rashida Jackson, of Far Rockaway, and Patrick Flibotte, had plans of bringing a wine bar to the area for five years. They signed their lease on the property at 91-11 Rockaway Beach Boulevard shortly before the storm. Sandy flooded the entire property, leaving Jackson and Flibotte with parts of the boardwalk in the backyard, trash in and around the building and having to completely start from scratch after ripping everything out. Yet that didn’t hold them back. “It was more of an incentive to work harder,” Jackson said. “We wanted to keep going and work as hard as we could.” She explained that she “wanted neighbors to come to the place and have the backyard as an oasis to escape from all the things that happened this year. I wanted to let everyone to come together and relax.” Flibotte, an artist, built most of the contents and furniture for the space by hand. The wine bar, which offers small plates and carefully selected wines from different surf communities around the world, officially opened on June 21st. Jackson noted that people from Far Rockaway to Breezy Point have come by the new spot, showing their support, “This is a dream come true,” she said.
Rockaway has also gotten a taste of new cuisines and cultures since Sandy. Uma’s at 92-07 Rockaway Beach Boulevard has been a popular dining choice since it opened on July 23rd. Owner Conrad Karl and his wife, Uma, of Uzbekistan, had been planning to open a Central Asian restaurant for two years, but after Sandy hit, the perfect space had become available. “Because of the storm, it really prompted us to make the move to open,” Karl said. After cleaning out and repairing their own Rockaway home, the Karl's started working in January to focus on making the restaurant a possibility. “Our main motivating factor was to bring something new and interesting in Rockaway,” Karl said. Residents have been very welcoming of the new cuisine. Karl noted that residents from all across the peninsula stop by for a bite. “Some come out two to three times a week. It’s really great to see. It’s become a local restaurant hangout,” he said.
Many long-term business owners agree that the new businesses in town have been a good thing. “Every business supports every other business. It’s exciting to see other people killing it out there with their restaurants,” Grey said. “It’s a great thing to see the rejuvenation of the neighborhood.”