- The garbage piles outside of Thai Rock, as a National Guard truck drives by
- Floorboards start to overflow the dumpster outside of the restaurant
- Everything outside to air out
- Potentially salvageable things being kept on Thai Rock's back porch, which serves as a bar in better times
- The incredibly loud generator and firewood that provide the electricity and heat-free apartment above Thai Rock at least some comfort
- Everyone has been feasting on prepped food from Thai Rock's freezer for weeks.
Just three weeks ago, Robert Kaskel was a first-time restaurateur, still in his second year of business at Thai Rock on Rockaway Beach. He was a landlord to his sister-in-law, the restaurant's head chef. He was a man who owned and lived in a condo by the beach and rented out jet skis and other water sports equipment.
Now he has to start again.
Kaskel lives and works in the Rockaways, a Long Island peninsula located in Queens, New York. This is a community where Hurricane Sandy pulled no punches when the storm came through on October 29. People in the Rockaways are still without power and without heat. Gas is scarce and the subway line severely impaired. The US Postal Service — which legend has it will deliver through rain, sleet and snow — hasn't been seen in weeks. But the National Guard travels the streets here in convoys that are three-deep.
Despite all of this and countless additional setbacks, Kaskel and his wife Metta Kaskel are already rebuilding Thai Rock. Unlike some of Rockaway's seasonal dining options, Thai Rock is a year-round restaurant with live music on the weekends and a menu that strives for authenticity. Metta was a bartender and restaurant owner back in Thailand, while her sister Karog Prom has been a chef for 25 years. As Metta puts it, they are Thai chefs cooking the food they would have made at their restaurants in Thailand.
And now all three restaurateurs and chefs are actually looking forward to what they call an opportunity, however unwanted it was, to build an even better Thai Rock. As Kaskel puts it, "You don't get a chance like this often. And for good reason."
Hurricane Sandy Hits
Thai Rock on the bay [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
On the morning of Hurricane Sandy's descent upon the Rockaways, the island saw an early high tide. On one side, where Thai Rock perches half hanging over the water, the bay undulated in four-foot swells, one after another. Though the authorities had already mandated an evacuation, Kaskel agonized over whether to stay or go. He had seen hurricanes come and go before. And he's skeptical that the island's infrastructure can actually handle a mass exodus like a mandatory evacuation.
But judging from that high tide, things were already worse than they were during Hurricane Irene last year. So, in the end, Robert and Metta packed up and evacuated to a friend's home in Queens.
When Robert returned the next day, the first thing he did was take a walk around Thai Rock. He wasn't an expert in architectural integrity, but he didn't see any signs of real trouble, any cracks in the walls. The building itself was okay. Inside, though, was another story. The bay had engulfed Thai Rock completely — the water line reaches about waist level. Wooden floor boards were soggy and crumbling away. All of the kitchen equipment was under water.
Miraculously, though, the freezer was uncontaminated, a one-of-a-kind stained glass window remained in tact, the restaurant's computers all sat on a shelf above the water line and the deck hanging over the water — which Robert had built only a year earlier — was barely touched. Less lucky was Thai Rock's next door neighbor, Bungalow Bar and Restaurant, whose deck snapped in two.
And that's about where luck ran out. Hurricane Sandy hadn't just wreaked havoc on the Kaskels' restaurant. It had also flooded their condo, rendering it unlivable even now. So the couple has moved into the apartment above Thai Rock, which they had been renting out to Karog and a few other cooks. Robert says he has stopped charging rent now that he's living there, too — a considerate gesture, but also another big hit for his income.
Meanwhile, Robert's rental jet skis had been parked on land before the storm and now bob in the water. He hasn't been out to inspect them yet, but notes gratefully that they do not appear to have capsized. So there's some hope there.
Do You Walk Away Or Do You Rebuild?
- The demolition crew tears up the floors inside Thai Rock
- Completely waterlogged, the wooden floors were crumbling
- Robert plans to open up the windows on the bay side of the restaurant in its new incarnation to take better advantage of the water view
- The kitchen equipment was all underwater — the water line reached the lip of that counter to the left
- A custom-made Thai Rock stained glass survived the storm thanks to plywood
- Putting more plywood over the stained glass to protect it from the demolition
- A vague scent of rotten food permeated from this refrigerator
- The Thai Rock office space
- Salvaging the computers from the computer room
So when a storm like Hurricane Sandy hits, do you walk away or do you rebuild? That's the question Robert asked himself upon returning to the Rockaways. He didn't have flood insurance for the restaurant that sprawls over the water, which at first blush seems crazy. But Robert explains he could only afford insurance on either his condo or the restaurant — and he's leasing the restaurant space so he could still just walk away.
But there was enough that was salvageable, so rather than walk away Robert decided he was going to rebuild. And so the Thai Rock team went about not only triaging what was left of Thai Rock, but also devising a plan for a new and improved restaurant.
Friends and restaurant regulars helped out with the clean-up, and Robert was able to hire some of his newly out-of-work employees, too. He explains, "I've been hiring them sporadically on a day-by-day basis. ... You know, we can't pay them like we would pay them at the restaurant, but 50, 60, 80 bucks, whatever it is a day that we're here, just to do something to give a little bit of cash in their pocket."
Since Thai Rock's deep freezer was left uncontaminated and retained its chill long after the power went out, there was quite a bit of food leftover at the restaurant — and not enough time to eat it all. So the Kaskels began throwing it all on the barbecue and inviting over friends, neighbors, passers-by, sanitation workers, anyone. Even now, Metta says that she's constantly packing up boxes of food for friends to take home after they visit.
And since the floors were going to have to come up anyway, Robert decided early on to just go ahead and gut the restaurant and fix structural things that had always bothered him. They're going to open up the windows facing the bay, create a new bathroom, upgrading the wiring for a better audio system and create a "really spectacular" bar area.
On Tuesday of this week, a crew of about eight men were hard at work all day ripping up the floorboards and taking the walls down to their studs, work that would take about two days before the team moved on to gut the Kaskels' condo. Though Kaskel says the demolition isn't as scary as it could have been — after all, he'd been through a less extreme version of the process two years earlier when opening the restaurant — that doesn't make it any easier to stomach. "When you watch it get destroyed, it takes so much out of you," Robert says, gazing through holes in the floorboards at the bay underneath.
Nothing Comes Easy Right Now
Robert at work [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
But beyond the trauma of witnessing the destruction of something beloved, there are also the every day battles that try Robert's patience. It seems being without power also means losing power over one's own life. And Rockaway residents hear that it's going to be two more weeks before they get their power back.
Robert was fortunate in that he was able to secure a generator for his little temporary home above the restaurant, but a gas shortage means they had to ration electricity. So Robert unplugs the refrigerator in the middle of the night to conserve energy. In the middle of an interview, Metta interrupts to ask if it would be okay to use the toaster and the microwave at the same time. Robert doesn't know, but they give it a shot. Fortunately, lunch — pork dumplings, spicy five-star chicken and pork skewers, all taken prepped from the restaurant's freezer — is successfully heated.
There's also the issue of the mail. USPS hasn't been delivering mail to this neck of the woods since the storm, which is at best a nuisance and at worst an actual hindrance to recovery: When Robert checks the status of his FEMA claims, he discovers they've referred him to the Small Business Administration for a loan — and have mailed him the application. Robert also needs to send some paperwork to the Department of Homeland Security, but they can only accept mail sent through the very postal system that he can't access. On the phone with various customer service agents, Robert often finds himself explaining, "We've been affected by Hurricane Sandy."
Here's The Good News
A sidewalk in the Rockaways [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
But Robert is not exactly in self-pitying mode. It's frustrating having little to no control, he says, but he wants people to know that he just wants to get on with life. He's even excited about moving forward with rebuilding Thai Rock. Everyone in the Thai Rock family pretty much just wants to get back to work; Metta was even thinking of picking up a shift at a friend's restaurant in Manhattan.
And even though no one seems to have any control in this post-Sandy life, people in the Rockaways have been getting around the hassles by banding together. The Kaskels' friend Greg, also a bartender at Thai Rock, stops by during the day to drive Metta to the closest post office. The New York Sports Club has been allowing Rockaway residents to take hot showers at all their locations just with the flash of an ID. The Kaskels and others are opening up their homes and tables to those without generators or a freezer full of food.
And everyone is sharing gossip on how to get more assistance out of FEMA or where to find a gas station without a line. While driving to meet the A train at Howard Beach — as far as it will go at the moment — Robert notices a Hess station where there isn't a line and gas seems to be flowing. He calls up a friend who he knew was low on gas to let him know where to find it and says hopefully, "Maybe things are getting back to normal."
If you'd like to assist Thai Rock in its recovery efforts, please visit its website to make a donation.