Eater's Amy McKeever recently went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to talk with chefs, restaurateurs, and city representatives to learn their Hurricane Sandy stories and peer into the city's recovery. What follows is the first in a weeklong series of reports exploring losses both personal and professional, communities rebuilding, and triumphs over Mother Nature. There will be a look at how the gaming industry — for decades the driver of Atlantic City's economy — took a hit from Sandy, as well as the steps the city is taking to bring it back.
[Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
It seems like everyone in Atlantic City is still getting that phone call from friends and regulars. People are asking whether they're open, or if Hurricane Sandy perhaps washed their business away as it supposedly did the city's iconic boardwalk. But the Atlantic City boardwalk is intact. And many of the city's restaurants are back up and running. Even most of those that did take on storm damage have by now managed to rebuild and reopen. Crucial numbers — employment, gaming revenue — are mostly back on the upswing, and yet recovery continues.
But still, it's worth it to take a look back at what factors played into the coastal city's distress, some that linger still to this day. Here now, a post-mortem on a post-Sandy Atlantic City.
When it became clear that Hurricane Sandy was going to make landfall over New Jersey, the national media did what the national media is wont to do: it sent reporters to the coastlines to stand in the wind and rain and document the destruction. In Atlantic City's case, the reports included one major inaccuracy that has caused lingering trouble for the city and all of its businesses. Journalists on the ground, not necessarily familiar with Atlantic City, found a section of the boardwalk that Sandy had battered. Footage of that damage found its way onto national broadcasts, with journalists from NBC's Al Roker to ABC's George Stephanopoulos declaring devastation for Atlantic City's historic boardwalk. But, the problem is, the actual historic part of Atlantic City's boardwalk was not devastated at all.
In the days that followed, it turned out that this section of the boardwalk was one that was slated for demolition anyway. Located in a residential area, this section is nowhere near the iconic (and commercial) section of the boardwalk that connects most of Atlantic City's big-name casinos from Caesars Palace to the Taj Mahal to the newly incarnated Revel. The District Commander of the Atlantic City Tourism District put out a statement explaining the reality and the networks corrected their reports but, as happens in cases like this, the damage was done. "It's fairly hard to undo the damage at that point," says Atlantic City Alliance chief strategy and communications officer Jeff Guaracino.
Still today restaurants across Atlantic City field calls asking whether or not they're open, as well as whether or not they still exist after Sandy's supposed wrath. It's a particular irritant to some, including Girasole's Gino Iovino, who reopened his Italian restaurant the very next day after Sandy hit. He says he walked up and down the boardwalk after seeing those news reports and discovered that all was well. But people aren't coming into the restaurant in the numbers that they did even this time last year. And weeks later while in Miami, he had new acquaintances asking if everyone in AC was still surviving. "People still really think the New Jersey coastline is destroyed," he says.
Boardwalk entrance to Sammy Hagar's Beach Bar & Grill [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
Physical Damage to AC's Hospitality Industry
While Hurricane Sandy most decidedly did not destroy Atlantic City's boardwalk or casinos in any meaningful way, it did cause plenty of destruction for Atlantic City residents and workers. Atlantic City is a town with a lot of basement apartments and flooding was an issue for a lot of residents. And many Atlantic City workers happen to live in nearby areas that were socked even harder, such as Dean Dupuis, chef of Mussel Bar at the Revel. His house took on four feet of water, ruining the entire first floor and all of the moving boxes that he and his wife had yet to unpack from their move earlier that year. "I had hundreds of cookbooks all swimming," he says.
Businesses also got hit, particularly those on vulnerable beachfront properties. For example, Sammy Hagar's Beach Bar & Grill did take on some serious damage, but it was closed for the season anyway and expects to reopen in time for summer. But there are little signs of damage everywhere. Dupuis says the Revel's employee entrance had flooded and he had water dripping into Mussel Bar's kitchen. The roof was also leaking at Tony's Baltimore Grill, which stayed open through the storm, and owner Debbie Tarsitano says they're just now discovering water damage elsewhere.
Sammy Hagar's Beach Bar & Grill [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
Then there are the unlucky few whose homes and businesses flooded in Sandy's swells. Cookie Till was at her Longport home when Sandy hit. Though she had planned to ride out the storm at her Margate restaurant, Steve & Cookie's By the Bay, her car flooded before she could leave home. Friends helped her evacuate before her home flooded and on the way to safety, they stopped by the restaurant. Its first level had already flooded and the second high tide hadn't even hit yet. It was going to get worse. Though Till now says she was lucky to have stayed nearby, she points out that many others were unable to get back for days thanks to the blockaded streets. As she says, "It's such a time-sensitive thing to get stuff dried out."
Indirect Damage to the AC Hospitality Industry
But warped floorboards and leaky ceilings were perhaps the least of Atlantic City's problems, at least for its small business owners. While the media has focused plenty on the destruction, it's the not-so-sexy indirect damage that might actually be hurting Atlantic City the most. Atlantic City was already declining over recent years thanks to gaming development nearby in Pennsylvania eating into the casino town's once-commanding market share. To make up for that revenue, Atlantic City had begun to look elsewhere for revenue, particularly tourism and conventions. Both of these have suffered post-Sandy.
Sandy devastated communities further north along the Atlantic coastline, from northern New Jersey to Red Hook and the Rockaways in New York. Bob McDevitt, president of the Local 54 workers' union, says that 25 to 30 percent of Atlantic City's market comes from Red Hook and other points north. Casinos in particular depend on their tourism (and gaming) dollars. But many restaurants rely on them as well. Now, however, those tourists are dealing with their own catastrophes. Understandably, spending money in Atlantic City is not a priority.
Atlantic City Convention Center [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
November happens to be one of Atlantic City's biggest months of the year for convention traffic. But for the first week or so of November 2012, the city was all chaos and blockades. Governor Christie shut down the casinos until November 2, and people throughout the region spent weeks in some cases just getting back on their feet. The New Jersey Education Association had to cancel its annual conference scheduled for Nov. 8-9, a loss of about 50,000 potential visitors, per the Inquirer.
Next, the New Jersey League of Municipalities canceled its convention set for Nov. 12-15, an annual event that McDevitt describes as a "bacchanalia" (meaning it's very good for Atlantic City restaurants and hospitality industry). But, as Guaracino points out, these community leaders were needed more at home in their own Sandy-ravaged communities. Attending a conference in Atlantic City was also not in the cards. They'll come back in 2013, but Guaracino says, "That business was lost forever." He also notes that while many of the boardwalk-adjacent restaurants are bouncing back from their losses, some of those that depended heavily on convention traffic are still hurting.
And, of course, it wasn't just the casinos and business owners who suffered from this sudden drop in tourism. The workforce in the hospitality industry felt it, too. In the months after Sandy, casinos in some cases dramatically cut back the opening hours of their restaurants. Some were closed for weeks at a time. Dupuis at Mussel Bar says he had employees calling in every day after the storm just itching to work. He kept some on and brought people into work when he could, he says, but he had to cut others loose advising them to collect unemployment. And that appears to have been a common phenomenon among all the casinos. McDevitt says that of his union's 13,000 casino-working members, only half of them were full-time in November.
[Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
Gino Iovino at Girasole says he didn't have to lay off any of his employees — many of whom are family members — but they have cut down from five shifts a week to three or four. And those kinds of cutbacks were common at restaurants across the city, whether it be the mom-and-pops or the casinos. So, according to Guaracino, "Not only do you have a workforce who was recovering from their own personal impact from Hurricane Sandy, whether their homes or that kind of thing. They're also dealing with the impact of a significantly reduced earning potential during the fourth quarter of 2012." A quarter which, he points out, is also the Christmas season.
In spite of all this, Atlantic City already seems to be bouncing back. Restaurateurs say that their monthly covers are getting back to what they normally would be in the off-season. They're sure of a full recovery in time for peak season. So how have they come to be so optimistic? Stay tuned over the next few days for their Hurricane Sandy stories: Tomorrow brings the tale of Tony's Baltimore Grill, which stayed open throughout the storm with a skeleton crew.