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. This is the second in a series of five reports exploring post-Sandy life in Atlantic City, focusing on old-timer Tony's Baltimore Grill.
[Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
In the days after Hurricane Sandy passed through Atlantic City, Tony's Baltimore Grill was slammed with customers. The bar was four-deep all day Tuesday, and the wait for one of the restaurant's signature pizzas was about 2 1/2 hours. But the city outside was dead quiet. Most residents had evacuated days earlier in anticipation of the storm, and all that remained were emergency personnel and residents who had decided to brave the storm.
The 86-year-old restaurant was one of the few Atlantic City establishments that city officials had declared essential and asked to remain open during the storm to feed emergency personnel. Any of the restaurant's employees who wanted to evacuate were free to do so, but co-owner Debbie Tarsitano says that about six to ten people stayed to work with her the week Atlantic City was closed. Some were employees, while others were family members and friends. All of them put in long hours, including Tarsitano's daughter — a doctor who does not usually work at Tony's — who logged 63 hours straight as a waitress. What follows is their Sandy story.
"Exhausted and Traumatized."
It all started at 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 28. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had issued an evacuation order for Atlantic City. A travel ban was going in effect to keep people from coming into the area, as well as to keep them from crossing between Atlantic City and its outlying communities. That day, business was slow at Tony's Baltimore Grill, says bartender Gary McFadden. His shift at the bar — which normally operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week — began on Sunday night and lasted until Monday afternoon, the peak of the storm.
McFadden says they began to sandbag the doors at 4 p.m. on Monday. Leaks were coming through the restaurant's flat roof, but Tarsitano now brushes them off, saying the staff simply placed buckets below the leaks and moved on with work. Even though the water was hitting every other Atlantic City street — the first time Tarsitano recalled in decades that the ocean water met the bay — she and her colleagues were not terribly afraid. The fire and police personnel (who would be their primary customer base for the week to come) informed them that Atlantic City would be protected from the worst winds in the eye of the storm. So Tarsitano and the others hunkered down together at the restaurant and in the apartment above. Most of them would live together for the week.
Debbie Tarsitano at Tony's bar. [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
Tuesday morning is when business started to pick up. McFadden says they had an order for 30 pizzas from the police department in the morning, and soon that would become hundreds of pizzas. Folks were ordering 40 to 50 pies at a time, Tarsitano says, and while the staff was moving as quickly as they could, they were just a skeleton crew with several untrained non-employees among them working long hours. For days, it was Tony's Baltimore Pizza and a few other old-timer restaurants serving the stragglers left in Atlantic City, including Ducktown Tavern and the owners behind the Knife & Fork Inn.
Wait times crept up to two or two and a half hours and would remain that way for two days. There were only maybe three customers in ten days who gave the staff a hard time amid the epic waits, but even that made things more difficult. As Tarsitano says, "It was scary for a lot of us because we had to deal with some disgruntled people and all of us were exhausted and traumatized by our loss."
By Wednesday night, the end of yet another crazy day, Atlantic City had implemented a curfew uptown. Tarsitano and McFadden recall hearing rumors of looting in other parts of town. Worried that it might make its way to Tony's, they made sure to lock one of the two entrances to the restaurant so that they could keep a better eye on who was coming in. But the curfew gave the staff a chance for some much-needed downtime. They closed for a few hours in the evenings to clean, share some wine, and listen as Tarsitano's daughter sang opera.
"Life Goes on, But Things Keep Just Happening."
The madness finally broke on Thursday. McFadden worked with a lieutenant in the local police department to allow several employees through the blockaded streets with a police escort so that they could get to the restaurant. After all, the police needed Tony's up and running as much as anyone else did. Not everyone came, of course. Some were still dealing with their own losses at home. But Tarsitano points out that some of her employees needed to be able to pay the bills they were facing for home repair. And so, she says, "Everybody came back to work immediately that could come." At last, the skeleton crew at Tony's Baltimore Grill had support.
The National Guard handing out sand bags in Atlantic City. [Photo: The National Guard/Flickr]
That was also the day that the police department gave the restaurant permission to drive to the Sam's Club in Pleasantville, New Jersey. While the restaurant's dough-maker had managed the keep the restaurant supplied with pizza dough, they were running out of other things. So, Tarsitano says, a crew drove to the store, where they bought $1,000 in pepperoni and other ingredients. Upon their return, she says, a sheriff stopped the crew and refused to let them through until another officer vouched for them as the folks who were providing food for the first responders.
It would be another two weeks before the city would remove all the sand that Hurricane Sandy had piled onto Atlantic City's streets, pushing it through the streets with shovels as if it were snow. In the meantime, "it was very quiet and dead in here," says Tarsitano. Atlantic City residents were too busy throwing out waterlogged furniture and contemplating home repair to go out to eat. "Life goes on but things keep just happening," she says.
"We'll Get By."
Business continued to be slow in the months following Sandy. People were using all their money to fix their homes, Tarsitano says. Her own home had water damage, too, leaks that came in from above. Her children helped her pull up the rugs and bag up whatever belongings of hers that would now need to go. She didn't have active insurance at home so it's still a headache, but Tarsitano downplays all that, saying, "It's livable. We'll get by. It's not as bad as other people."
The Knife & Fork Inn, another Atlantic City institution. [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]
Meanwhile, the restaurant has its own problems. The water damage only really began to reveal itself about a month ago. Tarsitano declined to talk at length about those issues, but said that business is starting to come back now after a couple of quiet post-Sandy months. Sure, it's still quieter than usual, but she expects to see an uptick in February.
In a low-margin industry an uptick only can make so much of a difference. And Tarsitano admits that the owners of Tony's Baltimore Grill "are not making the money we should be making to run a business like this." She says they haven't cut back on staff or shifts at all since the storm. Indeed, the owners also ignored a state auditor's recommendation back in October to cut a quarter of their workforce. While she explains the restaurant is more of a hobby for some of her co-owners, it's also an institution: "This place, Knife & Fork, White House, we've been open forever and ever and despite everything, it's been pretty successful. It's just a bad economy right now. Everywhere."
Tomorrow, Eater talks to restaurateur Gino Iovino about how he managed to save his family-run Italian restaurant Girasole, as well as how bleak business became in the days that followed the storm.