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Atlantic City Post-Sandy: It Took a Community to Rebuild Steve & Cookie's

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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 fourth in a series of five reports exploring post-Sandy life in Atlantic City, focusing on Steve and Cookie's By the Bay in Margate City, New Jersey.

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[Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]

Cookie Till looked around her bayside restaurant, its lower level already drowned in a foot of water with chairs floating. Steve and Cookie's By the Bay was a mess already, and it was only mid-afternoon on the day Hurricane Sandy hit. The second high tide was yet to come. "I knew I was screwed," she says. So Till did the only thing she could think to do: She waded behind the bar, grabbed a bottle of Scotch and jumped back in her friend's car as they fled to safety.

Till hadn't expected things to get so bad at the restaurant. That's where she had initially planned to ride out the storm. That is, before her car flooded out and she had to ask some truck-owning friends to pick her up at her home in Longport. She spent that evening at their home, worrying about the artwork and the inevitable threat of mold. She started to devise a plan for saving her restaurant, not yet realizing how hard that was going to be.

The very next day, Till returned to the restaurant, where one foot of water had turned into more than two and a half feet spilling into the second floor of the split-level. Her first order of business was to remove all the artwork — Steve and Cookie's has turned into a community art gallery of sorts over the years — and then assess her next steps. Friends were calling from all over town to check in on her, including Carmen Rone of Tomatoes. His restaurant was in the same boat, she says, and so they compared notes.

While Till initially thought she could just mop up the water and air out the restaurant to get it back to normal, experts she consulted quickly disabused her of this notion. She had a guy in to test the walls and floors for moisture and learned that they would both need to be ripped out and replaced. Rather than just airing out the place, they would need fans and special dehumidifiers. She learned she would need to dump the booze from all three bars, rip out the walk-ins and replace all the kitchen equipment because even what seemed to work at the time was likely to die soon enough. "It was a quick education," she says.

Steve and Cookie's during the rebuild. [Photos: Steve and Cookie's]

Rebuilding a Restaurant

But Till was fortunate compared to other business owners and homeowners whose properties needed repair. Steve and Cookie's has long held an excellent reputation in the region and business before the storm was good. Till had enough credit to pay her contractors right away, which might have made all the difference since, as she says, "If you can't do that, you're at the bottom of the list." And there was no negotiating prices because those contractors now had epic lists of potential customers. But, fortunately, they made Steve and Cookie's a priority.

Another piece of good fortune were the many friends and employees who turned up asking to volunteer. And the police even allowed caravans of about 20 to 25 employees to cross their blockades to work on repairs. That — crossing the strictly-watched borders between towns — was an accomplishment at a time when even workmen were being turned away. "I felt like I was in a war movie," Till says, noting that in the early days of rebuilding, it took half a day just to get her crew into town.

While the ever-optimistic Till had hoped the restaurant would be able to reopen in time for its annual Thanksgiving dinner, the week of November 5 it became clear that it wasn't going to happen. Till went ahead and canceled all 500 reservations that were in the book, and then she had a talk with her contractor. The two of them agreed on a "do or die" reopening date: December 5, just in time for the big holiday party booked a couple days later. And so for 37 days, the crew worked every single day, sometimes 12 to 15 hours a day. It never seemed like it was going fast enough, she says, but really it was three months' worth of work rolled into one.

In that time, Till tried take care of the work crew that was taking care of her. At first she cooked them lunch on camping burners. Then, as offers for help continued to roll in over the phone lines, Till had an idea. "It's like when there's a funeral," she explains. "People need to eat." So she told those callers to bring bagels or coffee if they could. They came through. "All of a sudden it was like an outpouring of people," she says, as dozens of friends and fellow restaurateurs dropped in with chili, soup, sandwiches, baked goods, and more. They would keep it up over the next several weeks, creating what for Till was the one bright spot in all the bleakness. "It was a community effort," she says of the rebuilding process.

Steve and Cookie's after the rebuild. [Photos: Amy McKeever/Eater.com]

Reopening and Remembering

At last, Wednesday, December 5 arrived. Two hours before their 5 p.m. scheduled opening time, Till was scared. The restaurant did not look like a restaurant. While the kitchen was in shape, the crew was still painting, setting up the side stations and unpacking and cleaning kitchenware from the two trailers in the parking lot. Just one week earlier, Till notes, Steve and Cookie's was still a construction zone. She was at the height of her stress when, miraculously, 5 o'clock hit and the restaurant suddenly looked like a restaurant again. Till allowed her manager to announce the reopening on Facebook and, "by Friday we were jamming."

In the months since Sandy hit, Till says people are making an effort to shop and eat locally. Business is strong on weekends and even some weeknights can be surprisingly busy, she says. But there are plenty of quiet nights. People in Margate are still dealing with their own reconstruction, some now raising their homes up on stilts. "It's not over," Till says. "People are still dealing with the aftermath." She should know, as her home took on about as much damage as did the restaurant. The walls and floors have been ripped out, but she put rebuilding her home on the back burner while taking care of the restaurant first. "I'm working all that out eventually," she says.

And still Till insists that she feels lucky. She feels lucky for the mere fact that there was a building left to reconstruct. Her windows were intact. And it gave her the opportunity to make some changes she'd always wanted to do, such as adding in some banquettes or moving the piano into the bar. She likes the change, explaining, "I don't want it to be like it never happened."

The fifth and final installment of this Atlantic City series drops tomorrow with an in-depth look at how the storm affected casinos, their restaurants and the many people who keep them running.

· Steve & Cookie's [Official Site]
· All Atlantic City Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Hurricane Sandy Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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