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What It Takes to Clean Up a Restaurant in Post-Hurricane Houston

When the water recedes, the work really begins

Kiran’s had only been re-open for seven months. After more than a decade in its original location in Houston’s Galleria shopping district, the upscale North Indian restaurant’s lease was not renewed, and so Kiran Verma, owner and chef, spent 10 months preparing and decorating her second space in a newly constructed building on Houston’s west side. The restaurant’s new location featured extensive custom decor: walls inlaid with mother of pearl, a wall-sized art installation, and tapestries and carpet made in India. But after Hurricane Harvey hit in late August, Kiran’s had another new feature — what Verma describes as a “waterfall” in the dining room.

For hundreds of chefs and restaurant owners in Houston, dealing with extensive damage to their businesses was a post-storm reality. Harvey dumped 50 inches of rain, the equivalent of the city’s annual rainfall total, in just 72 hours. A month later, some restaurants still haven’t reopened.

Because every day her restaurant remained closed represented a loss of crucial revenue, re-opening as soon as possible was a priority for Verma. “Our employees wanted to work,” she says. “It was very traumatic for everyone.” But if you're a restaurant owner, what’s the first thing you do, post-disaster, when you can finally get in and check on the state of your business?

Harvey hit the Texas coast on a Friday, making landfall near Corpus Christi before following the shoreline up to Houston. By Saturday, the rain in Houston was intense and relentless, continuing nearly non-stop until Tuesday evening. Inside her own home, Verma was left to contend with four feet of standing water. At Kiran’s, meanwhile, the building’s storm gutters couldn’t handle the immense volume of rain, and they broke. The force of that water then breached the building, sending it gushing into the restaurant for two straight days. “The sound of the water was scary because we just didn’t know how to stop it,” Verma says.

The owners of the shopping complex where Kiran’s is located kept the doors to the restaurant unlocked and open for several days in order to help mitigate the flooding inside the building, which also necessitated 24-hour security. Verma didn’t see the inside of her business until Wednesday. She said the first thing she noticed was the sagging, soggy sheetrock, and the floating furniture. “Suddenly you walk in and… it was just a mess,” she says. “It was a horrible experience.”

The new dining room at Kiran’s, before the storm.
Ellie Sharp/EHOU

Once she could get her bearings, the first thing she tackled was cleaning and organizing the kitchen, which was mostly untouched by the restaurant’s inner deluge. “We use so [many] fresh ingredients,” Verma says. “All the produce came Friday because we had a huge big private event on Sunday.” That event had to be cancelled, leaving Verma with a kitchen full of perishable food. What food wasn’t thrown away she ended up giving to her employees.

While workers hired by Verma’s landlord began making repairs to the building and dining room, kitchen staff who were able to travel and eager to get back to work began prepping some of the restaurant’s elaborate sauces, many of which have to be made up to 48 hours in advance, she says. Verma says she lost “at least a couple of thousands of dollars” in food costs alone.

Although she was initially told it could take up to 10 months to open, Kiran’s was able to reopen in just two weeks thanks to her landlord, who hired the same construction crew that originally built the new restaurant. However, the restaurant’s decor is still bare bones. All those tapestries, Indian carpets, and custom milled wood panels will have to be reordered or remade. Verma still doesn’t know how much the repairs will end up costing.

Sylvia Casares had neither flood insurance nor business interruption insurance for the Eldridge location of her restaurant, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen. That location, she says, has never flooded before, and for a while, it looked like it wouldn’t. Then, the Monday after the storm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to start releasing water from Houston’s swollen reservoirs in order to prevent a catastrophic dam breach.

“On Monday afternoon, I received a text from my daughter-in-law who said there had been a report on television showing water and boats all around the restaurant,” Casares says. “By the time I got there, they were launching boats rescuing people a little north of the restaurant. We were able to park nearby, put on rubber boots, and wade around the back side of the restaurant and get in through the patio. The restaurant was still okay, but we marked the curb where the water was, and about an hour later it was several inches higher. We knew then: We had to go into action.”

With the water rising, Casares and her team starting raising everything they could — chairs, refrigeration equipment, artwork, and antiques. “After that, we couldn’t do anything else but go home and wait for the water to go down,” she says. “It’s hard not to, but I had to [tell myself] not to get emotional about what I was going to find when we could get back in.”

When the staff finally returned to the restaurant, the damage was bad, but not as bad as it could have been had they not prepared on Monday — only the tables with metal legs remained on the dining room floor. The restaurant had been without electricity for many days, so all the food and alcohol — approximately $20,000 worth — had to be thrown out. But Casares’s husband, who has a background in construction, and members of her staff got to work immediately removing all sheetrock, insulation, baseboards, and any wood trim that had come in contact with the water. They brought in fans and dehumidifiers to dry everything out, and then treated it with anti-fungal products to prevent mold and other growth. The entire restaurant, from floor to ceiling and from front of the house to back, was disinfected.

Casares herself could barely step foot in the shell of her restaurant. “Seeing my restaurant, my cooking school, and all of that being ripped apart,” she says, “would have been very hard."

The flooding outside the Eldridge location of Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen.
Courtesy Sylvia Casares

In swampy Houston, designating floodplains is not an exact science. They’re drawn based on both historical data and on probability: Designating an area as a 100-year floodplain doesn’t mean it floods once a century, instead, it means there’s a 1-percent chance in any given year that that area will flood. If you build in a 100-year floodplain, you are required to have flood insurance. If you’re in a 500-year floodplain, with a 0.2-percent probability of flooding in any given year, insurance isn’t required, but is sometimes recommended.

Casares’s restaurant was just outside the 500-year floodplain, which is why she didn’t have flood insurance. She says early estimates for everything — flood remediation, repairs, and replacing or refurbishing damaged equipment — could cost up to $100,000. That doesn’t include the 86’d food and booze, nor the sales lost during the 16 days Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen was closed.

Meanwhile, Bryan and Jennifer Caswell’s Gulf Coast cuisine restaurant Reef suffered not from flood waters, but from a massive roof leak. Because their roof leaked during Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Caswells knew to take some precautions. They emptied the restaurant’s wine cellar of rare and irreplaceable wines, in the event the restaurant lost electricity and climate control. The couple live nearby, and their neighborhood didn’t flood, so they were able to check on Reef daily to assess the damage. They were there the moment water started coming through the roof.

Immediately after the storm, the couple was also in contact with their insurance company. Thanks to business interruption insurance, which the Caswells had just increased about a month before the storm, they’ll be able to make up the revenue they’re losing while Reef is closed. Insurance allowed the Caswells to pay salaries for their employees displaced by the Reef’s closure. Some employees went to work at their other properties El Real and Little Bigs, taking over for fellow servers dealing with their own flooded homes. Others helped the Caswells serve food rescued from Reef’s walk-ins to first responders, or helped demo and clean the restaurant.

But Jennifer says it took some wrangling with their adjusters, who initially only agreed to pay their servers pre-tip wages, to make that happen. “Insurance companies aren’t always easy to deal with,” she says.

In Texas, the tipped minimum wage is $2.13 per hour. “You’re going to make me ask these people to come back and work for less than minimum wage?” she recalls thinking. “One, that’s not legal. Two, that’s not ethical. And three, that’s just not gonna do it.”

Caswell says she fought the insurance company hard. “We need to either figure out a way to compensate them based on their yearly average in tips, or you can help me figure out a way to compensate them based on what we would pay them if they went off site, an hourly rate,” she recalls relaying to the claims adjuster. “But I’m not going to tell them that they’re only going to make $2.13 an hour and expect them to stick around.”

The Caswells were already in the process of planning a remodel and refresh for Reef, which opened 10 years ago. Now, some of that will be covered by insurance. Still, more than six weeks after the storm, the restaurant remains closed, and probably won’t reopen again for at least another month. Both Casares and Verma said seeing their businesses in disarray was difficult emotionally. For Jennifer Caswell, the only way to cope was to keep on trudging. The Caswells hope to get their insurance reimbursement sometime in the middle of October.

“We haven’t really had time to think about our lives or what’s happening. It’s just go go go go go,” she says. “When I start thinking about it, Reef is our baby and we’re just anxious to get back over there. We’re still feeding first responders every day. This is the mission now. This is what Reef is meant to do at the current moment.”

Verma says she hopes to never see another flood like Harvey. “You work all your life for these things, and to see them floating...” she says, trailing off. “Right now we haven’t even started working on our home. We hope to start that next week.”

Brittanie Shey writes about life and culture on the Third Coast and beyond.
Editor: Erin DeJesus