Less foot traffic leaves Stone St. eateries unturned

Three restaurateurs gathered in Smörgas Chef at 53 Stone St. to talk about the impact of Superstorm Sandy and what their restaurants are doing to recover. (Left to right): Nelson Baez, of Smörgas Chef, Ronan Downs, co-owner of five Stone Street restaurants, and Paul O’Connor, of Mad Dog & Beans. Photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER   |  A year ago at this time, or even six weeks ago before Sandy came calling, Stone Street’s restaurants would have been bustling with office workers at lunchtime and happy hour and with neighborhood residents at dinnertime. Now, though all of Stone Street’s restaurants have reopened, empty tables abound. Many large office buildings in the neighborhood are dark as they will probably be for months to come. Many residents have moved away.

On the two short blocks between Hanover Square and 85 Broad St., what is purportedly Manhattan’s oldest paved street is home to 13 restaurants with two more scheduled to open in February. Six of these restaurants are owned in whole or in part by the Poulakakos family. Five are owned or co-owned by Ronan Downs. The other two are singletons.

Most were flooded by Sandy, sustaining thousands of dollars in damage. The first of Downs’ restaurants to reopen was Beckett’s, normally a boisterous sports bar, which welcomed a few customers on the evening of Friday, Nov. 2. One of his other restaurants, The Dubliner, didn’t reopen until Dec. 3, and then it was cash only with a limited menu.

Downs estimates that the physical cost was $40,000 to $50,000 or more for each of his restaurants. “But we don’t really know yet,” he said, “because a lot of the machinery [that we reinstalled] could break down in a month’s time. We’ve already noticed that some it has to get fixed. It’s all the corrosion from the salt water. But the loss of business is where we really lost. That’s around $150,000 for each store.”

Stone Street’s other restaurateurs tell a similar tale. “A lot of damage was due to lack of electricity,” said Nelson Baez, general manager of Smörgås Chef, a Scandinavian restaurant at 53 Stone St. “We lost $10,000 to $15,000 worth of food because we had to throw everything out. We lost some equipment as well.”

On Sat., Nov. 3, the entire staff of Smörgås Chef came in to help clean up. The restaurant reopened for brunch the next day, with a limited menu. Few people showed up to eat, however. Baez believes that between lost business, damage and food spoilage, the restaurant took a $50,000 to $60,000 hit for the week it was closed and the days of reduced business thereafter.

The restaurateurs of Stone Street thought they had prepared for Sandy. They moved as much as they could to higher levels of their stores and sandbagged their doors. But Sandy fooled them. The street itself never flooded. The water came into their basements from below, rushing through subterranean tunnels and drainage pipes.

“There was no way to protect against what happened once Con Ed cut our power off,” said Downs. “We had pumps, but without power, they didn’t work. We brought generators in the next day, but by then, it was too late.”

The problems were compounded because the telephones didn’t work and for most of the restaurants, the Internet was also down. Two Stone Street restaurants, Burger Burger and Pizza Pizza, depend on phone and Internet orders. Their delivery customers couldn’t reach them.

Baez said that he’s talked with his business neighbors about trying to get more tourist business to make up for the losses due to closed office buildings.

“We need to be proactive and not wait for the offices to come back,” he said. “Maybe some of the Seaport tourists would come here.’

Smörgås Chef and its sister restaurant, Crêpes du Nord, which opens onto South William Street, have joined forces with Mad Dog & Beans and with Downs and his restaurants to start an organization called Historic Stone Street to market the street. They have printed flyers advertising a 15 percent discount to their restaurants.

“Hopefully, one positive thing that comes out of this — once we regain our business, — we’ll continue working together,” said Baez.

He said that every week he and the others are seeing an uptick in business.

“I’m not discouraged, but I do believe that the city has got to help,” said Downs. “They have to try to get people down here. They could show up and ask us how we’re doing.”

However, he said that he had gone to see City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who he had never previously met. “She was great,” he said. “I really liked her and I liked all her staff. She listened to us first. She was encouraging that grants will come.”

Downs said “I think people who don’t have businesses as strong as ours are in great jeopardy of not returning. And we could throw the towel in as well, but we’re not going to because I think we’re going to come back better and stronger than before.”

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2 Responses to Less foot traffic leaves Stone St. eateries unturned

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