Feeding storm of customers
Restaurants overcome hurdles to satisfy folks seeking hot meals
By JENALIA MORENO
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 26, 2008, 11:37PM
Restaurateur Jack Gregory juggled jobs cooking and serving this week at The Daily Grind, a Washington Avenue eatery. On Thursday, he rushed to wholesale food supplier Restaurant
Depot to restock celery, seafood and other ingredients, which he hoped would reappear nearly two weeks after Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast.
"I haven't stopped," said Gregory, whose restaurant lost power but operated with a generator the morning Ike hit on Sept. 13, allowing him to serve more than 600 people that day — double
his typical weekend crowd. "It was whatever I could put on a plate."
Gregory's duties multiplied after he gave his staff a break for working long hours.
Getting back to normal
Hurricane-weary Houstonians — already known for frequently dining out — increasingly turned to area restaurants for hot meals in the days and weeks post-Ike. To feed the long lines of
hungry and often powerless Houstonians, restaurateurs overcame obstacles of their own, such as displaced staff, inconsistent supplies, damage or loss of utilities.
Two weeks after Ike, restaurants are starting to return to normal, although some still can't find ingredients and service still can be spotty.
But not as spotty as they were in the first days after Ike.
"As we would run out of things, I would come up with other things to serve," said Gregory, who operates out of a renovated 90-year-old general store. "It was chaotic. People had to wait a long
time, but they were appreciative."
After operating the restaurant in the wake of Hurricane Rita, Gregory knew what to expect. He stocked up on eggs, produce and disposable plates in the hours before the storm.
Although restaurateurs had to pay more for paper products or invest in a generator, those that could open reported an increase in business in the aftermath.
"Because of the storm, we got a lot of new customers who were able to find us," said Minh Tran, who manages Jenni's Noodle House on Shepherd Drive, which opened hours after the storm passed.
A long line formed outside the Montrose-area Asian restaurant that Saturday, and only half of the kitchen staff made it to work in the first days after the hurricane.
That day, Vernon Caldera lined up for two hours outside of Jenni's to order a takeout dish of soba noodles and dinners for five other friends. He said it was one of the few open restaurants in
"It was a really nice kind of oasis," said Caldera, who said the crowd was chatty about their hurricane experiences.
Both locations of the Original Marini's Empanada House were closed for a week because of power problems. Alex Marini, who runs the Katy restaurant, calculates he lost $12,000 in sales because of
"I was coming every day to see if the power was up again so we could get started," said Marini, who expects his insurance will pay for some of the lost business.
A week after the storm, his business picked up by about a third because many residents lacked power, he said.
"It was a full house. We had a little bit of a line. I had less staff," said Marini, whose children helped because three people couldn't work. "It was a little hectic."
Increased sales have also meant restaurants had trouble finding suppliers.
Linh Ly, who runs downtown restaurant Les Givral's Kahve with her brother, said, "I cannot get for banh cuon for the life of me," speaking of rice sheets.
"We didn't have bread for a whole week."
Her purveyors didn't start regular deliveries again until 11 days after the storm.
Supply difficulties Some suppliers also lost power following Ike and couldn't respond to busy restaurants.
"As soon as we got the power back on, we were pretty swamped with people calling us," said Raffi Tcholakian, who runs Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a international wholesaler and retailer that
closed for a week.
Restaurant Depot reopened the Tuesday after the storm and business remains brisk there as eateries restock, said Ron McGill, manager of the cash-and-carry business.
Although his store closed for several days, new customers have discovered the store and signed up as members.
"Nothing ever makes up for lost business," McGill said. "Lost business is lost business. When the doors are closed, you feel it."
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