Cookie Till was optimistic Wednesday as she mopped the stone floor in the foyer of her landmark restaurant Steve & Cookie’s in Margate.
More optimistic than she was just 24 hours before, when the storm related to Hurricane Sandy left 4 feet of water inside the upscale eatery for her to deal with.
“The biggest thing I am worried about is the mold,” Till said as she dipped the mop into a yellow bucket. “So we’re cleaning everything as thoroughly as we can right now. When I was in here yesterday, I thought it would be months before we would open. Now, I feel better about it. I think it’s going to be weeks instead of months.”
Till, like other South Jersey restaurant owners, is dealing with the aftermath of a violent storm that will never be forgotten in South Jersey and along most of the East Coast. Like the rest of South Jersey, the wind wasn’t the major issue when it came to the restaurants here as the tidal flooding posed major problems.
Inside Steve & Cookie’s, Till pointed to the hardwood floors in the elevated dining room, which were already buckling. Across the room, the restaurant’s signature baby grand piano, which had water up to the middle of its legs, was the only piece of furniture left in the room besides some wooden booths that Till said have been there since the restaurant was built in 1936.
“We want to preserve as much as possible because that’s part of the charm,” Till said. “It’s a mess. But we will get through it.”
Till’s optimism was prevalent among other Margate restaurant owners, as well, including Tomatoe’s, Maynard’s and Johnny’s Cafe.
Tomatoe’s co-owner Karen Sherman was devastated that the restaurant, known for its lively bar scene, sushi and upscale dinner experience, might be closed for as much as two months, but her spirits were brightened by the team spirit of her workers and fans.
“Our employees are coming in here and they aren’t even asking about money,” said Sherman, who stood outside of the restaurant that smelled like the ocean and had sand over its floors. “And we were getting calls from people who love our restaurant. Some of them were funny, asking if we would be open Monday. But others were just from people thinking about us and offering their support, telling us they love us. And that means a lot.”
As insurance adjusters walked through Tomatoe’s, Sherman said the restaurant suffered extensive water damage, with water reaching as high as five feet despite them installing DoorDams to block the water.
“The kitchen fared the best because it was the highest point, but we are going to need new floors, walls, furniture. We are going to have a new restaurant, but the problem is I liked it just the way it was. We are going to open in sections as it’s ready. If we can be open by New Year’s Eve, that would be icing on the cake.”
Next door at Maynard’s, a crew hosed sand off the tile floors, and Owner Steve Troiano said he could be open as early as today.
“We are pushing for (today), but it’s more likely we will be here Friday and that will probably be with a limited menu at first because people around here are starving and want a place to go,” said Troiano, estimating he had about 3½ feet of water in his restaurant. “The biggest damage was the compressors and refrigeration, which is the big money. The major problem I am having is the state and county won’t allow the electricians to come across the bridge to fix what I need fixed. If they let them in (Tuesday) I would have saved $10,000 in food.”
Johnny Liccio is also shooting to open Johnny’s Cafe & Bar by Saturday.
“We spent all morning getting two inches of mud off our floors,” Liccio said as he stood outside against all of the furniture that was removed from the restaurant. “I had some equipment that is probably ruined, like all the refrigeration in the bar area, but I’m pretty optimistic considering we had more than 2 feet of water in here.”
Atlantic City fared far better than downbeach, with landmark restaurants such as Tony’s Baltimore Grill, Dock’s Oyster House, the Knife & Fork Inn, the Ducktown Tavern, the Irish Pub, the Chelsea Pub and Cafe 2825 suffering little or no damage whatsoever.
Baltimore Grill, for example stayed open during the storm, only closing for a few hours in the early mornings because of lack of business.
“They were thrilled that we stayed open,” said co-owner Debbie Tarsitano, whose business had a full bar Wednesday afternoon with a long line for takeout. “From the residents who stayed to the police and fire and emergency people … they were glad we were here to feed them. We are probably selling 300 to 400 pies a day. My son made a deal with the owner of the Ducktown Tavern after the last storm that if we had another storm, we would stay open for the people. And we did.”
Maureen Shay, co-owner of the Knife & Fork Inn, Dock’s Oyster House and Harry’s Oyster Bar inside Bally’s Atlantic City, felt blessed that her businesses were not really affected by the storm.
“At Knife & Fork, we had flooding in the basement, which is also a prep kitchen for us, but that was the worst part for us,” said Shay as she was preparing to open Harry’s as soon as Wednesday night, noting her other two restaurants will open as soon as power returns and people are allowed into the city. “Harry’s was completely dry. Even the courtyard outside … there were no pools of water. Our biggest issue will be getting deliveries of food and getting employees to the island.”
Shay said she is relieved that there was no structural damage, but noted the impact will be felt for a while.
“There is an economic loss of not being open for business for nearly a week in three restaurants, plus the employees are losing money not working, and they need it and want to get back to work,” she said. “It’s hard.”
Cape May-area restaurants escaped major damage.
At Lucky Bones Restaurant, located at the base of the Cape May Bridge on the way into Cape May, the parking lot was flooded from the water from nearby Spicer’s Creek. Water did not damage the restaurant, however.
“The water scraped the bottom of the restaurant and we had maybe an inch of water in the basement, but nothing major,” said manager Shaun McCullough. “We didn’t even lose power. We were very lucky. We closed Saturday night and will reopen Thursday afternoon. We didn’t get hit nearly as hard as the people (Lobster House) across the street.”
Lobster House owner Keith Laudeman said, “The damage we sustained was mostly all flooding. We had 2 feet of water in some spots, and a foot in others. This area floods a lot, but this was the most water I’ve ever seen.
“I think it helped that the storm went from 14 to 28 miles per hour and went through pretty fast. The only storm that may have been as bad or worse than this one was in 1962, because that one lasted for three days.”
Peter Shields Inn in Cape May is located on the corner of Beach and Trenton avenues — just a few blocks from Poverty Beach, where sand was piled up more than 6 feet high in the street and on some lawns from the storm. The area was turned into a tourist attraction Wednesday, with people stopping to take photos.
In front of the restaurant, co-owner Armando Pelaez was power-washing sand and debris off the sidewalk.
“We finished Saturday night with a bang and we’ll be open again (tonight),” said manager Meg Kubiak. “We had some minimal water damage in the restaurant, but that’s it. We can’t wait to reopen and welcome everyone back. Cape May got really lucky.”
Back in Atlantic County, Luke Palladino, who owns restaurants inside Harrah’s Resort, Revel and his eponymous Northfield eatery, said he feels blessed that his restaurants were spared any damage.
“We are just waiting to see what happens at Revel and Harrah’s, but the word is we should be able to get back on the properties (today) and reopen Friday,” Palladino said. “But we reopened in Northfield because we had zero issues. We got really lucky. We got a lot of inquiries because people want to get out after being in the house for a few days. They are going stir crazy. So we are doing a special comfort food menu with big osso buccos and pasta Bolognese and apple torta ... what’s more comforting than that?”
Others didn’t fare as well, including Angelo’s Fairmount Tavern, Tony Boloney’s, Vagabond Kitchen & Tap House and Scales.
Kyle Williams, co-owner of Vagabond, a new restaurant near Surf Stadium, as well as Scales and the Back Bay Ale House at Gardner’s Basin, said both Vagabond and Scales suffered major damage and took on several feet of water. Scales’ floors, for example, were filled with sand
“The Vagabond kitchen was under water,” he said, adding that the Back Bay Ale House will reopen Friday. “I haven’t been there to see them yet, but it’s not good. Luckily, Back Bay is elevated, so we’ll be OK there.”
Angelo’s owner Angelo Mancuso III said the flooding was higher than the storm of 1962.
“My dad told me that in ’62, the water came up to the steps of the dining room. This year it went about a foot higher, and that killed us,” said Mancuso, who said the outdoor sign fell down and some neon broke on the roof.
“We fought it off the first day with pumps and a crew here, but in the second day we just gave up. We were surrounded by water. So now we’re doing good and cleaning up. Our bar is clean. We have one basement clean, and we moved our beer boxes, so they are OK. We lost some product because we never expected it to get as high as it did. But my goal is to be open by Saturday. It’s not a guarantee, but I think we can do it. I am not making any money being closed.”
Tony Boloney’s, a pizza and sub restaurant located in the inlet section, still had sand on its floor and its doors were locked Wednesday after the restaurant suffered extensive damage due to more than three feet of water.
“Of course we can clean up and sanitize, but the small motors on the equipment sit about 8 inches off the ground, so we could be talking about $30,000 to $40,000 in damage,” said Owner Michael Hauke. “Plus there’s other electrical damage, wall damage and about $8,000 in perishable food product and more in paper product. Even after insurance and maybe some FEMA money, I am looking at about $20,000 to $30,000 to open back up. It’s daunting. It’s depressing.”
Hauke said it’s unclear when he could reopen.
“I don’t have a question if I will reopen, it’s when,” he said. “I don’t have a cushion of resources. Best case scenario to reopen would be middle of next week if I can get things repaired and replaced. I think small businesses like me will have to work harder than ever to overcome this.”
Chef Vola, one of the best and most talked-about restaurants in the city, is located in a basement on Albion Avenue. On Wednesday afternoon, sandbags were still at the door of the restaurant, and calls to the Italian restaurant went unanswered. But an answering machine message said the family-owned restaurant should reopen today.
Although water flooded Bay Avenue in Somers Point, restaurants there reopened Wednesday.
“We made out OK,” said Phillippe Chin, owner of Phillippe Chin Bistro. “We didn’t really get much damage. We are open.”
Others such as Caroline’s by the Bay, the Anchorage Tavern and Latz’s by the Bay all reopened and will be ready for Somers Point Restaurant Week, which begins Friday and runs through Nov. 11.
“The basement flooded and we had to throw out all of our beer, which was approximately 40 kegs, 140 cases of beer and about 10 cases of soda,” said Anchorage Owner Don Mahoney.
“We were very, very lucky,” said Latz’s owner Andrew Latz. “We are open even tonight. (The water) got up to the steps but it didn’t get inside.”
Cape May County shore restaurants seemed even more affected by the storm as most restaurants remained boarded up and calls went unanswered.
Mildred’s, in Strathmere, was already closing its doors for the season last weekend, according to co-owner Sallee Raffa.
“We never left; my husband would not leave the restaurant, we would go down with the restaurant,” said Raffa, noting the restaurant received about 3 feet of water, the first time the restaurant took in water since 1962. “Thank God the water didn’t break through the dunes. The refrigerators were floating around.”
Raffa said they will have to purchase new rugs, renovate the bathrooms, purchase new kitchen equipment and more, but said Mildred’s will return in the spring.
“We are here 61 years. We are not stopping today,” she said.
Staff Writers Steven V. Cronin and David Weinberg contributed to this report.