Once a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey inflicts its wrath on a region, the first reaction of most people is to put the catastrophic event behind them by getting back to normal as fast as possible.
To help all of its members, large and small, get back on their feet, the National Restaurant Association has developed a list of resources designed to provide aid to those companies affected by Hurricane Harvey, and now Hurricane Irma.
Larger restaurant chains like Cracker Barrel use their infrastructure to develop quick-strike recovery teams to get its locations back up and running as soon as possible. Other restaurant companies, like Waffle House, have developed a reputation for weathering the storm and remaining open during natural disasters.
On a more local level, though, operators and their suppliers will continue to bring the Southeast Texas foodservice market back one day at a time.
Supply Chain Partners Resume Business
Ace Mart Restaurant Supply, a San Antonio-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealer, has five locations in Houston. As a precaution, Ace Mart shut down its Houston stores on Sat., August 26 in advance of the storm, as the Hurricane Harvey hit over the weekend.
Because Ace Mart’s locations sustained little damage, the dealer was able to re-open its Houston locations on Wed., Aug. 30. “Our whole purpose was to get our stores open so our employees could have jobs and paychecks and some sort of normalcy,” said Jim Pieper, vice president of retail sales for Ace Mart. “With some creative mapping, most of our associates were able to get to work.”
While Ace Mart’s locations did not sustain much damage, save for the occasional leaky roof, some of its associates were not as fortunate. “We know of two employees significantly affected by the flood. Their houses are uninhabitable,” Pieper says. “They are staying with friends and family and we are supporting them as we find out what their specific needs are.”
The road to recovery for Chrane Foodservice Solutions, a Houston-based independent manufacturers’ rep firm, has taken a few slightly different turns.
Chrane has offices on the north side of Houston that took on two feet of water. As a result of the flooding, the five members of the Chrane team in Houston are working from their homes for the time being. “We lost our furniture and our test equipment, but when you look at the people whose homes are still flooded and might be for a while, what we experienced has been pretty mild,” said Duane Guidry, principal, Chrane Foodservice Solutions.
With the flood waters having receded from the Chrane offices, the independent manufacturers’ rep firm can start to look forward. “We have thrown away everything that needed to be thrown away and anything we saved was put in storage. Now we want to be there for people that need help,” Guidry said. “You can’t be at everyone’s home but you donate what you can, whether that’s financial, time or other resources.”
Dealers in the area see some signs that the operator community is starting to come back online. Given the size and scope of the damage, infrastructure will only gradually ramp up.
“It’s a slow ramp up because the distribution of equipment, supplies and food is delayed. It just takes a lot longer to get things,” Pieper said. “There’s been a run on gasoline because of a perceived shortage. There’s no shortage but it’s like a return to the 70s where you have long lines. Gas stations are out of gas because they are waiting for the trucks to get there.”
The damage expands well past Houston’s city line, too. “Some of customers from the Rockport and Port Aransas area have come to us wanting things but there’s no way to get it to them,” Pieper said. “So many roads are still closed and so many major thorough fares are still flooded.
In addition, some operators have not yet had the chance to turn their attention to their businesses just yet, as they have been dealing with more pressing issues. “Some consumers don’t have the ability to get into their houses. So a significant portion of consumers in the area have not been able to get back to normal,” Pieper added. “And a number of schools have announced they are closed for the year.”
But make no mistake: as far as the foodservice industry, everyone just wants to get back to work. “Foodservice is a big industry and yet it’s a small industry. Everyone knows everyone,” Guidry said. “We don’t need to sell anyone right now. They know who the good people are and will go to those people who are honest and trustworthy.”
As operators figure out their next steps, companies like Chrane and Ace Mart will need to remain patient and flexible. “Sometimes helping is staying out of the way. You can’t jump in there too much,” Guidry said. “We might have to give them extended terms, hold shipments, etc. When the schools get back in session or an independent operator gets back into their business, they will start to see what got messed up with the flood. They will go to the people they can trust to help get them the best equipment they can.”
Making a challenging situation easier is the fact that the factories that Chrane represents have been very understanding and supporting. “We are very fortunate with the factories we have — they are all family-oriented companies,” Guidry says. “They were calling from day one asking what we need, what our customers need and just wanting to help. They have all done a wonderful job no matter what we asked for them.”
Indeed, one heartwarming aspect to this story is the continued support companies like Ace Mart and Chrane continue to receive from their peers, factories and other foodservice friends from outside the affected areas. “This is the amazing part of our industry. The number of phone calls we got just to check on us was amazing,” Pieper says.
Further, while many people throughout the country continue to make donations to hurricane relief recovery, some members of the foodservice industry are targeting their efforts. One rep group principal was planning to donate money but before doing that he wanted to help people in the industry first financially, so he wanted to know who from the foodservice community needed help, Pieper said. “That was just amazing,” he added.
Indeed, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey (and now Irma) has seen the foodservice industry rise up to take care of its own. Take, for example, Cooking Up Better Lives. This group started as an organization that brought the Excell and Nissco buying groups together in a philanthropic way. Now the group has established a Go Fund Me page to support dealers affected by these storms. Within two weeks of receiving the funds, the group promised to disperse the money to those affected by the storm.
Those acts of foodservice industry kindness don’t stop there. One manufacturer wanted to donate hot food holding to nonprofits but did not have the inventory and asked Ace Mart to donate it on the factory’s behalf. “It’s been heartwarming not only for us and our employees but for everyone on the Texas coast,” Pieper said.
The Southeast Texas foodservice market may be slowly getting back to work but there are some images from Harvey that will last a lifetime for the people who lived through this event.
“The Monday after all of the flooding, I went to our office and while on the way there I saw the Coast Guard executing air rescues,” Guidry recalls. “It’s one thing when you see it on TV but when you see it in real life it’s real impactful.
“When something like this happens, you want to get back to work. Because when you get back to work you are helping with the recovery,” Guidry adds. “But everyone is ready to do what they have to do to get back to what will be the new normal. Many people are heartbroken but they are picking up the pieces and moving forward.”