Hurricane Harvey represents a natural disaster unlike any in the country’s history. For days, Mother Nature pounded Southeast Texas with unrelenting rain and wind. But as the storm finally subsided and the country gradually starts to turn its attention elsewhere, citizens of the area were left to begin the cleanup process and contemplate what comes next. And this includes many members of the foodservice industry.
“We feel kind of like we are on our own. But we feel a common bond among us,” said Karey Clements, a principal and vice president of marketing for Forbes, Hever & Wallace, a Texas-based independent manufacturers’ rep firm. “There’s an open-hearted, connected feeling among the people who survived the hurricane. There is some fear, too, because we don’t know what we are up against.”
Even for someone like Clements who had experienced hurricanes before, this storm was different due to its length and scope. “You know what to do when the hurricane hits. You have your bleach and gloves and you are ready to go,” she said. “The sound of rainfall – this sound that used to be so wonderful and relaxing – is now horrible and hateful,” Clements says.
For days area residents like Clements sat in their homes listening to rainfall, piecing together information anyway they could. Cable and internet service were out so getting information was a challenge. People often had to stream programs over their cellular devices to get updates on the storm, Clements said.
Clements and her husband had another member of the FH&W team and their family stay with them during the storm. For her part, Clements passed the time by cooking, cleaning and washing clothes so they could be ready in the event they had to evacuate.
Texting proved to be not only a way to share information but to also keep tabs on loved ones. All the while, emotions naturally ran high. “Explaining it is really difficult,” Clements says of her thoughts during the storm. “How will you get to your parents? How are you getting to your child? You need a sense of knowing where the people close to you are at all times to have a sense of control. It’s like waiting at the top of the roller coaster: you know what’s going to happen but you don’t know when. So your stomach is in your throat for those days. It’s just worry, worry, worry, every second.”
As the flood waters recede in Houston, the pace of business starts to pick up. Still, the storm's aftermath remains front and center for so many in the area. “It seems like the world just marches on but not for us,” Clements says.
Bringing Houston Area Businesses Back Online
Restaurant operators in the region continue to work diligently to bring their locations back online. One such example is Dickey’s Barbecue, a Dallas-based restaurant chain with both franchised and corporate locations. “Houston is right in our backdoor and we had 14 locations affected as well as numerous employees and pit crew members,” said Renee Roozen, president of Dickey’s Barbecue. Right now eight of Dickey’s Houston locations have resumed operations serving a limited menu.
As for the six locations yet to open, “We know those locations have pretty major damage and are trying to assess the damage and help those owners as well as others in the community,” Roozen said.
FH&W serves the Texas market through an office in Kemah, a municipality Southeast of Houston. This facility flooded about 20 inches, Clements said. The rep firm saved about 40 percent of what it had in the office. Lost in the flood were files, product-related literature, product samples and even a two-door refrigerator, which an area dealer came to haul away, Clements said.
“It’s a concrete building. They will peel everything off to the concrete and bleach it. They will have to cut the drywall up to four feet, all new floors, electrical will have to be replaced where the water reached it,” Clements said. “Luckily, many of our plugs were up high due to flooding from a previous hurricane.”
The building is owned by a couple living in Florida who might be getting hit by Hurricane Irma soon, Clements added.
Right now, though, the FH&W team in the Houston market is trying to get back to business with each of the employees serving the market working out of their homes. “Today [Tuesday] is our first full day,” Clements said. In addition, Clements is trying to find a storage unit to house the items the rep firm was able to salvage but the phone lines to these facilities are constantly busy.
During a time with lots of uncertainty, social media is proving to be a potent ally. In fact, Clements is connecting with some local restaurant owners via a Facebook group to assess their needs. And she’s trying to get area dealers and other reps to donate scratched and used equipment, supplies and take other steps to help operators get back on their feet. “I can then help be a liaison to work with the restaurant operators and chefs,” she said.
Coastal Areas Hit Hard
Most of coverage of the storm focuses on Houston and its flooding. Given that it is the fourth largest city in the United States that should come as no surprise. But there’s more to Hurricane Harvey.
“There were two parts to the hurricane. One was the wind and the other was the water,” said Bobak Mostaghasi, a vice president at Jean’s Restaurant Supply, a Corpus Christi, Texas-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealer. “Corpus Christi got the wind and Houston got the water.”
Initial storm projections called for Corpus Christi to experience wind gusts of up to 130 miles per hour, Mostaghasi said. Luckily for the town, forecasters were off and Corpus Crisiti experienced only 80 to 90 mile per hour gusts. The difference is significant. “When you go from 80 mph to 130 mph gusts you are talking about structural damage,” Mostaghasi said.
As a result, Jean’s Restaurant Supply did not sustain much damage. “We had a little bit of roof damage, which is nothing compared to what we expected,” Mostaghasi said. "We had one employee whose home got destroyed. Other than that, everyone, thankfully, is safe."
The same applies to Mission Restaurant Supply, which has two locations in the region: one in Corpus Christi and another in McAllen. The Corpus Christi location fared pretty well, with the exception of a few leaks in the building, said Gabe Cason, South Texas regional manager for Mission Restaurant Supply. The McAllen branch was unaffected, he added.
“Most of our employees, thankfully, are in pretty good shape,” Cason said. “The city of Corpus Christi was lucky. There was damage but nothing catastrophic. It’s the coastal cities that got most of the damage. Those towns were completely devastated. These coastal towns make up the majority of our business because that’s where the tourists come spend lots of time.”
Indeed, coastal towns such as Rockport and Arnasas Pass were not as fortunate. “There’s a lot of people who don’t realize the damage this storm did,” Mostaghasi said. “It looks like a war zone. You have boats in the forest. I drove by one quick-serve restaurant and its parking lot was loaded with its air conditioning units. None of this is a sight that you ever want to see in your lifetime. It makes me shiver to the bone.”
As for the overall impact on the region? “It’s too early to tell,” Mostaghasi says. “Every conversation starts by talking about the hurricane and then we talk about business. And it’s hard to make that transition because the storm was so devastating. And some estimates say this will be more expensive than Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina put together. It’s a huge deal.”
What’s it going to take to get things on the road to recovery? “It’s just going to take some feeling out for us. It’s going to be a process,” Mostaghasi said. “There’s no real answer as to how we help our customers come back. We have to feel them out without crossing a line.”
Of course, when the restaurants affected by Hurricane Harvey will be ready to resume operations remains anyone’s guess. “I have lived in Corpus Christi my entire life and I have never seen anything like this,” Cason said. “We are really in the evaluation phase. Nobody has wrapped their heads around what’s really happened here. It will take a lot of time to do that. A few have called us to let us know they have thrown in the towel.”
Because their businesses sustained relatively little damage, though, companies like Jean’s Restaurant Supply and Mission Restaurant Supply remain focused on helping get their customers operating again. “We are gearing up to help them reopen when the time is right. Once they get power restored, our customers will call for help,” Cason said. “The majority of them will try to reopen and I am sure we will have guys running seven days a week. We will work our hardest as these people work their hardest to get up and running.”
In the interim, twice a week Mission will send transfer trucks loaded with catering and cleaning supplies. And Cason plans to recruit a few service techs from other Mission branches to help get operators back up and running.
The entire process will remain a balancing act for dealers like Jean’s and Mission. “You don’t want to get out there too early when people are assessing stuff,” Cason said. “But we want to find out from our customers what we can do to help them. The main thing about Mission is family — it’s not something we say. It’s something we live by. It applies to our customers, too. We are committed to helping them.”
While the storm impacts individuals and businesses differently, it can bring out the best in people.
“What warms my heart is the way everyone is coming together,” Roozen said. “We have owners that have come down to help their co-owners and the general community. [The hurricane is] a devastating thing but I love the way it makes people come together.”
For example, some Dickey’s operators in the area are donating food to hurricane victims who need it. Another operator from Dallas attached a smoker to the back of his trucker and traveled to the Houston area where he was smoking meats and giving it to organizations feeding hurricane victims.
Another Dickey’s location is hosting a blood drive to support the recovery efforts, while the chain’s locations throughout the country are collecting money to benefit the hurricane victims.
“Nobody is asking for anything in return. They are just showing up saying “What can I do to help?” And it reminds me why I am in hospitality,’ Roozen said. She added that Dickey’s also plans to conduct a fund raising drive to collect funds from its employees and the Dickey family, which owns the chain, plans to match its employee contributions.
Like so many other Texans, Mostaghasi made his way to Rockport on Saturday to volunteer his time to be part of the cleanup. “We had people who drove in from Austin and Dallas who wanted to help, too, he recalled.
Of course, right now trying to help out some of the affected areas can be easier said than done. Mostaghasi said the area was without food, water, electricity or sewers, making it difficult for volunteers to help.
Despite this devastation, his spirits remain high. “This is the first major storm I have had to deal with while in the business. Other dealers reached out to me to make sure we are ok. But not only dealers and reps but people from around the country, too,” Mostaghasi said. “The response I have seen from everybody, not just in our business, gives me more confidence in humanity. I have not seen that much care in humanity in a long time. People did not care who you are or what you believe in or where you were from. If you needed help they wanted to help you.”
While trying to navigate the unknown on an hourly basis, Clements somehow maintains a positive outlook, too. “Houston is a blue city in a red state and this might bring this cool new reality,” she said. “The world goes on. We are going to get better and feel better. Hopefully we will look back and have these new friends and family.
“Just be patient with us,” she adds. “You’ve been through difficult things in your life before. Know that we will be back.”