Restaurants in Puerto Rico gradually recover from Maria All photos by Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images
A man relaxes at a roadside bar that has a generator for electricity.

Restaurants in Puerto Rico gradually recover from Maria

Despite widespread power outages, locations reopen and chains work on relief efforts

Restaurant chains in Puerto Rico are quickly reopening locations and working to help employees and customers amid widespread power outages and supply shortages that have plagued the island since a devastating hurricane last month.

At El Meson Sandwiches, a 37-unit sandwich chain based on the commonwealth, 26 locations have reopened since Hurricane Maria and its 155-mile-per-hour winds struck the island last month.

“It has not been easy,” Hector Jimenez, the company’s vice president of marketing, said in an email. He said that the company has relied on power generators, diesel and water tanks to keep the locations open.

Puerto Rico has nearly 3.5 million people, more than 40 percent of whom live in poverty, according to federal data. The island has been home to a growing number of chain restaurants in recent years, however, everyone from Auntie Anne’s Pretzels to The Wendy’s Co.

Hurricane Maria was one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to form in the Atlantic before it hit Puerto Rico head on. The island’s location and communications issues have made recovery there a challenge. And power is in short supply: The Federal Emergency Management Agency says that only 15 percent of the island’s electric customers have electricity.

Reports have indicated that it could take months for the electrical grid there to fully recover, and an economist suggested that it could take more than a decade for the commonwealth’s economy to come back.

But the federal government has supplied generators to keep critical infrastructure there open, and more than three quarters of the island’s retail gas stations are operational.

Businesses are reopening, too. 

People eat from a communal pot of food during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Panda Express relocates workers

Panda Express, which has 20 restaurants in Puerto Rico, was able to reopen three locations on Oct. 7 and was slated to open a fourth on Oct. 10.

For the restaurants that remain closed, the Rosemeade, Calif.-based chain said in an email that it is paying staff for hours they would have worked as well as providing cash advances, satellite phones and supplies including first aid kits, water filters, flashlights and batteries.

“The company is also offering relocation assistance to eligible and interested employees affected by the hurricane,” Thien Ho, Panda Express’s director of corporate communications, said in an email.

In addition, Panda Express said it was working with its vendors to ship 24 generators and additional supplies to Puerto Rico, with priority given to families with young children and elderly people with medical needs.

Panda Express has committed $150,000 in disaster relief for the island, while employees are hosting fundraisers to help fellow employees.

The chain did not set a timeline for reopening the 16 locations that remain closed, stating, “Many have suffered significant damage,” Ho said. 

Banana trees were knocked over by the winds of Hurricane Maria.

Brand pays Puerto Rican workers for hours missed

Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based Cheesecake Factory has one company-owned restaurant that has reopened in San Juan, and the company said Monday it was paying staff members for hours missed during Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The 350-seat, 10,000-square-foot restaurant employs about 200 people.

A Cheesecake Factory spokeswoman said it was offering grants through the California Community Foundation, earmarked for The Cheesecake Factory HELP Fund, for impacted staff members who apply. Staff members and managers donate into the that HELP, and it is used for staff members in times of crises. Additionally, the company is matching any HELP Fund donations through October.

Employees from Florida restaurants set up a program that uses Amazon’s “Wish List.” Company employees contribute and Amazon sends purchases to Boca Raton, Fla., where the orders are put on pallets and shipped to Puerto Rico.

“This provided much needed supplies and food to staff such as diapers, batteries, water, food and snacks,” The Cheesecake Factory spokeswoman said.

Additionally, The Oscar & Evelyn Overton Charitable Foundation made a donation to local relief efforts in Puerto Rico, she added.

Caribbean Restaurants Inc., a franchisee of Burger King and Firehouse Subs on the island, said that about three-quarters of its 187 restaurants in the American commonwealth have reopened since.

The operator said that it has served more than one million customers since the storm hit. The company said that 30 restaurants can handle internet connections, but communications problems that plague the island mean the remaining locations that are open can only take cash.

Electricity has been restored in just 13 of the locations, with the rest running on generators.

Caribbean Restaurants said that 4,000 of its 5,500 workers have been working to operate the restaurants, but it paid all workers for the first week of the recovery regardless of whether they could get to work.

At El Meson, which last year opened its first location on the U.S. mainland, in Florida, the company is providing free meals for those in need. The company’s Orlando locations have sent aid to the island and have organized a donation drive at the Florida Mall where one of its mainland units is located.

Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmaze

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