Dennis Byrd, owner of The Spot Restaurant & Tiki Bar, filled the restaurant’s cooler with extra ice and hooked up the freezer to a backup generator before fleeing Galveston Island, Texas, five months ago.
Hurricane Ike was 300 miles off shore when he left, and parts of the island were already under two feet of water. Ike hit the island hard the next day, knocking out power, flooding many streets and leaving the island’s 57,000 residents homeless for the most part.
“I was able to get back to the island 12 hours later, when the majority of the island was still under water,” Byrd says. “But I got the bar open at 2 p.m. We had no lights or power, but I was able to keep the beer cold with the ice we had bagged.”
“It’s always been more important to get back open—not to generate revenue, not to make a profit—but to provide a sense of normalcy,” Byrd says. “We try to be the place where people can gather, where they can have some normalcy.”
Like Byrd, many operators have learned that in times of disaster, a caring connection with customers is more important than ever. By opening during times of crisis, they cement their connection to the community and form a bond that often translates into steadfast customer loyalty and improved image when life returns to normal.
“During any type of crisis, even the financial crisis we’re seeing today, anything that chains can do to ease the burden on the lower and middle class is fantastic,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based industry consulting firm. “By doing things that ease the pain of a disaster, you can build good will, strengthen brand loyalty and become more relevant to a younger generation that has come to expect” community participation and philanthropy.
Operators, from owners of fine-dining establishments to national chains, have stepped up and pitched in during recent disasters. One of New York City’s most popular restaurateurs, Danny Meyer, opened his doors after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for anyone who needed a place to sit and rest. When flights across the country were canceled for several days after the New York City disaster, Walt Disney properties fed and housed their stranded guests for free. The Oklahoma Restaurant Association disbanded its annual meeting on April 19, 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing so members could help feed emergency workers.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, John Besh, the chef-owner of Restaurant August , marshaled his family and friends and began serving thousands of volunteers from three makeshift mobile feeding units.
In his driveway, Besh boiled red, white and black beans, which were gathered by his sister in Lafayette and friends in other states. With his neighbors and friends, Besh filled the beans and rice into every ice chest they could find. Blake Lemaire, now his partner in the restaurant Luke and a fellow U.S. Marine, helped them distribute the ice chests with a fleet of pickup trucks and flat-bottomed boats.
“Because we did what we did and invested our resources in the community, that good will has come back to us more than we could have ever expected,” Besh says. “It wasn’t out of design, but it was a great example of taking ownership and showing that being a restaurant is being more than just a place to eat. In times of disaster, it can become a cornerstone of the community.”