South Shore businesses look for renaissance
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South Shore businesses that have rebuilt after Sandy have a message for the rest of Long Island: We are open.
Restaurants, shops and bars have been using Facebook, lawn signs and radio and newspaper advertising to dispel impressions that they remain shuttered or were swept away. Many are year-round businesses whose owners say they need their winter income now more than ever.
They paid for repairs with their savings and are still waiting for insurance checks. Some have reported revenue down 10 percent to 70 percent compared with last winter.
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"The biggest problem is that people don't know we're open," said Jerry Bracco, who helps run Capt. Ben's Fish Dock, a seafood market his sons own on Freeport's Nautical Mile. "We have so much [in] expenses, and the insurance companies are slow. We still have to pay bills in the winter."
The recovery of small businesses damaged by the Oct. 29 superstorm is crucial for the region's economy, business advocates and local officials said. About 90 percent of Long Island's 100,000 businesses employ 20 people or fewer, making small businesses the "backbone of Long Island's economy," said Kevin Law, president and chief executive of the Long Island Association.
"We need to help businesses along the South Shore and on Fire Island, which fuel ocean-based commerce, attract a large number of visitors to our beaches and are critical to the entire region's economic health," Law said. "But there is much more to do, and it is critical that federal funding become immediately available for grants to small-business owners who still need a boost to get back on their feet."
After the storm, the number of Long Island jobs in food service, drinking establishments and restaurants fell more than the usual seasonal decline. The sector lost 2,000 jobs between October and November, when 600 is the average decrease, said Shital Patel, labor-market analyst in the state Labor Department's Hicksville office.
Need to work together
Marketing experts say individual efforts need to be bolstered by collective action.
"The challenge for small businesses is they often can't afford advertising," said Ernie Canadeo, president of Melville-based marketer EGC Group. An association of stores promoting local shopping might be of benefit, he said.
Some efforts at group promotion are under way. The Long Beach Chamber of Commerce has negotiated free full-page ads with local newspapers, listing all the open businesses in Long Beach, Island Park, Lido Beach, Point Lookout and Atlantic Beach, saying they are "back in business." It doesn't matter whether the businesses have paid chamber dues or not, said Mark Tannenbaum, executive vice president of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, "because it's survival and success by numbers."
And Kevin Kelly, chief creative officer of Bigbuzz Marketing Group in Melville, is launching an organization online called the Long Island South Shore Recovery Coalition. The goal, he said, is to direct customers and their spending to South Shore businesses affected by the storm.
"I think a lot of people are still waiting for that opportunity to help," Kelly said.
South Shore businesses are battling challenges on several fronts. Images of waterlogged devastation remain on the Internet and dwell in the minds of clientele, especially residents outside of the hard-hit communities. Local customers also are dealing with their own storm-damaged homes. Darkened windows of neighboring shops do not help the situation, they say.
Paying for ads, always a burden for small businesses, has become more difficult after having to tap credit lines and shell out savings to renovate and reopen. And many owners have another full-time job: rebuilding their damaged homes.
Individually, these small businesses are using whatever tools they can find to bring in customers.
Traffic slowly increasingAfter the storm, Danny O'Donnell and his wife, Jodi, invested about $100,000 to rebuild Tres Palms, a Babylon waterfront restaurant that had no trouble attracting customers when it debuted in August. Tres Palms reopened a month after the storm, its brightly painted dining rooms, gleaming bar and fireplaces showing no trace of the wreckage.
The O'Donnells have slowly increased customer traffic with radio ads, Facebook posts of events and specials, and signs posted in a bike shop on Main Street and on a customer's front fence up the street. They also have broadened their menu to include more comfort foods, such as wings, empanadas and rice and beans, at "more palatable prices" along with their high-end specialties such as New York strip steak from grass-fed cattle, Danny O'Donnell said.
"Some folks find it difficult mentally, and they think that the place is out of commission," Danny O'Donnell said. "Every week it gets better and better."
Two Cousins Fish Market on Freeport's heavily damaged Nautical Mile was up and running 10 days after the storm. The business advertised in local papers and the radio and sent emails to customers. But from time to time, customers still call to ask if it is open.
"There were rumors that the whole block washed away," said Kevin Halton, manager of Two Cousins.
Brian Crofton, owner of Nautilus Cafe on the Nautical Mile, tapped a credit line and spent about $70,000 out of pocket to reopen the restaurant on Dec. 12. Lunch business has been good, but weeknight dinners at the 25-year-old restaurant have been "up and down," Crofton said. Nautilus is used to steady business year-round. Crofton figured an ad in a local paper and an email blast to about 2,500 people would be enough. But an additional mention in a food blog has helped, he said.
"I'm hoping my neighbors get up and running, because the more people around here, the more business we do," Crofton said.
Looking to boost traffic
Anthony Brew, managing partner of Serata Long Beach, faces similar issues with his restaurant on the west end of Long Beach. Even in winter the boardwalk, which is being rebuilt at an estimated cost of $25 million, used to attract a regular flow of customers to the area's shops, restaurants and bars, he said. The numerous businesses of Long Beach together offered a destination for clientele from the neighborhoods and surrounding communities.
About 50 percent to 60 percent of the city's businesses have reopened, said the Chamber of Commerce's Tannenbaum. He estimates even fewer -- 35 percent to 40 percent -- have reopened on the city's west end.
"I have a big Oceanside clientele," Brew said. "They say, 'I haven't crossed the bridge since the hurricane.' "
Brew has advertised weeknight specials and events with signs and fliers to give customers "a reason to come down during the week and see there's a little life." He and the chamber are exploring the idea of holding a tasting event featuring Long Beach restaurants. Brew understands that reconstructing the boardwalk is a priority, but he said he would like to see city officials take more action to boost traffic for struggling businesses.
While the scale of New Orleans' destruction after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was different, some of that city's strategies to promote its business recovery might offer some guidelines for Long Island.
New Orleans embarked on an aggressive and focused approach to remind the rest of the world it was back in business, said Mark Romig, chief of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., the city's official promotion agency. In the months after the storm, the city benefitted from "voluntourism" -- people who came to see the destruction as well as help. The city also engaged local residents with the slogan, "Be a tourist in your own hometown."
Romig recommends patience, a sense of humor and an awareness that these businesses are not alone. "There are people who do want to help, so don't think you are out there all by yourself."