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Sandy still a drain on LI's small businesses

Barrie Kolstein, owner of string instrument maker and

Barrie Kolstein, owner of string instrument maker and repair shop Kolstein & Son in Baldwin. (Nov. 1, 2013) Credit: Johnny Milano

Long Island's small-business owners -- the backbone of the region's economy -- have been resilient in the last year, finding ways to survive after superstorm Sandy's devastating impact. For some, though, gumption, hard work and dedication weren't enough.

Newsday revisited four business owners who were hit by Sandy to determine how they have fared. One business has grown, two are still struggling and one has closed.

The survivors credited support from the local community in helping them get back on their feet, and their biggest frustration was the difficulty getting financial aid from the federal government.

All are wary of another storm.

Experts estimated that Sandy took an $8.4-billion chunk out of the local economy. For small businesses, which are not always well-capitalized, the impact was even more harsh.

"While you see a lot of progress being made, we're not out of the woods yet by any means," said Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group. "We still need to be vigilant to make sure we can do everything we can to help our small businesses."


A stain along the steel exterior of the walk-in refrigerator at Barrier Brewing, a craft brewery that employs three people, reminds co-owners Evan Klein and Craig Frymark of Sandy's wrath.

Three feet of floodwater destroyed more than $100,000 in equipment and damaged the electrical circuits at Barrier, which was just two years old when Sandy struck. Immediately after the storm, a despondent message posted on Barrier's Facebook page said it would be closed for "the foreseeable future."

Barrier was too young to secure any disaster loans from the Small Business Administration, the primary federal aid offered to small businesses after Sandy. And the paperwork for a National Grid grant proved so onerous that Klein and Frymark gave up to focus on rebuilding the brewery.

Instead, they got help from the brewing communities on Long Island and upstate, which collaborated to brew two special beers to raise funds for Barrier.

The efforts led to publicity that raised the company's profile and brought new customers. And the proceeds from those beers, combined with other fundraisers, netted about $45,000, which helped cover about a third of the repair costs, Klein said.

The two brewers also worked out a payment plan with their equipment supplier. The rest of the money they needed came out of savings, and loans from friends.

Barrier was up and running again by the end of January.

"Business now is stronger than it's ever been," Frymark said. In the last year, the brewery has added two employees, signed 70 new business accounts and built a tasting room that has contributed to a doubling in on-premise sales. Overall, sales have increased about 25 percent since Sandy, Klein said.

But if there's even a whiff of a big storm, Barrier has a contingency plan: "We'll dismantle everything, put it on our trucks and drive it to higher ground," Frymark said. "That's our insurance policy."


Kolstein & Son is back in business, making and repairing string instruments in two buildings in Baldwin. The doors and interior walls have been replaced and fresh paint applied.

But owner Barrie Kolstein still isn't at ease.

Kolstein has listed his property for sale, fearful of another storm.

"I never want to go through [that] again," he said. "I can't protect the buildings again, we never expected something of this magnitude."

His buildings took a battering -- the outside from the wind, and the interior from water damage as a result of sewer backups and broken pipes. The storm sent water from a nearby lake up a drainage ditch and into Kolstein's buildings, and he's not sure what has been done to fortify the drainage area, which is on public land, to prevent a recurrence.

It took four months of repairs before Kolstein could open again.

"Business is OK . . . considering a sagging economy, we're back," he said of the company, which his father started in midtown Manhattan more than 70 years ago.

Years before Sandy hit, Kolstein dropped his flood insurance because of skyrocketing premiums. Now he wants to move out and rent at another location. "Financially, it would be less expensive," he said.

Kolstein's 13,000-square-foot property has been on the market for $875,000 since summer, but there has been little interest. If he had sold the property before the recession, Kolstein estimated, it could have brought in more than $1 million.

He was able to obtain a grant of $25,000 from National Grid but was frustrated he could only apply for loans from the federal government.

Now he's bought flood insurance again, after successfully petitioning to be grandfathered into a lower-risk zone that had a cheaper premium.

While his buildings were being repaired and his business had limited sales, Kolstein, 64, dipped into his retirement savings to make sure he could continue paying his eight employees.

"One thing I'm proud of," he said, "is that I kept everybody employed during the whole loss."


Sandy is still causing headaches for Sean Sullivan.

The co-owner of barbecue joint Swingbelly's Beachside BBQ said he's concerned about making ends meet this winter, as many of his year-round customers have yet to return to their homes, which are still undergoing reconstruction.

"If you live down here and you have a business down here, it's so far from being over and becoming a memory, because we're all still dealing with it every day," he said.

Swingbelly's, which currently employs 12, reopened by Memorial Day but had subpar sales in the summer. During those months Long Beach struggled to hit its stride, and its iconic boardwalk didn't fully reopen until October.

"It definitely wasn't a normal summer in terms of . . . sales and the amount of people down here," he said. Then after Labor Day there was "a huge drop-off, way bigger than normal," with sales about 25 percent less than in an average fall season.

Sandy caused nearly $200,000 in damages to Swingbelly's, on West Beech Road in Long Beach's badly damaged West End. It took seven months to gut the restaurant and rebuild the inside. Throughout reconstruction, electrical outlets were placed four feet up on the walls, and the floor and bar were remade in concrete slabs. Sullivan said he took out private loans, dug into savings and relied on local fundraisers to finance the repairs. Some friends who were tradesmen also gave him cheaper deals on the building work.

During the repairs, Sullivan decided to close his Swingbelly's in Lynbrook; it had opened just six months before Sandy.

"It was an economic drain on us," Sullivan said. "We didn't have the money to float it anymore, and I didn't have the time to focus on it and get [the Long Beach] one rebuilt."


Wally Levins opened his nautical decor and souvenir shop for the last time on Sept. 30. The store, on Deer Park Avenue, was just 10 days shy of its eighth anniversary.

Coastal Island Treasures had been spared physical damage from Sandy, but sales plummeted because customers -- tourists and beachfront homeowners -- reduced discretionary spending.

"My business relied on happy people that live by the water," Levins said.

His shop -- a cozy, 200-square-foot nook that was stuffed with eclectic maritime-themed trinkets -- typically took in two-thirds of its revenue during the holiday season and the summer. Last winter after Sandy, sales were down about 45 percent from the year before; this summer they declined about 30 percent, Levins said.

Business was "coming back a little bit . . . but not fast enough for me to recoup what I needed to," he said. "I had a lot of making up to do, and I wasn't doing it."

At the end of summer, Levins said he received an offer to work in sales at a local trucking company, which clinched the decision to close.

He started Coastal Island Treasures in 2002 by selling online, and he hopes to take the business back to its roots on the Web. He is still working on updating the website.

As soon as Levins moved out, a new shop -- a beauty salon -- moved in. The quick turnover was a pattern he had observed for about 10 other businesses that closed in the village.

"One goes," he said, "another one comes."

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