[Editor’s note: For the next few days we’ll be focusing on the stories of local farmers, makers and chefs whose fields, kitchens and restaurants were destroyed by the flood waters of Hurricane Sandy. These are good people, fellow Brooklynites, who do the kind of good work that makes Brooklyn the place that we love. They will need our support to come back.]
In Red Hook, Brooklyn’s own hidden-in-plain-sight village by the sea, The Good Fork is more than just a restaurant – it’s an institution, a gathering place, built from scratch seven years ago by Ben Schneider, who has managed it since, and his wife Sohui Kim, who cooks, famously well.
The Good Fork was no accidental endeavor. Ben and Sohui both grew up in New York and sampled life in many neighborhoods before becoming enchanted by the small town vibe of Red Hook. They determined to make it their home, building and opening The Good Fork, buying a house just across the street and down the block, and starting a family.
Then came Sandy. In a matter of minutes the massive storm surge swept across the neighborhood, flooding scores of homes and businesses and receding almost as quickly, leaving devastation in its wake. The Good Fork was not spared. We met with Sohui to find out what happened and what comes next.
So Sohui, what happened? How did all this unfold for you and Ben? What’s the situation now?
Well, we have two young kids and we felt like we had to get them out of here before the storm arrived, so we took them to my husband Ben’s parents’ place on the Upper West Side. We kept hearing news about the storm while it was happening, I guess it was what, three days ago? I don’t even know. It’s hard to keep track of the time.
The storm surge happened at night. It happened Monday night, right? There was an evacuation order, so we took the kids to my in-laws’. It all just looked like a bad rainstorm up there, but we were getting the play-by-play of what was happening in the neighborhood from friends who stayed. We were getting phone calls, texts, seeing Facebook updates. It was mostly the people without children who stayed.
We were really on edge, just listening to the news, and getting all these updates and it just happened all of a sudden. The surge came up and within fifteen minutes the water went from being ankle deep to being neck deep in a lot of places, all over the neighborhood. It was really, really fast.
The Good Fork is just a few blocks from the water. We’re in a low spot, so we knew from having experienced other storms that it was going to flood. Before we left we did as much storm preparation as we could. We pulled some of the more expensive wines up from the cellar to the highest points in the building.
We didn’t move any equipment, because we didn’t really have anywhere to move it to. The best we could do was hope the electricity would stay on and let the sump pump do its thing to keep water from inundating the place. But to be honest we had no idea it was going to be what it was. What was it in the end, a twelve foot storm surge? We had no idea about the amount of water and damage that was coming. So we were just hoping for the best. All of Van Brunt Street ended up getting hit. A lot of homes got hit. A lot of businesses got hit. And The Good Fork got hit as well.
The water lines on the walls and the damage all indicate that when the surge was happening the entire basement flooded within a matter of minutes and the water came all the way up to about hip height in the dining room. The furniture was thrown all over the place. The water clearly floated and toppled everything and left it in a big pile when it receded.
We have a backyard with seating for about twenty five outside too. It’s really quaint. That’s all destroyed. Because of the small size of the interior of our place we had the walk-in cooler where we store all the meats and fish and produce outside, in the garden. The garden is below sea level as well, so water quickly rose about halfway up the walk-in, flooded it and knocked out the power to it. All the food was lost.
Downstairs in the basement obviously, it was just a swimming pool. It was full of water all the way to the ceiling. We have a lot of equipment down there. All of the compressors for all the machines we use, the ice machine, a chest freezer, a refrigerator…all of those things are expensive pieces of equipment that are essential to running a restaurant and they were all destroyed. We had our prep kitchen and a lot of dry storage down there was well. That’s all just gone.
So yeah, we lost a lot. All the food, some wine, a lot of equipment, and the damage to the space. We’re going to have to tear out the floors, the walls and rebuild them from scratch. All new furniture. It’s a do-over. We’re starting over.
The only silver lining is that the kitchen might be ok. The kitchen is upstairs. The restaurant is somewhat multi-level. The basement is downstairs. The dining room is on the first floor, and the kitchen is a few steps up from that. The highest point in the space is my main kitchen. Water lapped a little bit into the main kitchen, but it didn’t completely submerge the stove, the fryer or the lowboys. So we’re going to get a mechanic in there and suss out whether it’s salvageable. We think that it might be. So that’s something.
So yeah, right now we’re just cleaning up. It’s day two of the cleanup. I’ve posted about the situation on Facebook. We have so many friends who’ve been so good. We’ve gotten so many emails and phone calls about their concerns for us and the neighborhood. I’ve said, “Look, whoever wants to come down, come down.” A lot of our current and former employees showed up even without that. We’re very fortunate to have a lot of people who love The Good Fork. We’ve had a rotating workforce of about ten people helping out with the cleanup. We didn’t expect that. So the cleanup part is actually going faster than we thought.
It’s hard to think about anything other than cleaning up, but I’ve been trying to focus on documenting everything too, so we can try to file insurance claims and that sort of thing. I’m just trying to stay afloat with the paperwork. Although really, I haven’t even really started that. I keep thinking about it. I’m just trying to gather information about what FEMA can do, and about what our private business insurance will pay for, which sounds like it’ll actually be nothing at all. So the financial prospect is grim to say the least.
The Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Administration held a meeting in the neighborhood today. The best news that came out of that was that they’ll have loans set up and available to us at some point, so we can borrow some money at a low interest rate just to stay afloat. But it’s very difficult for us or for any small business to take on more debt. We’re swimming in debt already. Restaurants and bars are the craziest businesses to be in. It’s hard to stay afloat under normal circumstances. Money comes in and goes right back out to purchase food and pay employees and bills. There are no cash reserves for us or for most small businesses like us.
At the end of a normal week, if you break even you feel lucky. So that’s the biggest concern right now. We are a small business, but we do have a payroll. We have people who rely on us for a salary, a paycheck. People we consider to be a part of our family. So the biggest challenge for us right now is trying to figure out how we stay afloat, how we provide for our people, until we get up and running. There’s a lot to understand, to figure out. The Chamber of Commerce said that there might be some private grants available, but there are just so many of us here in Red Hook who have been affected, let alone in the whole region, that it all feels kind of grim.
At a certain point you have to sit down and say, “Ok, well we’ve pretty much lost everything. Everything. We’re going to have to rebuild. Do we want to rebuild?” That’s the first thing Ben and I asked ourselves. And you know, it is worth it to us to rebuild. We gave birth to The Good Fork six and a half years ago. The response has been so great, from the beginning, from the community and beyond. People come here from all over the city. People who get The Good Fork, who get what we’re all about, they love it. So we have to rebuild for them, for the neighborhood, and for us.
We don’t know when we’ll reopen again. One good thing is that Ben is our contractor. I’m lucky to have a partner who not only manages the restaurant, but who built it and maintains it. He built the restaurant seven years ago. He had help from a few people, but he did most of it with his own bare hands. He’s also high spirited. He likes a challenge. He wants to take it on and do it. So I’m very lucky to have a partner like that. Not everyone has that.
Right now we’re trying to come up with some capital, some money to keep us afloat while we rebuild. And the prospects for that are just grim because there are so many people in need.
How long do you think it’ll be before you’re able to reopen? Are you thinking months?
I think it’ll be a matter of weeks, not months. My husband is a fast worker. If we had a regular contractor that we were paying to do the work, it would take at least two to three months. But because my husband is both my contractor and my business partner, it’s going to be up and running faster than that.
So, in many respects we are lucky. We’re lucky we have people right now coming down to help us with the cleanup. We’re lucky that we have a lot of people who care about what’s happened, who care about us, and who want us to reopen. But just meeting with the other local business owners – it’s pretty depressing. A lot of people have come close to crying. It’s sort of a dire situation.
We’ve always known that Red Hook is an area prone to flooding, but when it comes the way it came this week? You never expect that. The depth and the scope of the damage and devastation is just…it’s pretty crazy.
Is there anything people can do to help?
Yes, you know, there are some things. If people want to come down and help, they should just come. Even if it’s not here at The Good Fork, there are so many businesses that have been devastated that need help.
With The Good Fork specifically, we have a new project we’ve been working on with a bar in Park Slope that will give you a chance to eat our food while we work on rebuilding here. Flood or no flood, Red Hook has always been very seasonal place. All the restaurants, shops, bars…all the small local businesses down here see a major drop in sales once it starts getting cold. People like to come out to Red Hook on a nice summer evening. Business booms in summer to the point that we’ll be turning people away. Right about now when it starts to get cold, it gets really hard. On a weeknight in winter we might have two people come into the restaurant. So that all adds to the challenge of owning a business in Red Hook.
To try to address that and help us get through the winter, we started talking to the owners of a bar in Park Slope a few months ago. They own a place called Lowlands in Gowanus and Abilene on Court Street. They’re bar owners. They don’t do food. They ended up taking over a bar on Fifth Avenue and Eleventh Street, called Skylark. They fixed it up and put in a tiny kitchen and they called us a few months ago and said, “Hey we’ve got this kitchen. Would you be interested in doing some food here?”
So that sounded pretty great to us. We don’t have to spend a lot of money opening a place. It’s already done. I’ll bring in food and cooks, and we’ll make some food. We were discussing all this well before anyone had even imagined Hurricane Sandy. We go into the red every winter. We lose a lot of money, but because it’s a family-driven restaurant and we’re so attached to every one of our employees, we don’t let anyone go when the business drops off. It’s our Good Fork family. That’s not something we would ever want to do, and we thought this sounded like a great way to help ourselves keep The Good Fork afloat in the wintertime.
So we signed on to do it, and ironically enough the opening day for that is next week. That will allow me to divert some of our employees who aren’t working now – who have no place to even come to work while we rebuild – to start next week setting up a menu for Skylark. So The Good Fork will be cooking at Skylark for now and you’ll be able to find us there next week, and we hope people will come and enjoy our food, and support our efforts rebuilding here by enjoying our food there.
When we have rebuilt and this place is even more beautiful than it was before, the best thing we can hope for is that people who support The Good Fork and love it, even if in the past they have only come in summer, will come back and that they’ll come back as soon as we open. And that goes not just for The Good Fork, but for all of Red Hook. If people want to come down now, we have a lot to clean up. So yes, we could use that kind of help. But what we are really counting on is that people will show us and all of the small businesses in Red Hook some love by coming back, and by coming back as soon as we reopen. Just come back. Please just come back.
I know it’s a little harder to get to than other neighborhoods, but it’s a beautiful neighborhood, and I think people will really enjoy it at any time of year – not just in summer. And we need you to come back before summer. The whole neighborhood has been really devastated. We do need some help and we do need some support, and we just hope that people who have enjoyed the neighborhood will show us love by coming back.
What’s your take on how things are going in the neighborhood in general? How are people doing? It’s shocking to see people pulling bags and bags of things destroyed in the flooding out to huge piles on the curb and fountains of water being pumped out of every building…
It is shocking and you know, that’s not going to stop for weeks. Right now people are still without power. We don’t have electricity yet at The Good Fork, so we’ve borrowed generators from friends to pump the water out, and the water’s still seeping back up as soon as you pump it all out. It’s an ongoing process. Just maintaining the water level right now is a full time job in and of itself. Never mind cleaning stuff up, never mind rebuilding, never mind doing paperwork and trying to find ways to stay afloat. It’s kind of overwhelming. We’re hoping we’ll be open again by the end of the month, but who knows.
And I’m just talking about The Good Fork. The neighborhood? I was talking to the restaurant folks around here and everyone is saying, “Maybe it’s going to be a month?” Some people might be able to open a little bit quicker, doing simpler things. Some people will have a harder time. So we’ll see. Everyone has sustained serious damage. And that’s just the businesses. There are so many people, so many friends and neighbors who have to find someplace else to live, who lost all their belongings. It’s so sad. It’s very sad.
But, I have to say, I think Red Hook is a very special community. It’s one of the reasons Ben and I wanted to establish ourselves here. We wanted to start a business, buy a home, and start a family here, because it’s a really special community. Ben was raised in Manhattan. I was raised in the Bronx. We’re a bunch of city kids and we’ve lived all over the city. There’s nowhere like Red Hook. It feels like a small town. Everyone knows everyone else. Everyone knows all of their neighbors.
I don’t know whether it’s because it’s portside and has the feel of a little village by the seaside, or because it’s cut off from the rest of the city by the BQE and the lack of public transportation. It’s not a place people just happen to end up in. You have to really want to live here to move here. You have to have a love for the place, or it wouldn’t make any sense to live here. People are dedicated to making Red Hook a real community and you sense it every day and I love that. I love that all my neighbors know my kids’ names and that the kids all know each other and play together. I love it so much.
You know, last night a bunch of the local restaurants had a cookout on Van Brunt. We grilled all the meat and served all the perishable stuff that we salvaged from our coolers, and just gave it away to whomever wanted to come out. And it seemed like everyone from the neighborhood came out. Even in the middle of all this devastation, it felt like a big party. And that’s just Red Hook, you know? There will be a lot of that sort of thing going on for a while, for sure. Just helping each other out. Feeding each other’s mouths, feeding each other’s souls, and…we’ll totally make it through. As bad as it is, it could have been a whole lot worse. We’re just looking forward to everyone being ok again, and to all of our businesses opening up again. The sooner the better.
The Good Fork is located at 391 Van Brunt Street, between Coffey and Van Dyke, in Red Hook. While they rebuild, you’ll be able to find Sohui’s food at Skylark, a bar at 5th Avenue and 11th Street in Park Slope, starting next week.
Those interested in helping in the effort to clean up and rebuild Red Hook can contact The Red Hook Initiative (718-858-6782), who will be matching up volunteers and donations with local businesses in need. Or just show up – just about everyone in the neighborhood could use some help.