Back from the Brink

A Combination of Old-School and Hi-Tech Skills Have Helped a Pair of Small-Business Owners Put Superstorm Sandy in Their Rearview Mirrors.

September 2014



On October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy bludgeoned the Eastern Seaboard, particularly New York and New Jersey.


Located in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, HMH Iron Design was one of the many businesses on the brink after Sandy came ashore. HMH is an architectural metal and glass fabricator that specializes in custom design work for clients around the world. Opened in 2007 by partners Steve Hasenfeld and Christian Lewis, HMH was just three-and-a-half years old at the time of the disaster. The storm knocked out power to their warehouse and workspace for six weeks. “Being a relatively new business, we were afraid that we would lose the business completely,” said Hasenfeld.


While HMH was able to run minimal business functions by generator, their real lifeline was their ability to maintain communications with vendors and clients. While their blackout lasted a month and a half, their Internet service was restored in less than three days.


Across the Hudson River, local businesses along the Jersey Shore were also left in peril. Brian McMullen and his wife, Michelle, were determined to reclaim what they had built on Ocean Boulevard in Sea Bright, New Jersey. The couple had owned seven Dairy Queen and Rita's Italian Ice franchises, but when their daughter, Gracie, was born, Michelle combined her passion for her handmade natural foods and ice cream. In 2009, after selling their franchises (and adding two sons to the family), they opened Gracie & The Dudes Ice Cream Shop, close enough to the ocean to hear the waves crash.


The all-natural treats with no high-fructose corn syrup became a staple, and the McMullens opened another shop (after the birth of their second daughter, Sadie) in nearby Long Branch—one month before Sandy hit.


The storm dumped six feet six inches of water in their store. In several respects, the McMullens were prepared for their business to handle downtime. While their location hadn’t been zoned to require flood insurance, they took out a policy anyway. Working with Berkshire Hathaway when they ran the Dairy Queen franchises, the couple learned a lot about running a sound business. “We always have been properly capitalized and we pay our bills on delivery. We had no 30-day terms with our vendors,” says Brian.


While the McMullens kept their finances healthy and their business insured in case a disaster interrupted normal business functions, they could not have predicted the downtime that would follow Sandy. "I wouldn't wish this on our worst enemy," Brian says. “The last two years have been brutal for us and the other small-business owners here. Insurance companies that don't pay, government agencies that drag their feet—but we had the desire and the capital to begin rebuilding."


As they rebuilt, it was essential for the McMullens to have consistent communication with their vendors. The couple’s insistence on all-natural ingredients and unimpeachable quality means they couldn’t easily replace their current vendors if their business relationship went sour. "We get fruit from a vendor in Northern California, and dairy from Wisconsin and Massachusetts,” says Brian. “The companies have been so supportive. We communicated with them through all the modern-day methods—cell phones, email, text—but we have old-school relationships. Our California vendor even flew out here to see the damage."


When Gracie & The Dudes Ice Cream Shop reopened 10 months after Superstorm Sandy, they had to use payment terms until they got back on their feet. Keeping their vendors involved and updated helped them do so.


“We have about 20 employees in Sea Bright and Long Branch, and it was great to get them back to work,” says Brian. “Our customers have been great; we know ice cream is a treat, but they keep coming. We even have one customer who sends his driver down from New York City to buy two pints a week. Those are pretty expensive pints! But it reminds us that we did the right things—we do what we love, we make a product we believe in, and we are committed to rebuilding where the people supported us."


While the McMullens could write a book on running a local business, another Tri-State business owner has rebounded from the 21st-century troubles that Sandy caused. Sunday Steinkirchner and her husband, Josh, own B&B Rare Books Ltd.; they buy and sell 19th- and 20th-century British and American literature. After nine-and-a-half years of running B&B from their Manhattan home, they moved into a retail space in Chelsea, where they now store 800 volumes. When Sandy hit, they were facing a tight deadline.


"When we lost power, we thought, 'Well, this will just be a few hours,'" Sunday says. "We were lucky that we didn't have any damage to our store and our volumes, but we were facing a tight deadline and had to get our catalogue ready to ship for the Boston Book Fair and for the holiday season. When hours turned to days, we had to get power for our phones and our computers, and had to communicate with our printer, our customers, and our family. We hiked uptown, where we could get temporary relief, but we needed something permanent to finish this important project. We called everyone and found a seller in New Paltz, New York, who could help. We spent five days there, finishing the content and design, and made our deadlines to the printer. We take something as simple as power for granted, but it saved our season," she says. "We certainly learned from it! We have all the backup that we ever could need, just to be prepared for the next time, which we hope never comes."


These small businesses learned that the combination of soft skills, perseverance, and technical support have helped them recover from something they never could have imagined.


"This has been a great summer," McMullen says. "I am not sure we would ever have expected that we would be saying that again. But I have never been so happy to have a sore back from making ice cream."





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