The owners of Court Street Grocers know their strengths — sandwiches and pleasing customers. So when superstorm Sandy flooded their Red Hook outlet they turned to these resources to bail themselves out.
“Crowdsourcing was not something we had done before or intended to do, but it quickly seemed like it was becoming our only option,” says co-owner Matt Ross. With other financing options out of reach, Ross and co-owner Eric Finkelstein decided to launch a fundraising campaign on Smallknot, offering donation incentives that ranged from “coffee and a paper” ($10) to “a sandwich named after you at the Sullivan Street store” ($1,000).
But it was not a plan that sprang to mind immediately.
Despite its popularity for carefully curated sandwiches and local larder items, many in the area were unaware until recently that the Carroll Gardens business had suffered a serious blow during Hurricane Sandy—a hardship it is still recovering from more than two months later.
After borrowing money from family, co-owners Ross and Finkelstein had quietly purchased a former taqueria at 116 Sullivan Street in Red Hook last fall with the intention of exporting their sandwich preparation and expanding their catering business.
“We chose the space because it had a large working kitchen and we wouldn’t have to start from scratch,” recalls Ross. “It didn't look great, but all of the pieces worked.”
All of that changed after storm. When the pair visited the Sullivan space after the hurricane had passed, they discovered that their entire investment had been destroyed.
Flooded with between three and six feet of water in various sections of the restaurant, not only was all of the inherited equipment wrecked, but the newly retiled walls began to mold and crumble. Floors swelled, electricity was compromised, and the plumbing needed to be fixed.
“The whole space had to be gutted,” says Ross.
While Ross and Finkelstein tried to wrap their heads around the devastation, the flagship Court Street Grocers location provided a welcome distraction—as it quickly became a pit stop for volunteers en route from the subway to recovery efforts on the waterfront.
“[Court Street Grocers] was unbelievably busy in the weeks following Sandy, which was amazing, not only because we needed the money, but also because it kept our minds off the disaster that was waiting for us in Red Hook,” says Ross.
While the gas shortage limited the availability of certain ingredients, and prevented some employees from being able to work, the owners maintained a daily operation and continued to plow forward—even developing a stronger relationship with local vendors like Caputo’s Bake Shop.
Then they were dealt a second blow.
Because the new space had not yet filed tax returns, Ross and Finkelstein learned they were ineligible for assistance from the city of New York. Federal support likewise appeared uncertain.
That’s when the idea of crowdsourcing their recovery came up.
And what had started as a last-ditch effort to save the business became a lifesaver. By the grace and generosity of others, by Dec. 31, 2012, Court Street Grocers reached its fundraising goal of $25,000. Even local businesses like HomeMade and Red Hook Lobster Pound, who had both experienced extensive damages, donated toward the cause.
“With the amazing contributions from people to our Smallknot campaign and to ReStore Red Hook, we recovered monetarily some of what was lost,” says Ross.
The Sullivan space has been cleaned, was recently repainted and retiled, and an appointment with an electrician is on the horizon. But Finkelstein admits that some of the biggest hurdles—sourcing affordable equipment and building the front seating area—are still yet to come.
Still, their worry is tempered by moments of excitement and optimism.
“We will have a new sandwich menu in Red Hook—with four sandwiches named after investors,” says Ross, who visibly brightens when talking about the future. “It is going to be a great place.”
To donate funds or equipment to the Sullivan Street space, contact firstname.lastname@example.org