Big Apple businesses improvise to reopen
New York • Two days after Superstorm Sandy brought business in New York City to a standstill, stores that lost power are again serving customers, albeit by flashlight. Companies with closed offices are setting up shop in coffeehouses. And the owner of the Skylight Diner is borrowing bacon from his neighbors because the restaurant's cupboard is bare.
The world's financial center is struggling to get back to work as it deals with a subway system that's still crippled by the worst damage in its 108-year-history and power outages in major sections of the city. That's kept both employees and customers at bay. As a result, big multinational banks are in the same proverbial boat as corner bodegas: looking for creative ways to get their businesses back up and running.
New York City is home to roughly a million companies of all sizes. While the impact of Sandy varies, the city's businesses face billions of dollars in damages and lost sales. So while reopening quickly is a priority, it can require resourcefulness and a smidge of creativity.
For Teddy Papaioannou, that meant calling in some favors. On Wednesday, the co-owner of the Skylight Diner was running low on supplies at his restaurant in the midtown section of the Manhattan borough, so he borrowed a few pounds of bacon from his neighbors who also are restaurant owners.
Papaioannou and his brother and father, who all own the diner jointly, were so eager to open that the three of them even chauffeured employees around on Tuesday and Wednesday. They picked up a total of 20 workers for various shifts over the two-day period.
"Closing for three days would ruin us for a month," he said.
Lost sales were a big motivator for other business owners too. William Badie, owner of Food Fair food market and deli, estimated he lost $8,000 because the store was closed on Monday and Tuesday. So he made sure he was open Wednesday. Only one of his usual three staffers could make it into work, so he paid for him to get there.
The 40-minute cab ride into Manhattan from the Queens borough typically costs about $35, which wasn't a huge cost, he figured, especially considering that he expected to make about $1,500 on Wednesday. But by afternoon, only two customers were eating lunch at a small table and another man bought a turkey sandwich. Still, Badie said he's fortunate because he never lost power and didn't have to throw away anything.
"It's very slow. There are no customers," he said. "But business is like that. You lose or you make. You can complain, but who is going to listen to you?"
In the lower section of Manhattan, where a massive power outage persisted, things got even trickier for businesses that wanted to reopen. Most stores were closed, but a few found a way to get customers.
Bareburger in the trendy Chelsea neighborhood in lower Manhattan was grilling burgers outside and giving them away, asking only for donations for the Red Cross. The restaurant, which has been in the neighborhood for a year, has lost several thousand dollars a day since losing power Monday. Workers iced down the restaurant's meat, but decided to grill after they realized it wouldn't be safe to eat after Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Deli & Grocery Corp. was open for business, just two doors down from a building whose facade had completely shorn off, making the exposed rooms appear like an open dollhouse, with decorated with beds, lights and furniture. The deli didn't have power, but a gas range was working so it was able to sell coffee, sodas and canned goods. Manager Tariq Mohamed Ali used a flashlight to see what he was doing.
Ali declined to estimate how much in sales the deli has lost, but he acknowledged that he really needs the subways to start running again and the electricity to come back so that customers can return. Otherwise, the deli may not be able to make its rent for the month. Still, he insisted that he opened so that neighbors would have a place to go.
"It's cold outside, so we wanted to give people coffee," he said. "If you do something nice it will come back to you."
For many of New York's technology companies and banks, the difference between opening or closing is not as clear cut as it would be for a grocery store or restaurant. Getting or staying open has been a matter of complex planning so that employees can work remotely.
Employees at Foursquare Inc., a social network that lets people tell friends and family where they are, were working from their homes or nearby coffee shops on Wednesday.
Though Foursquare encouraged people to work from home, the company also found space for about 70 people in Manhattan and some in the trendy Williamsburg section of the Brooklyn borough. There, regular tenants at a co-working space called Secret Clubhouse were joined by stranded employees not only from Foursquare but the gossip blog Gawker and the photo blogging site Tumblr, among others.
Meanwhile, financial giants such as Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley all with operations in the evacuated zone in downtown Manhattan were able to keep open by shifting work to offices in other areas of the city and neighboring states. Goldman Sachs said essential employees in the city were being shuttled to its headquarters in the Financial District, which a spokesman said suffered "minimal damage." Others were working in the company's backup offices in Connecticut and New Jersey.
Bank of America reopened its office in midtown Manhattan, but two offices downtown remained closed because they were in an evacuation zone. The bank also told employees who work elsewhere in lower Manhattan to work from home if possible.
"There will be a lot of cleanup in lower Manhattan," said bank spokesman Mark Pipitone. "And it's good to let the crews get their work done without the additional challenge of a few thousand more people moving through the area."