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Businesses try to cope with storm

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On the evening of June 29, 45 wedding rehearsal guests were prepared to eat one of the last meals Bridge Road Bistro's late owner, Robert Wong, had created when the power suddenly shut off.

Another 100 people gathered at a political fundraiser at Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's house -- catered by the South Hills restaurant -- as 75-mile-per-hour winds knocked over a tree in the congresswoman's yard.

The windstorm -- and the two storms that followed -- showed up unexpectedly for most of the more than half a million West Virginians who lost power that night. Many businesses were still open when the storm hit. Customers were finishing dinner at eateries while others shopped inside stores as trees were uprooted and power lines broke outside.

Though unprepared, Bridge Road Bistro owner Sherri Wong said her staff was determined.

Employees lit every single candle in the restaurant and used flashlights to prepare more than 40 meals for the wedding party. Chefs cooked manicotti and chicken breasts on the kitchen's gas stove tops and gas-powered salamander.

The live music was appropriate, too: an acoustic guitar player.

"We Paul Revere'd it," Wong said, of making the wedding dinner a success despite the loss of power. "As days went on with no power, all we could do is sit and wait. We had to start from scratch."

Wong donated 72 pounds of vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy products to the Manna Meal soup kitchen before it could spoil.

Down the road from the bistro, Lola's pizza wasn't able to salvage its entire inventory in time during the first storm, said manager Andrew Crichton. About half of the produce and pizza dough had to be thrown away.

"We had a packed house Friday. People were waiting to eat while trees were falling all around us," Crichton said. "We lit candles and everyone said, 'Can I get another drink?' and we said, 'Of course you can!"

When the second storm hit the following Sunday, Crichton said Lola's was prepared. The pizza place stored its organic meats and produce in Glenwood Elementary School's refrigerators. People in the South Hills community who had power offered their fridge space to the restaurant, too, he said.

In St. Albans, Mayberry's Restaurant lost nearly $9,000 worth of food because of the storm, owner Lisa Driggs said.

The restaurant had stocked its walk-in freezer with food for Riverfest. Some was donated to the police and fire departments and cooling stations, but the bulk of the products had to be thrown away, Driggs said.

Mayberry's doesn't have backup generators, so the restaurant went without power -- and business -- from the night of June 29 through July 4.

Larobi's Pizza, also in St. Albans, saw a total loss of between $14,000 and $15,000 in the days following the storm.

Owner Jim Reed said it cost him about $8,000 to get back up and running after being shut down from June 29 to July 4. He estimated the pizza shop's closure cost him between $6,000 and $7,000 worth of business.

He has insurance, however, and he said Thursday he was waiting to get reimbursed.

Tung Luu, owner of Pho Vin Long in South Charleston, said the Vietnamese restaurant went without power for four days. The South Charleston eatery had to throw out its entire food inventory, about $5,000 worth, Luu said.

The storm didn't wreak havoc for every restaurant, however.

Happy Days Café in South Charleston had a line out the door on Saturday after the storm, owner Cathy Nelson said.

Residents who didn't have power in their own homes showed up to enjoy a meal and used the restaurant's electricity; people charged their cellphones and one woman even rolled her hair in hot curlers, Nelson said.

"We literally stayed open until we ran out of bread and ice," Nelson said. "I had no power at my house for days, but, by gosh, the restaurant had it. It was a very, very busy Saturday for us."

Main Kwong, on Charleston's East End, ran out of food at one point, owner Carina Kwok said.

The Chinese restaurant -- which depended on generators for a couple days -- lost its air conditioning and it got really hot, she said.

"It was the worst conditions we've ever seen in the restaurant. We couldn't breathe and temperatures got to 130 degrees in the back but we never closed," Kwok said. "We were so busy we worked from 7 a.m. to midnight. We saw probably a 35 percent increase [in business]."

Javier Valdez, manager at Cozumel Mexican Restaurant in the Ashton Place shopping center, said customers swarmed the restaurant "like it was Cinco de Mayo." Since most of the restaurants and stores at Southridge had completely lost power, the Ashton Place plaza was extra busy, he said.

Some stores at shopping centers along Corridor G were without power for several days.

GNC Manager David Shaffer said the company's power outage dramatically impacted its sales -- the franchise dropped from No. 1 in the region for sales to being ranked 26th out of 48 privately owned stores, he said. The vitamin and supplement store lost about $10,000 in revenue, he said.

"When the power went out, the door was closed and [the area] was vacated immediately like a ghost town," Shaffer said.

A couple doors down, Hallmark manager Tammy Gygi said the loss of electricity came at a crucial time; the greeting cards store had one of its biggest weekends coming up, she said.

Employees typically spend two weeks preparing for the big ornament display; about 170 ornaments went on sale this weekend. Without electricity, workers used flashlights to build the ornament wall in darkness, she said.

"We did the same amount of work scrunched into a smaller amount of time," Gygi said.

Next door to the Hallmark in Dudley Farms Plaza, State Farm agents answered hundreds of calls from concerned clients, said agent Kathi Huffman.

Lightning had fried the insurance agency's telephone system, but agents used their cellphones to handle claims, she said.

State Farm brought in a "catastrophe claim" team to make sure customers understood how their policy worked.

"I even had one customer whose house I was at Saturday morning asking her neighbor, 'Is your insurance agent at your house?' There were three large trees down -- two of them on her house," Huffman said.

Garlow Insurance has handled more claims about tree debris removal than ever before in the past two weeks, owner Phil Garlow said.

The independent insurance agency has pivoted from a sales and services organization to a claims organization, he said.

"The majority of our time has been answering questions with regard to claims and coverage and renewals," Garlow said. "You'll go a year and not get a question about food spoilage and now we've had 500 calls about food spoilage. The companies [we represent] are overwhelmed because the claim volume has been so severe."

Calls have been nonstop at Big Chimney's J&L Tree Service, said owner Lee Sowards. The five-man crew has gone from removing one tree per day, four days a week to a few trees a day, seven days a week, Sowards said. He still had 70 trees he hadn't even looked at yet late last week, he said.

"Anyone that's got a license and insurance is making some money right now," he said.

Starr Remodeling & Roofing owner Carl Aplin said, "everybody's a roofer at this point."

Workers at the Big Chimney company would typically patch about three roofs per week, but they've repaired at least 15 roofs since the storm hit, he said.

Edwin Boggess, owner of Genteck Power Solutions in Romance, Jackson County, said he would typically sell two portable generators a month but since the storm hit he has sold nearly 200 of them. He installed three generators in one day last week, a number the company would average in about three weeks, he said.

When the storm struck June 29, Boggess and his son were on their yearly fishing trip in Texas. He spent the nearly 24 hours of the car ride back to the Mountain State on the phone with frantic customers, he said.

"Calls came in as the storm was coming through the neighborhoods. I stayed up all night on the phone trying to tell customers how to reset their generators. The calls got progressively worse. We only had one phone line out of three [working] so as soon as you hung up, it was already ringing again," he said.

City Electric Vice President Chris Myres said he hadn't sold a generator all year but he has sold at least five since the windstorm. The call volume in his Charleston office has doubled, he said.

West Virginians were determined to get their power back on, but almost every business the Gazette talked to said customers were understanding, especially because they were suffering at their own homes.

Genteck Power Solutions' customers were calm, Boggess said.

People who called Starr Remodeling & Roofing were desperate for someone to help them get the trees that had crashed onto their homes removed, Aplin said.

Some of Sowards' customers "were at their last nerve" since they didn't have water or electricity but had 60-foot trees lying in the attics of their homes, he said.

"We heard their stories and they understood our situation. We have a really good community," said John Stickler, Husson's Pizza manager in South Hills.

Garlow said it's remarkable how Charleston and the surrounding area has responded to the storm; he has had only four calls from upset clients.

Others are already preparing storm kits so they know what to do if this kind of damage happens again. Bridge Road Bistro may buy a generator.

"When you lose everything, back to your farmers, the loss runs quite deep. Our food chain has a face to it versus a food truck. There's no price to that whatsoever. We are looking at [purchasing] a propane generator," Wong said.

Lola's pizza is working on getting a generator now, too, Crichton said.

"Everyone is just really happy to be back to normal," he said.

Staff writer Alison Matas contributed to this story. Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.

 


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