Just after Hurricane Harvey’s rains subsided and the storm blew through Houston, Sylvia Casares went to her Mexican restaurant Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen to survey the damage. Fortunately, the Eldridge Parkway location of the popular Tex-Mex spot was mostly unscathed right after the rain stopped. Still, the waters continued to rise.
Casares and her team had enough time to wade through the water outside the building to come inside and do a little damage control. They moved furniture and equipment to higher ground so that it would not become water-logged, and disposed of food ruined by several days without electricity. Still, the water that eventually poured into the building meant that sheet rock, insulation and wood had to be ripped out and replaced. Over $62,000 in remediation costs later, including multiple treatments to eradicate any potential mold growth, Casares still knew that she was one of the lucky ones. Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen reopened just two weeks after Harvey made landfall, and its dining room has been buzzing ever since.
Overall, Hurricane Harvey has caused damage that is hard to quantify, but current cost estimates suggest a loss of about $125 million. People living in Houston and its suburbs are still struggling financially as they repair the damage in their homes and replace valuables lost during the storm. Damage and a decline in diners meant that some business owners weren’t able to make it through the year. As the storm’s anniversary approaches, others are still struggling to make a comeback.
In the weeks following the storm, Downtown brewery 160ft Beerworks shuttered because it was unable to clean up its building after it was flooded with three feet of water. Spaghetti Warehouse in Downtown eventually closed after determining that there was too much damage to its water-logged building to repair. Renowned seafood restaurant Reef still hasn’t reopened after the storm. Even restaurants that didn’t suffer physical damage struggled as Houstonians refocused their dining dollars into rebuilding their lives.
Chris Shepherd, owner of UB Preserv and One Fifth, describes Harvey’s initial impact on the restaurant industry as “profound.” “Even though my restaurants are in an area that wasn’t affected, many of our guests and staff lost everything,” he says. “Those who were doing okay had survivor’s guilt,” Shepherd says. “It didn’t feel right to go out to a nice dinner when your friends and neighbors were devastated.”
But now, it’s almost difficult to tell that much of Houston was under water this time last year, at least from a dining perspective. New restaurants are opening daily, and even more are on the way. “Overall, there’s an upswing in the industry, finally,” says Greater Houston Restaurant Association president Melissa Stewart. “We really took a dip for about six months in terms of getting back on track with new construction and new deals. The rebuilding for people who were flooded is finally wrapping up.”
Some of the industry’s current strength can be attributed to the nature of Houston itself, specifically its geography and history of being hit by major hurricanes. Houston is a large, sprawling metropolitan area, which meant that some areas of the city and its suburbs were affected much more dramatically than others. “The city as a whole wasn’t in crisis. It was significant, but the damage wasn’t universal in the same way that a small city might have seen,” Stewart says, referencing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “We had more people who could help, more businesses that could reopen quickly. We also have a city that has an idea of how to recover from a tremendous flood. As a community, we were more experienced in handling something that people wouldn’t do once in their lives, much less twice.”
In some cases, the storm’s impacts are lingering more quietly, even as Houston’s restaurant scene charges forward. There isn’t really hard data on how many restaurants have been forced to close or delay their opening because of the storm, but in areas where recovery has come along more slowly, Stewart notices that the restaurant industry’s growth has been equally stalled. “We have some parts of our city that are still in recovery mode,” she says. “Which very much limits available dollars for dining out. A lot of fruit had been planted in these areas, we’re just seeing it a little later than we would have if Harvey hadn’t hit.”
Despite these challenges, Houstonians are relentlessly hopeful for what’s next for their city, especially after watching its residents pull together in a major way after the storm. Volunteers packed the kitchens of restaurants across the city to prepare meals for flood victims and first responders. Shepherd’s Southern Smoke Foundation established a relief fund for members of the service industry in the days after the storm, and found that servers and cooks are disproportionately affected by disasters like Harvey because their incomes are dependent on restaurants being open and full of paying customers, among other factors.
“There was no disaster relief or safety net specifically designed to address the vulnerabilities that people in the food and beverage industry face,” says Southern Smoke executive director Kathryn Lott. “This industry is what our population as a whole depends on when these disasters occur. Food and beverage suppliers are the lifeline to getting food to first responders, victims, their employees and the public.”
In response to what the organization saw after Harvey, Southern Smoke established the Emergency Relief Fund to continue to provide necessary assistance in the aftermath of another major natural disaster. “We now provide funding to anyone in the food and beverage industry and their suppliers who face unforeseen expenses due to crisis,” Lott says. “We will always remember the amazing nationwide network that helped us when we needed it most — allowing us to raise over $500,000 for Hurricane Harvey victims.”
Space City continues to attract national attention for its restaurant industry, and local restaurateurs want to make it clear that Houston is open for business while raising awareness that the city is also still in recovery. Earlier this month, Energy Corridor restaurant Cafe Benedicte returned after being closed for nearly a year of rebuilding. After lengthy rebuilding, Reef is set to make a comeback later in the fall. Agricole Hospitality’s takeover of East Downtown with three new restaurants is on track to debut this fall, as is the much-anticipated Truth BBQ. “We’re still healing. I have friends who are just now moving back home. Restaurants have closed or haven’t reopened,” Shepherd says. “We still need to support each other because it’s a long process.”
For Casares, business is booming, and perhaps most importantly, her restaurant’s regulars are back where they belong — eating fajitas and queso at Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen. “We had so many people tell us how relieved they were to see we made it okay, and then over the weeks, our regulars started returning both to their homes and to us,” Casares says. “A lot of evenings, it was pretty emotional when familiar faces we hadn’t seen since before Harvey would suddenly be at the door. That was a good feeling.”