After being warmed by her robust greeting, charmed by her French accent and captivated by the aromas coming from her kitchen, the next thing I notice about Claudette Flatow is her hands. Her fingers are muscled, palms sturdy, and I can imagine the decades of slicing and dicing, of kneading and stirring, that molded these hands into the workhorses of her catering business. These hands, which she gently glides through the air as she speaks, are the God-given tools of a woman who does not shy away from hard work.
In March 2012, that effort culminated in the realization of a lifelong dream: moving from teaching cooking classes out of her home to opening a storefront where she’d sell healthy, superb meals to the time-strapped and grow her catering business. By opening a shop on the main retail strip in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., she was summoning the trait she says is crucial for a small business owner — guts.
She had to believe what her students had told her for years: Rockaway needed a fine culinary experience. She and her husband tapped their retirement account to fund the venture. Tens of thousands of dollars of equipment was purchased — ovens, refrigerators, tables and chairs — and Cuisine by Claudette opened for business.
“I wanted to make food that was fresh, authentic and healthy,” says Flatow. “I was teaching for 15 years, and I learned what the neighborhood wanted. My students were young women with kids, and they wanted me to turn every recipe I had into a healthier choice.”
And she did. Walk into her store and the day’s selections include baked salmon, numerous bean salads and gluten-free turkey burgers. “I can make 20, 30 pounds a day, and they go the same day,” Flatow says. “Trust me, it’s not easy to make a turkey burger gluten-free and juicy, but it is the juiciest burger on earth.”
Flatow was building, slowly building, her business. More and more customers were making their way down to her store, which is just steps from the Rockaway Beach boardwalk. Yet her attempts to turn a profit were thwarted by the surprises confronted by many new small business owners — thousands of dollars for city permits and shockingly high utility bills for commercial stoves and refrigerators. But despite the challenges, Flatow could see a bright future. Sales were increasing week by week. She hired two people to help her in the kitchen and more to handle walk-in customers.
“It was the normal progression of a new business,” Flatow says. “We saw that things were coming up. I am optimistic — even with the darkest thing, I am optimistic to the last minute.”
On Oct. 29, 2012, Flatow could not have predicted how crucial that optimism would be to getting through the next year of her life. Superstorm Sandy was barreling up the East Coast. But as a long-time Rockaway resident, she had heard these warnings before. Hurricanes had beared down before, evacuation orders had been instituted before. But usually the hype exceeded the reality.
Not this time.
The sandbags she and her family had placed at the store’s front door were ignored by a rushing storm surge that flooded the store’s basement and covered the first floor. At her home just a few blocks away, the entire basement flooded, destroying a lifetime of possessions. Flatow watched from her window as water covered the family’s three cars, rending them undrivable.
But losing the cars, losing her stuff, was nothing compared to the loss at her business. In preparation for an upcoming catering event and the holiday rush, Flatow had just stocked her shelves with her staples — almonds, coconut, peanut butter. All of her catering supplies, such as chafing dishes, containers and serving tools, were doused with salt water and sewage and thus had to be thrown out. And while her seven refrigerators were saved from water damage, the ensuing weeks-long power outage destroyed all their contents. Flatow estimates she lost between $40,000 and $45,000 in food and supplies.
Because she did not have flood insurance, none of the interior loss was reimbursed. To date she’s only received $273 from her property insurance company to pay for the only damage deemed covered under her policy: replacing the sign that hangs over her front door. She’d only been open for seven months prior to the storm and so is not eligible for a City of New York small business loan program set up to help businesses after Superstorm Sandy. To qualify, a business had to have been around since at least 2010. Flatow opened her doors in March 2012.
After the store’s basement was cleared out and its contents piled up at the curb, Flatow found herself in a worse place than she was before she opened the business. Her seed money was gone. Her heart ached for her dedicated employees, to whom she could no longer pay a regular salary. And her dream seemed to have suffered the same fate as Rockaway’s 5-mile stretch of oceanfront boardwalk. It, too, was destroyed.
Or, it should have been. But Flatow couldn’t let that happen. “I couldn’t let my children see me give up,” she says. With the help of one friend who believed enough in her to give her a $10,000 loan, three months after the storm Flatow started cooking again.
The winter was rough. Rockaway was a ghost town. Many residents were still not able to live in their homes and therefore there were few customers to serve. Flatow often wondered if the effort was worthwhile. But by working with fellow store owners on the Beach 116th commercial strip, and maintaining her irrepressible optimism, Flatow persevered.
A year after the storm, her business is back to pre-Sandy levels. She still hasn’t turned a profit but is happy with the rate of growth. A recent gallery night that combined Flatow’s cuisine with pieces by local artists packed the shop. She regularly caters events for hundreds of diners.
What is your plan for the future? I ask her.
“To grow,” she says. “To have customers, so that I can hire another 10 people.”
She still has to solve the problems of now, such as how she’ll repay the loan from her friend and invest the money necessary to increase revenue. Like so many Sandy-affected business owners, Flatow is far from being able to sleep well at night. But she is confident in one thing:
“I am going to do it,” Flatow says. “I’m going to make it. Definitely.”
She runs her weathered hands through her hair. Tears fill both our eyes. In that moment, I have no doubt that she will.