All Articles Food How one small town felt the fury of Hurricane Irene

How one small town felt the fury of Hurricane Irene

4 min read


Santiago Espinal came to America from the Dominican Republic 17 years ago and spent more than a decade learning the business at someone else’s establishment before opening the Milltown Diner in the summer of 2009. Luck has been with him in the form of locals and loyal regulars who keep his little three-person operation running, despite a down economy. But the breakfast crowd was out of luck on Sunday, Aug. 28; like the nearly 2,500 other businesses and homes in this small central New Jersey town, the diner had lost power at about 11 the night before and it would be nearly a week before the lights came on again.

Surrounding towns fared better, with power restored within hours or days of the storm, but Milltown’s power station sits on a low spot near the brook that runs through town, and workers switched off the power just before rapidly rising waters flooded the station and the post office next door. It’s likely officials, residents and business owners will be talking about moving the station and perhaps outsourcing to one of the area’s large utility companies in the months to come, writes Star Ledger columnist Bob Braun, but right now the diner and the rest of the town’s eateries, shops and service businesses are more focused on returning to normal.

The Milltown Diner doesn’t look like much from the outside. Like many of the small businesses that line Main Street, the restaurant sits in an old, narrow storefront that from the sidewalk doesn’t look like it could fit more than four tables. Parking is strictly on the street, but most locals are close enough to walk.  Inside, Espinal and his two employees serve customers at booths lined along the wall across from the counter and tables that fill the space in the front.  The eatery stocks its fridges and freezers on Thursday and Friday for the weekend, and the loss of power meant throwing out everything. Espinal estimates he lost between $7,000 and $8,000 worth of bacon, eggs and other foodstuffs, and another $8,000 in sales during the week he was closed.

Loyal locals returned and business picked up where it left off as soon as the doors opened again, but the bank account was woefully low, and Espinal had to borrow from a friend to restock his fridges and freezers. He’s hoping his insurance will pay at least enough to repay the loan, but he isn’t sure and doesn’t even know yet when the insurance adjuster will have time to come by.

“It was very bad to lose everything,” he said. “This is all I have. This is it.”

Across the street, Mario Masciulli thought at first he might fare a bit better. His pizza place, Bella Villa, had a generator, but flood waters kept him from the place until late Sunday and he quickly discovered on Monday that the generator wasn’t strong enough to power the five refrigerators and freezers that hold dough, cheese, sauce and the meats and veggies that top his pies.

Masciulli did some business during the blackout, borrowing ingredients from his dad’s pizza place in the next town, but sales were slow and most of his customers seemed to have left town, especially after the sun went down and the streets and shops were once again plunged into darkness. Business hasn’t gone back to normal yet, he says, maybe because people had unexpected storm-related expenses.

He and other business owners anxiously await news from their insurance agents, and Masciulli says he’s also got some FEMA forms to fill out that might result in aid to cover some of his losses. The state of New Jersey has created a disaster checklist for small businesses, and insurance policies are likely to cover many of the losses, and small businesses that can’t find the funds elsewhere may have options for low-interest disaster loans through the Small Business Administration.

Leave a comment. Has your restaurant suffered during similar disasters? How did you recover?