A Restaurant’s Struggle to Reopen

Article and Multimedia by Elisha Fieldstadt and Justin Goldberg

Pleased to announce its reopening after the storm.

Visitors to the South Street Seaport will remember tourist-filled sidewalks, cafes and bars whose seating areas spilled outside, chain stores and kiosks with quirky souvenirs. Now, the cobblestone streets are no longer filled with excited tourists but rather scattered with construction workers in HAZMAT suits. Outdoor tables and chairs have been toppled and joined by debris pushed out of windows by the gushing water of the East River that overwhelmed Lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy. Stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Brookstone are boarded up, with no indication of a prospective return date and street vendors are displaced by large National Disaster Team trailers.

Weeks after the storm, the majority of businesses near South Street Seaport remain shuttered, and it is easy to see, through broken windows and missing front doors, that they will stay that way for a while. But on the corner of Front and Dover streets, two repaired windows outlined with Christmas lights brighten the darkness that persists for blocks. Inside Cowgirl Seahorse, a bar and restaurant, the warm and comforting atmosphere starkly contrasts with the upheaval outside.

The co-owner and general manager, Maura Kilgore, entered after the storm to find debris and destroyed furniture floating in several feet of water. A fading blue line on the wall indicates how high the water rose. “We didn’t think the water would come up that high,” she says. “We knew it was possible, but that was the worst-case scenario. There was honestly a few days when we didn’t know what to do because it looked so horrible.”

While Kilgore was in a state of shock and uncertainty in those first few days, but she says that restaurant management is more or less disaster management on a daily basis and her years of restaurant experience had trained her to problem-solve, think quickly and execute plans after a catastrophe.

While the kitchen remains in disrepair, the bar at Cowgirl Seahorse was back in business on Nov. 15, and while it pained Kilgore not to be able to serve a full menu, that Thursday and every night until the kitchen was operational again, she cooked a hot meal at her nearby apartment, set it at the end of the bar and encouraged guests to dig in, free of charge.

Unlike most neighboring restaurants and bars, Cowgirl Seahorse was able to reopen two and a half weeks after Sandy partly because “we have no basement so all our electricals are on the first floor,” explains Kilgore. And unlike neighboring South Street Seaport buildings, the Revolutionary War-era venue that houses Cowgirl Seahorse was erected primarily of brick and “because we have cement floors, not wood floors, which has been a problem for a lot of the historic buildings,” warping was not a problem.

While the beams and bricks share in the credit for the prompt reopening, the support of the community has meant even more. In what Kilgore describes as a “ray of sunshine,” her loyal patrons mobilized in an effort to offer whatever services they could to get Cowgirl Seahorse back in business. “Friends, neighbors, almost everyone got involved,” says Kilgore.

Seaport 2
In a darkened neighborhood surrounded by businesses so damaged they had not reopened, the Cowgirl Seahorse was a beacon of light.

One patron helped by repairing the bar’s riddled fleet of delivery bicycles, while others pitched in to repair tables, chairs and afford other assistance, in each’s realm of expertise. A lawyer and patron of the bar is fighting pro bono for the owners to receive payments from their insurance company, Marine Life.

In another testament to the community’s love for the bar and its owners, a Web site launched with ambitions of raising $25,000 to get the bar on its feet raised $8,630 by Nov. 20.

Cowgirl Seahorse had only recently broken even after opening three years ago when Sandy delivered its crippling blow. In the two and half weeks it was closed, “we probably lost around $90,000,” says Kilgore, referring to lost revenue and inventory. “That would have paid my October bills.”

Even though the bar has brought in revenue since reopening, the owners are struggling because the kitchen is still closed. Cowgirl Seahorse loses $4,000 to $6,000 a weekend on lost brunch sales alone, says Kilgore, adding, “We’re falling behind every day.”

Fortunately, with the help from volunteers and a few paid construction workers, Kilgore was able to make the transition from serving only drinks to serving a limited menu of bar food within three weeks. On the bright side, she says, the interruption gave them a chance to revisit and improve the menu that hadn’t changed since the restaurant opened. While she focuses on that positive, she is also realistic about the downfalls of losing the entire kitchen and most of its equipment.

With the holidays approaching, she says, “People who would be considering us for a Christmas party aren’t sure we’ll be ready when they’re ready to book it.”

Kilgore is optimistic, though, and fondly describes the area as a solidified enclave in the bustling city, with the Cowgirl Seahorse as a focal point. “We have a strong foothold in the local community,” she says. “This neighborhood was always known for that, we’ve always been a tight-knit little community.”

But there were exceptions. Kilgore says that after the storm, a tenant who lives above the bar alerted her to an older woman standing outside with a shopping cart and a ruckus inside the bar. Kilgore learned that two teenagers had crawled into the vulnerable bar through a broken window and were handing their mother the remaining bottles of booze that had not been washed away by the storm.

Maura Kilgore
Maura Kilgore, co-owner of Cowgirl Seahorse.

Moving forward, Kilgore is more worried about the loss of staff than she is the loss of inventory. “I have 29 employees out of work,” she says, with an expression of concern in her eyes that is far more intense than it was when she spoke of debt, bills and finances. She would like to get all 29 back into Cowgirl Seahorse as soon as possible but realizes that some may have to find other work in the meantime. She says, “We finally have a fine staff that work well together and that’s really hard to find… You know, you lose the refrigerator, that sucks but I go out and buy a new refrigerator, you lose an employee, you can’t go shopping for one.”

As one of the few open businesses for several blocks west of the East River, Cowgirl Seahorse is a light in the darkness of South Street. At first, it is a mystery that while most business owners have not even started to haul away the rubble, Kilgore has succeeded in reopening the doors of Cowgirl Seahorse and is on schedule to be fully operational, a mere month after the hurricane hit. But it quickly becomes clear that Kilgore and the bar she manages exude warmth and welcome to all who encounter it and as a result of that hospitality, a community did everything in its power to avoid losing Cowgirl Seahorse, even temporarily.

While there is still plenty to be done within and outside the four sturdy walls of the bar, Kilgore is hopeful that Cowgirl Seahorse will be resilient and recover in the upcoming months. Her perspective is that the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has “really been an uplifting experience due to the outpouring of support.”

Kilgore gives a tour of the kitchen under construction at Cowgirl Seahorse:

See more Dollars & Sense storm coverage.