Fall always represented something exciting, new. When I was a child, it meant new things for school, a lunch box, book bag, clothes, and of course, a new grade, new teacher, new classmates. As I got older,
I looked forward to Fall because of the wardrobe: leather boots, a new handbag, a cashmere sweater. Soon after, attention turned to Christmas and the Holiday Season, with its gatherings, shopping for gifts, sending cards, preparing the house.
When I finally decided to take the plunge and open my own bakery, it was summer 2012. I had met the owner of a small chain of specialty food stores through a mutual friend. He expressed an interest in the gluten and dairy free muffins I had been perfecting. We agreed on an October start date, since my husband Jim and I had only just begun the process of building a commercial kitchen in the rear of a single story warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and we needed a few months to get it together.
Labor Day passed, and we were in full swing- I was still working full time teaching the Career Pastry Students at the Institute of Culinary Education and trying to do whatever was needed to facilitate the kitchen’s opening. Permits, licenses, tax abatements – there was so much paperwork! Jim was trying to get the best prices on everything we needed in terms of equipment – it’s what he specializes in. The architect made drawings based on my hand drawn rendering of how I wanted the kitchen laid out. The 800 square foot space was a dream come true – 16 foot ceilings, it had an airy, pleasant feel, unlike every other commercial kitchen I’ve ever worked in. We added a window for natural light, remodeled an existing bathroom and purchased mixers, tables, ovens, sinks. Some were brand new, some used from auction sites Jim was familiar with. It was all so exciting. I was perfecting the recipes, a tweak here, a tweak there. My head and heart were exploding with anticipation about my future business, I could barely sleep at night. How much could I grow? How many products should we offer? The days were passing rapidly. We had made a preliminary commitment to be ready to provide two of our potential customer’s stores with baked good by mid to late October, and it looked like we might need an extension.
By early October, it was clear we would not be ready to move in within the month, so we went to plan B – bringing a 20 qt mixer and all the other small equipment I had to the kitchen of my church in downtown Brooklyn. We had agreed to a staggered start with Juice – they had 9 stores at the time and the owner wisely suggested we add two stores every two weeks or so to work the kinks out.
Our first order was scheduled for Thursday the 25th of October 2012. It seemed like so many muffins at -the time! Looking back on it, I laugh, since now we do hundreds of muffins every day, and that first order was for several dozen. The order was baked, packed and picked up by their driver smoothly. We were off and running!
The second bakery order was scheduled for Sunday October 28th. They were forecasting a hurricane, Sandy by name, to hit the NY area Sunday night into Monday. They were predicting it was going to be a whopper of a storm, a “Superstorm”. Waterfront areas like Red Hook were particularly vulnerable. Mind you, Jim has been working in Red Hook since the 1970’s. There had never been any flooding, or storm damage that he could remember. There wasn’t a whole lot we needed to do we thought. The news reports were becoming more alarming as Sandy wound her way up the Eastern Seaboard. I baked Sunday’s order and had it packed and ready to go at the church kitchen. The work at the bakery was still in construction mode, so we had no ingredients there, only new electrical wiring, sheetrock and a few pieces of equipment we had purchased but had not been installed.
The customer called to say they would not be picking up the order. The weather forecast was dire, and they didn’t want their drivers having to make any deliveries on Monday to the stores. What was I going to do with the several dozen muffins I had prepared? Would they take them on Tuesday? I was overcome with anxiety.
We went home and sat in front of the TV. Reports of power outages, destruction of property, unrooted trees were on every channel. The winds outside were howling. Rain was beating down on our house like we’ve never seen before. It was impossible to sleep. By morning, it was clear this really was a superstorm. I will never forget the images of the Hudson River pouring into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Although our house and neighborhood around our home still had electricity, the effects of the powerful winds were everywhere – toppled trees crushing parked cars, garbage cans tossed around with their contents strewn everywhere. Our Red Hook neighborhood fared much worse. The storm surge brought seawater 4 feet high into the streets, flooding every home and business. By morning the flood waters had receded, leaving behind a slimy reminder of the sewage mixed with rain and seawater. The electricity was out for several weeks. It wasn’t even possible to ascertain the full extent of the damage without lights.
When all was said and done, it was months before we were able to move into the commercial kitchen we were building. The sheetrock had to be pulled out and re-installed. Electrical wires had to be replaced. A refrigerator had to be discarded. It was many weeks before the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel re-opened, causing traffic beyond belief every day. Was this really what it meant to have your own business? The endless worrying, sleepless nights?
Although 7 years have passed, Fall has taken on a new meaning. The threat of hurricane season each year stops me in my tracks. Will this year bring another Sandy? As Hurricane Dorian menaced the Bahamas and the east coast of Florida, would it reach us too? Will another hurricane follow in its heels?
With Thanksgiving and Christmas right around the corner, there is plenty of work to be done to prepare for those busy seasons. I must push my fear of the weather to the back of my thoughts and focus on the task at hand – making sure our customers get the best gluten free products money can buy, every day. Enjoy the scent of freshly baked cookies, muffins and breads coming from the ovens. Take time to develop new menu items and flavors. Shopping dollars are no longer for boots and outerware, but for ingredients and packaging materials. Well, and maybe a new handbag……but don’t tell anyone.