Flatiron restaurants are losing tens of thousands of dollars in the days following the steam pipe explosion in the neighborhood — an incident last week that sprayed asbestos throughout the area and forced dozens of buildings to evacuate.
Though many streets have reopened, others remain blocked off to pedestrian and vehicular traffic, all but cutting area restaurants off to viable business. Some restaurants haven’t been able to reopen, waiting on an alphabet soup of agencies including the DOH (Department of Health) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to grant approval for business to start again.
Taj II, a two-floor lounge and popular private events space on 21st Street, is in its fifth day of closure since the explosion on Thursday morning. Operations director Christopher Collins canceled several private events over the weekend, including a bar mitzvah, and two brunch services that would have had more than 400 people at each. He lost more than $100,000 in the process, he says.
Now, Collins is getting the air systems professionally cleaned, throwing out six days worth of food, still paying all of his salaried employees, and fielding calls from customers. “I got a call a minute at one stage on Saturday night,” he says. “It’s been a rough weekend.”
Nearby, Italian restaurant Zero Otto Nove still hasn’t reopened and is experiencing stress over losses. “I’ve been afraid to look at the numbers. Between business that was lost and food that goes unsold, it’s a lot,” owner Bruno Paciullo says.
Food businesses such as Toby’s Estate Coffee, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Bounce Sporting Club, Roki Le Izakaya, and Bouley at Home also remain closed. Others were temporarily affected, like sandwich shop Eisenberg’s, which had to shutter on Saturday only, and fast-casual restaurant Tender Greens, which closed only on Thursday just after prepping for lunch, when staff handed out the food to first responders. Both are now reopen.
But even those who can soon reopen have a lot to handle: Renee Typaldos, who owns Greek steakhouse Merakia on 21st Street, was only able to get back in her restaurant on Sunday and has been throwing out product, logging photos for insurance, and other tasks to get everything back up and running. Her space was 100 degrees by the time she returned; in an abundance of caution, she had shut off her air conditioning on Thursday so that asbestos wouldn’t enter.
Merakia can reopen on Tuesday, but the DOH, FDNY, NYPD, Con-Ed, and the EPA all had to approve it. The Department of Health in particular is requiring buildings to undergo an inspection that involves removing debris, replacing HVAC filters, assessing air quality, and more.
“All the acronyms were here,” Typaldos says. “My whole kitchen is here today cleaning and trying to prep and help start everything up again for tomorrow. We have to beg our vendors to be gentle with us as we try to replenish.”
Even with the gradual reopenings, the area remains a mess, restaurateurs say. “The crater looks like a freaking meteor hit,” Paciullo of Zero Otto Nove says. Merakia’s Typaldos added that many people are power washing buildings, all the way up to the roof. “The block is a battle zone,” she says. “They’re letting residents and us come through, but they’re working like crazy.”
Despite the speed and effort, some New Yorkers still don’t want to return to the area in case of asbestos exposure, further impacting business, restaurateurs say. As Typaldos calls to confirm reservations for tomorrow night, some people are canceling. Even restaurants nearby the affected area have seen a drastic drop in sales. Almayass owner Mario Arakelian — who never had to close his restaurant on 21st Street, just outside the hot zone — says that he had a 70 percent drop in the number of customers this past weekend.
Leading the effort to help business owners get through this time is Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership Business Improvement District executive director Jennifer Brown. She’s been going door-to-door to reach business owners and provide information on not only how to reopen, but also how to potentially recoup some costs.
“Documentation is important. If there was a loss of food, for instance, there may be some kind of restitution or compensation for that [from the city]”, she says. “But we don’t know exactly what those resources are going to be yet.”
Besides restaurants and other businesses, the steam pipe explosion impacted residents in the area, many of whom still couldn’t return home by Sunday night. Though only minor injuries were incurred with the incident, many people are fearful of the longer-term health impact. The city and ConEd, which operates the pipe, has yet to figure out what caused the explosion.
“It’s part of doing business in Manhattan. Shit happens,” says Paciullo of Zero Otto Nove. “One time our gas went off. It’s just a problem you gotta deal with.”