Despite many Darien restaurants’ attempts to donate food to shelters, not a single one was able to, as the food had reached unsafe temperatures because many went nearly a week without electricity after Hurricane Sandy ripped through town.
David Knauf, the town’s health director, said most restaurants waited too long to make the decision on donating food.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated [the outages] would last as long as it did,” Knauf told The Times. “The restaurants tried to preserve their food, but by the time they tried to figure out ways to get rid of it, it was tool late.”
Refrigerated food needs to stay below 45 degrees, and the longest most non-working fridges can keep food at that temperature is two days, Knauf said, which is pushing the limits.
David Johnson, owner of Backstreet restaurant, was one of many restaurateurs who had to toss thousands of dollars in food after Sandy ripped through town.
“I can’t believe the center of town would be out for five days like that,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in the state 26 years and it’s never happened before.”
After Tropical Storm Irene hit last year, Backstreet remained opened and did tremendous business because other restaurants were out of power and people needed a place to eat, Johnson said. He reckoned he lost some sizable revenue because he had to keep his doors closed until he got power back Saturday afternoon.
Restaurants east of the railroad overpass on the Post Road didn’t lost power, which meant good business for Subway, Starbucks, Planet Pizza and others.
Planet Pizza owner Frank Rocco said business was booming all week, although some cheese and flour deliveries from New Jersey were delayed because of Sandy. The only day they closed was Monday.
“It ended up being an average week,” Rocco said. “It was a little better Tuesday and Wednesday.”
Johnson from Backstreet ordered some food on Friday and kept it at Rory’s Restaurant until he was able to open. But he still had to toss the entire contents of his fridge. His insurance policy should cover the loss, he said.
Recent legislation inspired by last year’s two storms also requires insurers to reimburse restaurants that donate food to shelters in the same way they reimburse for discarded food.
Greg Palmer, owner of Palmer’s Market, said he had to toss between $80,000 and $100,000 worth of food after his store lost power.
“We got restocked right away,” Palmer said. “I think they turned us off for safety issues” as they repaired other lines nearby.
Knauf, the health director, said Whole Foods was likely the only area establishment that lost power but did not throw away food. They ran a generator and had dry ice, so they stayed open for business while other stores suffered losses.
“This begs the question for all these food establishments,” Knauf said, “if it makes sense to invest in a generator so they can stay open in times of crises, so they can continue to serve the public. A lot of people have no place to eat” during power outages.
Knauf added that he would like to start a conversation with Planning & Zoning about requiring eateries, grocery stores and gas stations to have generators on hand. But, he said, this would create other problems, such as noise and exhaust fumes, and most businesses would likely rather throw away food and get reimbursed through insurance than be forced to buy and maintain a generator.
Even though no food was able to be donated to shelters, many area organizations stepped up to the plate to help feed the thousands in southern Fairfield County who lost power.
Harriette Burrell, communications manager at Person-to-Person, a Darien organization that provides food and other services to those in need, said soon after Sandy hit, area social service organizations came together with a plan to help those afflicted.
“It was determined that clothing was the biggest need as many homes flooded during the storm,” Burrell said.
For two days after the storm, Person-to-Person sent two van loads of clothing, or about 125 bags worth, to area families. Another 75 bags of clothes is going next week, she said.
The organization had recently held a clothes drive, and partnered with Norwalk nonprofit NEON to deliver the clothes, Burrell said. Person-to-Person also had to throw out $1,600 worth of food, but Burrell said Palmer’s Market held an earlier-placed order so their losses weren’t as severe as it could have been.
Person-to-Person is also looking at buying two generators — one for its food pantry and one for its office building. Two donors have stepped forward to start a generator fund, Burrell said.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said the state provided water and meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, but the food wasn’t used and will be kept for future use. The Red Cross donated energy bars and water, and Darien Schools also provided food from its supply to make meals at the high school shelter. Trader Joe’s also donated water, which was taken to the library for public use.
Greg Palmer said Stevenson did an excellent job during the storm response, in light of the worst and most prolonged power outage in recent town history.
“Jayme and the selectmen stayed on top of everything very well,” he said. “They kept me posted as things were happening. They were very good at that. They wanted to get businesses up as best they could.”