Food brings people together like nothing else in this world, and the restaurant community in St. Augustine united together as they faced the devastation of Hurricane Matthew. The whole country watched Hurricane Matthew bear down on St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city. Waves pounded the bay front and the storm surge filled historic downtown and Anastasia Island neighborhoods with 4 feet of seawater. Evacuated residents and restaurateurs wondered what they would return to.
“We came back Saturday at 8 a.m. I opened the door and immediately knew it was gone.” Sherry Stoppelbein locked the door to 8 Granada Street and taped a paper sign to the glass. After nine years of business, Hot Shot Bakery’s Granada Street location is closed for good.
Hot Shot Bakery’s second location survived the storm.
The storm damage to the Granada St. location of Hot Shot Bakery made it impossible to re-open.
“I feel like this has been like a movie,” Stephen Hutson shares from the dining room of Catch 27 a few blocks away. The dining area and small bar were in surprisingly good shape, because it was built off grade. The kitchen was ground level and has to be redone. “You don’t think something like this is going to happen to you. But it does. You just start cleaning and doing what has to be done … it’s been insane.”
“It felt post-apocalyptic,” adds his wife, Lindsey Hutson. “But instead of everyone trying to destroy one another, we were all trying to build one another back up!”
In a city where everyone was affected, camaraderie was key in overcoming equipment loss, building damages and exhaustion after days of cleanup.
“People’s character really comes out in something like this … thankfully it’s been mostly good,” Lindsey shares soberly.
Hot Shot Bakery owner Sherry Stoppelbein had to close her Granada location after almost a decade of serving the community.
The character of St. Augustine residents shines through the clouds of adversity that it faces. While accounts of church groups, CrossFit gyms and strangers helping residents filled the news, downtown businesses quietly helped one another reopen as quickly as possible.
“Red gave us one of his fryers to use while ours gets repaired or replaced,” Stephen Huston says of the owner of Barley Republic Irish Public House. “Stephen [DiMare] at Hyppo lent us a pressure washer and his staff has helped us move equipment around and we returned the favor. Almost every restaurant has asked how they can help.”
The Hutsons own the regional favorite Catch 27 and fledgling barbecue restaurant 27 Smokehouse. Catch 27 made it. The jury is still out on 27 Smokehouse. “We lost a fryer, a freezer, four refrigerators and our smoker,” Stephen Hutson says, and the appliances are just part of the damage. “The floors at Smokehouse are still drying out,” he shares.
The Hutson’s dining room survived, but the kitchen of their restaurant will have to be rebuilt.
Stephen and Lindsey Hutson at their restaurant Catch 27 which will be restored but their BBQ concept 27 Smokehouse suffered serious damage.
“It’s hard, in times like this, to laugh,” Stoppelbein says. “I try to laugh … but it’s hard.”Stoppelbein locked the door to her Granada location for the last time on a Thursday, but there is a silver lining for Hot Shot Bakery. Her second location was high and dry. She counts herself fortunate to have her new building to fall back on.
“We had just got our food license and had only been here three months. When I walked in here, everything was exactly as I left it. I was just like, ‘Wow! Look what you’ve done for me, Lord!”
Even so, leaving Granada Street was hard. “I’m comfortable with it now. I’m not happy about it, because I gave it nine years of my life and we built a good, a wonderful business there … but it was the sensible thing to do,” Stoppelbein says.
Michael Lugo’s Tasting Room made it through the storm safely due to its timeless Spanish construction.
Chef and restaurateur Michael Lugo stands with Fire Chief Carlos Aviles and a team of firefighters. Lugo opened his doors to first responders immediately after the storm passed giving them momentary respite during their critical work.
Although Stoppelbein mourns the loss of a business and her dream of two locations, she’s optimistic and is overcoming obstacles as they arise. “I was out delivering on my bike today!” she laughs. With roads still closed at the time of our interview and construction crews everywhere, delivering sandwiches via car was impossible. “I’ve never, in my entire life, ridden a bike downtown. I guess we weren’t allowed when we were children. It was fun!”
Michael Lugo’s Cuna Street restaurant, Michael’s Tasting Room, occupies a one-story historic building constructed in Spanish style. “The old construction is what saved me,” he says incredulously. “The only walls that had to be replaced were where we’ve done updates or repairs. The old plaster held up!”
As Hurricane Matthew drew near, Lugo kept his doors open to feed first responders. “It was absolutely crucial,” Fire Chief Carlos Aviles says. “We were all very tense and had been working around the clock for hurricane prep. I had to peel these guys away from sharpening tools and checking trucks; they didn’t realize how much they needed this. Michael’s Tasting Room staying open for us so we could give everyone a mental escape before the storm hit was huge for morale.”
John and Sherri Cunningham of Ann O’Malley’s Irish Pub had little damage. “Right off the bat, we realized that we, as a business, were incredibly lucky,” John says. “Our first thought was, ‘Holy cow. There are going to be so many people hurting. We have a big ice machine at the pub so we started giving away ice.”
Sherri recognized another way to help: via social media. “We have a huge social following, so we started a group as a clearing house for information. Someone would post a need and an hour later, 15 to 20 people would show up at their door!” Out-of-town friends who wanted to help started sending gift cards. “We’ve gotten cards from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska. So far, we’ve distributed $2,485 out of $3,600 in cards.”
Distributing gift cards has been harder than the Cunninghams expected. “I’d think someone in the Ann O’s family would need it and would say, ‘this is for you’ but they would want to give it to their neighbor!”
This pay-it-forward attitude characterizes post-Matthew St. Augustine.
“The term the military uses is force multiplier,” John Cunningham says. “We as two people, or our staff as five … there’s only so much we can do. But our extended family at the pub has been amazing.”
“Hurricane Matthew has forced people to really take stock in what’s important,” Sherri says. “This town is a very insular group, so the amount of community and help and resourcefulness is not surprising — but it is mind boggling.”
Just a week after Hurricane Matthew, downtown hotels were filling again and the familiar clang of the trolley bell could be heard. Catch 27 reopened but Lindsey Hutson continues to work on the cleanup efforts at 27 Smokehouse.
“A tourist came by as I was taking the arbor entrance to the patio down,” she recalls. “I stopped to visit with him and he said, every person he had talked to in our community had been positive. It was a reminder that the heart of our city is still strong and thriving.”
St. Augustine has weathered over 450 years of storms. Hurricane Matthew hit hard but the spirit of St. Augustine, the compassion in our community, is stronger than ever.
Support the First Coast Relief Fund to help those in our region who suffered during Hurricane Matthew.
For more information visit jaxcf.org