When Hurricane Sandy swamped The Inlet Café in 2012, flooding the 49-year-old New Jersey eatery beneath five feet of water, the second-generation owners did what their parents had taught them to do in the face of disaster—they rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
Like their parents had done in 1975 after a fast-moving fire leapt from a neighboring hotel and reduced the family business to rubble, siblings and co-owners Robin Lentz-Sundstrom and Douglas Lentz refused to be knocked down by adversity.
“After we surveyed the damage, we looked at each other and said, ‘We’re too young to retire. We have to rebuild,’ ” Lentz-Sundstrom says. “When we made that decision, everything we’d worked for our whole lives was gone. There were boats on top of the restaurants … and 75 tables and 200 chairs had just floated away.”
In an interview with Recipe for Success, Lentz-Sundstrom discusses the six-month journey to get shipshape again.
Q: The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy sounds like it was a battle zone.
Never in my wildest dreams have I seen that much water. We’d been evacuated—although my brother Doug stayed in the house—and it took me four days just to get back in to see the damage. There were no phones, and we had three feet of debris inside, even seaweed. Everything, including surfboards, came through the windows.
Q: How did you even begin to rebuild?
Hard work. The insurance companies weren’t paying on time—we still haven’t gotten paid—so we put together what little money we had. What we couldn’t afford to buy new, we repaired. We needed new chairs, but we couldn’t afford that, so we went out and retrieved our old chairs, and we stripped them down and redid them. My brother is great at handyman projects, and he did a lot of the hard labor himself.
Q: Was the construction extensive?
We had to rebuild the entire restaurant. We have all new walls, and floors; but we were able to keep with the original footprint, which my parents built in 1975 after the original restaurant burned down.
Q: That first natural disaster was a turning point for the family business.
Before the fire, my parents had what was basically a clam shack called The Lobster Pot. My father was a truck driver and my mother worked at the telephone company, but it was always their dream to open a restaurant. So they found a shack on the water and with their pennies started a very casual hangout where local fishermen, clammers, and residents would come for the all-you-can-eat $1 steamer basket.
In 1976, a hotel next door caught fire, and the inlet actually caught fire as well. It leveled most of the restaurant and they had to start over. That’s when they went from a clam shack to a bigger restaurant, and year-by-year, if they had the money, they added on.
Q: How long did it take to rebuild after Sandy?
Six months and three days. We opened up on the Friday before Mother’s Day, and it was so heartwarming. All of the people came back to show their support. A lot of customers were displaced; some of them are still not in their homes. But they came back.
Q: The restaurant has been a second home to you.
I started waiting tables when I was in the 5th Grade. When we got a little older, we went out on our own to work for other restaurants, chasing the dream. Fortunately, it all led us right back here. My brother and I took over the business 12 years ago.
Q: What are the challenges when working with a sibling?
The good things and the challenges are kind of the same. Somebody’s always got your back in a family business, but somebody also has to be the boss. My brother and I get along pretty well. I’m more of the front of the house and he’s back of the house.
Q: Any advice for someone chasing the restaurant dream?
It takes tenacity and there are so many roadblocks that there are ties when you want to say forget it. This place has been in my family for nearly 50 years and I always tell people it has been a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice. You have to have it in your soul.