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Looks Like Last Call for Popular Gathering Spot in Town Ravaged by Storm

Owner of Union Beach seafood restaurant finally succumbs to economic realities

Gigi Liaguno-Dorr
Jakeabob's Bay owner Gigi Liaguno-Dorr chatting with customers.

More than fourteen months after Sandy, thousands of residents and business owners up and down New Jersey’s coast continue to wait for the funds they need to repair damages and return to their pre-storm lives.

A Monmouth University poll released last month found that 64 percent of Sandy survivors who’ve applied for aid through one of the state’s four main grant programs are dissatisfied with the recovery effort, with nearly three-quarters saying they feel that people like them have been forgotten.

Some of those concerns were expressed at a series of recent public hearings] and town hall meetings, with many residents pointing the finger at Trenton for the delays, while Gov. Chris Christie and state officials blamed burdensome federal regulations.

While much of the anger in recent months has revolved around aid programs overseen by the NJ Department of Community Affairs, frustrations also continue to simmer with private insurance companies and federal entities like FEMA and the Small Business Administration, which provides small recovery grants and low-interest loans.

That’s certainly the case with Jakeabob’s Bay. Before the storm, the burger and seafood restaurant named after owner Angelita Liaguno-Dorr’s sons Jake and Bobby was a Union Beach institution. It was the place to go to meet friends for dinner on a Friday night, listen to live music at the tiki bar and gaze at the skyline of lower Manhattan off in the distance.

But Sandy collapsed its roof, destroyed its deck, and scattered parts of the building throughout the neighborhood. The damage was beyond repair, so last March, Liaguno-Dorr – who everyone calls “Gigi” – had no choice but to demolish what little of the building remained. Even since, she’s been pursing all possible avenues to come up with money to rebuild.

Last April, she reopened the restaurant at a temporary location in a different part of town. It was a scene of celebration and a small sign of rebirth in Union Beach, a devastated community that desperately needed whatever good news it could get.

For Gigi, it was just great to be back at work. “It feels like home in here!” she said at the time, reveling in the hubbub of familiar sounds like the crowded ambience of the dining room and the clatter of dishes in the kitchen.

“That’s what I miss. It’s my daily routine.”

She decorated the new place with repainted doors she’d salvaged from homes that had been destroyed all around town. Many were turned into walls and tables throughout the new restaurant as a reminder of the damage Sandy inflicted on the community. There were also other reminders, like hundreds of photos of the storm’s aftermath, a giant piece of driftwood that washed ashore and artifacts recovered from the rubble of the old building. And the new menu included items like the First Responder Reuben and the Jersey Strong Panini.

But as time went on, it became apparent that things just weren’t the same. It was a slow summer, and even by last fall business still hadn’t picked up.

“I still have people call, and they’ll ask, ‘Who’s playing on the tiki bar this evening? Is there a wait on the deck?’ They have no idea that the business was lost,” she said last September. She’d tell the callers that the restaurant had moved and was no longer at its waterfront location, and then they’d inevitably decide not to come.

Compounding her problems, hundreds of Union Beach residents – including many of her former customers – had been forced to leave town after the storm and still hadn’t returned.

Gigi received about half a million dollars from her flood insurance. But her property insurer -- Lloyd’s of London -- paid out less than $10,000 on an $850,000 policy. She also had a $300,000 business interruption policy, but it was linked to her property insurance, so she couldn’t get access to any of that money either. Left with few other options, she decided to file a lawsuit against Lloyd’s last fall, seeking to get more that she feels she’s owed.

Gigi had hoped to stay in business at her temporary location while her lawsuit winds its way through the courts (she’s told it could take two years) and while she awaits word on a loan from the Small Business Administration so she can move ahead with reconstruction. But a year after re-opening, her lease has come up for renewal, forcing her to crunch the numbers and make a tough decision.

Last week she announced on the Jakeabob’s Facebook page that it will close its doors at the end of the month.

“You have to come to terms with when you cut your ties, and you have to figure out something else,” she said, when reached by phone last Thursday.

She added that she’d agonized over the decision and that it was even more difficult because the restaurant had also served as a community kitchen – serving more than 1,600 meals to needy Union Beach residents since the beginning of the year. Gigi is hoping to partner with a local church so she can continue helping those in need. Meanwhile, she’ll go back to playing the waiting game full-time.

“It’s difficult,” she said. “I feel like it’s an endless spin cycle. And I’m tired. I want out. I want to start building.”

She says she has architectural plans all drawn up and is ready to start work, as soon as she gets the money. Her regular patrons are planning a farewell party for March 30, and a number of fundraisers are in the works.

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