This story was originally published on the website of WNYC/NJPR, a NJ Spotlight partner.
It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions the past few weeks for Gigi Liaguno-Dorr, owner of Jakeabob’s Bay restaurant in Union Beach, New Jersey. Sandy damaged her building beyond repair, so after fourteen years of running the business, she was recently forced to take the difficult step of having it demolished.
But it was a very different scene of celebration last week, as she re-opened Jakeabob’s in a new location, five and a half months after the storm. Gigi said she was thrilled to be back at work, amidst the familiar sounds of the chatter in the dining room and the clatter of dishes. “That’s our life,” she explained. “Getting the food out, getting the drinks out. That’s what I miss. It’s my daily routine.”
That routine was interrupted last October, when a massive storm surge destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in Union Beach, collapsing Jakeabob’s roof and washing its dock out to sea. Gigi says the old restaurant’s waterfront location — with the skyline of the city in the distance — was a large part of what made it such a special and central gathering place in town, so she hopes she’ll eventually be able to rebuild. But while she continues to wait for insurance checks to arrive and contemplates raising the building seven feet to conform to new FEMA flood maps, friends and family have loaned her money to re-open at a temporary site in a different part of town. After months of delays, waiting for inspections to be completed and donated equipment to arrive, last Monday was the big day.
As customers arrived for lunch, their cars filling the parking lot to capacity, Gigi showed them around the restaurant as if it were a museum. She salvaged dozens of doors from homes that were destroyed around Union Beach, re-painted them and turned them into walls and tables as a reminder of the damage Sandy inflicted on the community. There are 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. The menu now includes items like the First Responder Reuben and the Jersey Strong Panini. And Gigi knows there are plenty of people around town still struggling to make ends meet, so she’s come up with a plan to help them out.
“Say if you come in and your bill for lunch is twenty dollars,” she explained. “So you’ll tell the waitress, ‘Take an extra ten,’ or ‘Take an extra five.’ And then anybody who doesn’t have money who can’t afford to have a lunch or a dinner can come in and they’ll use that money, and I’m gonna match dollar for dollar.”
It was Gigi’s willingness to help the community in ways like this that led Union Beach residents like John and Robin Visconi to show up for the grand opening to return the favor. They lived across the street from the old Jakeabob’s and said the restaurant staff was like a second family. “This is something everybody’s been looking forward to,” they said, calling the re-opening, “the beginning of the rebirth of Union Beach.”
Gigi says the new restaurant is a lot smaller than what she’s used to, so it will probably take a while to adjust to the space and work out some of the kinks along the way. And she readily admits that it will never compare to the old Jakeabob’s. But as her fiancé said to her recently, “It still doesn’t feel like it’s ours, but it feels like home.”