Early Tuesday morning, after an E-F3 tornado wreaked havoc on Nashville, mayor John Cooper addressed the press and community leaders. The storm has killed at least 24 people so far, including East Nashville couple Albree Sexton and Michael Dolfini. Just two weeks ago, Sexton had started working at the popular East Nashville restaurant Lockeland Table and “immediately came into our fold like no one else,” said co-owner Cara Graham, tearfully. “I don’t think anyone can understand the devastation unless you can stand here and experience it for yourself.”
Like Graham, many of the area’s hospitality industry workers woke to the nightmare on Tuesday and barely had time to react.
“We feel very fortunate,” said Margot McCormack, chef and owner of Margot Cafe and Bar and Marche Artisan Foods, as she emptied three large coolers back into dependable refrigeration after power was restored in the area. With an average $5,000 weekly inventory budget, her staff had to scramble. “I called everyone I could think of that had walk-in space,” she said.
The city’s two largest food distributors, Sysco and Creation Gardens, also snapped into recovery mode, meaning McCormack couldn’t really rely on them for storage. Chefs across the city reached out to McCormack and other Five Points restaurateurs who were directly affected—including The Three Crow, Boston Commons, and Marché Artisan Foods—to offer refrigeration. But with no real way to get a truck into the area, it would be a logistical nightmare. So, when Chris Carter of Porter Road Butcher scooped up her inventory to store it in his fully operating walk-in just blocks away, the problem seemed solved. That is, for McCormack.
Just up the hill from Margot Cafe, a giant tree cut the sports bar Beyond The Edge in half. Owner Matt Charette watched workers chip it away, one log at a time. He says there’s serious damage across all his establishments, but it’s too soon to put a number on it. As his staff cooked food for hungry volunteers that would have otherwise spoiled, Charette wiped his tears. “You know,” he said. “We’re East Nashville.”
Others weren’t so lucky. An entire block of hot spots, which includes Burger Up-East, The Basement East, and High Garden Tea on Woodland Street, was barely recognizable. Joel Larabel, High Garden Tea co-owner, joined friends in salvaging what little was left, shaking his head. “There’s just nothing to say.”
Across the river in the hard-hit Germantown neighborhood, Church of the Assumption’s now-leaning steeple peered upon more destruction. Some restaurants, like Geist and Jack Brown’s Beer and Burgers, sustained serious damage and might not reopen (though Geist just announced plans to). Germantown Cafe chef and owner Jeff Martin is just glad his staff is okay. “It’s just a restaurant, right? At least no one was hurt,” he said. Open since 2003, the cafe’s structure seemed intact, but its interior will have to be gutted after the sprinkler main flooded the space.“It’s a setback, but it’s a setback we can overcome,” said Martin. “Us Nashville folk … we all stick together.”
McCormack plans to reopen as early as this Thursday. Graham has similar plans. But when others will bounce back remains to be seen. “The whole circle was affected,” Graham said. “It just trickles down to everybody.”
As thousands of Nashville residents were displaced by the tornado, the Nashville Farmers Market opened as a temporary shelter, right before also suffering extensive damage to its main shed. The Nashville Food Project (NFP) also pitched in, serving 500 fresh-made meals on the first day of recovery alone.
“Whenever a natural disaster hits, there is an immediate, acute need for those who’ve been displaced,” said executive director Tallu Schuyler Quinn. “But, to me, it always highlights the inequity that already exists. How so many neighborhoods are already under-resourced. Recovery efforts are typically slower in low-income neighborhoods.”
As a resourced non-profit agency, NFP is partnering with Nashville’s Metro Office of Emergency Services to identify hubs of first responders and displaced residents whose families may be in need access to prepared meals.
While her restaurant group wasn’t directly affected, Jennifer Sheets, partner of Frothy Monkey, said that their soon-to-open East Nashville location is postponed indefinitely. Their commercial bakery, which supplies a long list of Middle Tennessee restaurants, now has a surplus of bread they can’t sell because of the closures.
“The flip side of that is there are plenty of people who now need help with food and the surplus will be used one way or another,” she said. Still getting updates from staff and from around the city, she learned of other industry friends who lost houses, cars, trees, buildings, and employees.
Even as first responders were still making house checks, community leader Jessica Doyle started the “37206 Service Industry Relief” GoFundMe account to assist restaurant, bar, and retail industry professionals facing financial uncertainty. The account has already exceeded its $10,000 goal. Similar efforts are popping up to assist High Garden Tea, Germantown Cafe, and many others.
BJ Lofback, chef/owner of the popular food truck Funk Seoul Brother, is partnering with World Central Kitchen to help food trucks mobilize to help feed areas in need. “The spirit of giving is beautiful,” he said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint, and there will be many opportunities to help in the coming days.”
“There’s the silver lining that we live in a great spot and know these great people,” said McCormack. “Even if you’re down, somebody’s going to come along and boost you up a little bit to enable you to start another day.”