By John Burton
SEA BRIGHT – After the pummeling that Super Storm Sandy inflicted on his restaurant, Anjelica’s – and the entire borough – Ray Lena put up a sign on his building that read: “No Retreat, No Surrender.”
The saying, borrowed from Bruce Springsteen’s song “No Surrender,” was sometimes tough to follow.
“Putting up the sign was easier than what we would have to do,” Lena said. “Sometimes I thought I would surrender.”
But, more than half a year after the storm, Lena, and his daughter, Anjelica, are moving toward overhauling the storm-savaged Ocean Avenue building that housed his restaurant and is vowing to reopen.
“It’s a disaster,” Lena said, as he surveyed the location while contractors continue to work, gutting 1077 Ocean Ave. and installing all new equipment, and plumbing and electrical work. He has hopes of reopening by the end of June.
“It is a daunting process,” Lena said with a heavy sigh over the loud drone of a generator and equipment.
The building, which Lena owns, was flooded with more than 5 ½ feet of water from tidal surges that wreaked havoc with much of the coastal area, especially Sea Bright.
Large industrial refrigerators were swept up in the surge and washed to the back of the building, about 100 feet away, and were “floating like corks,” Lena said.
When Anjelica Lena saw the damage, she didn’t cry, because she couldn’t. “I was in shock.
“I had the biggest pit in my stomach,” she said. She wondered what to do next.
The restaurant has been – and continues to be – a big part of Angelica Lena’s life. “I grew up here,” said the 27-year-old of the 17-year-old restaurant.
She has been running the operation for some time, Ray said.
The Lenas have to replace everything in the restaurant and, basically, start from scratch. They expect to even replace the building’s façade because it bowed from the water. Ray Lena estimates that the refurbishing and reequipping of the building will cost “in the hundreds of thousands … (the) high hundreds of thousands.”
They are still waiting for insurance money – though thankfully they had flood insurance – and have been relying on loans to move forward with the work, Lena said.
They acknowledged having considered moving to another location.
“We looked at other options,” Anjelica Lena said. But “I just felt like Sea Bright was home.”
“We didn’t want the place to fade away,” Ray Lena said, operating on the theory that businesses are very much susceptible to out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentalities.
“In the end it came down to owning the building,” he noted as the tipping point for continuing the operation in Sea Bright.
Plus – they stressed – they are also staying because of their customers, who have remained fiercely loyal even during these difficult times, and for whom the Lenas and their staff have deep affection.
“We’re very close to our customers,” Ray Lena said, “and you feel a certain obligation.”
“We know most of them by name,” Anjelica Lena noted.
That is also true of their staff, they said. Many of the approximately 20 employees have worked for them for years, some since the restaurant first opened.
Ray also operates the restaurant at the Elberon Bathing Club, a members-only and members-owned beach club, on Ocean Avenue in Long Branch, which took a hit with the storm, as well. He’s in the process of getting it back up and running.
The restaurant business for Ray Lena is his second career, having previously worked as a sportswriter.
For Anjelica Lena, the restaurant is her career, her passion.
“I think it’s a demanding job. Your social life suffers and it can get chaotic,” she said. “But, it’s all worth it – especially if you own it.”
Now that the restaurant will be opening this summer, “We’re very eager and excited,” she said.
While she didn’t cry when she saw the place after Sandy, Anjelica Lena said she will “probably cry when I see everybody” when Anjelica’s reopens for business.