By Michele J. Kuhn
SEA BRIGHT – Woody’s is back.
When lunchtime began 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at 1 East Church St., it marked the reopening of Woody’s Ocean Grille after an unplanned hiatus of almost three months, courtesy of Super Storm Sandy.
Owner Chris Wood has totally refurbished the restaurant, replacing all the equipment, fixtures and furnishings after they were wrecked by several feet of seawater that swept through the building during the Oct. 29 storm.
“We are very fortunate in comparison to almost everyone else here in Sea Bright,” Wood said. “But, fortunate is a very relative term with this … Everything downstairs was impacted by saltwater. Everything in the kitchen – stoves, refrigeration, dishwasher – you name it and it was compromised by saltwater and had to be replaced. That, along with the bar equipment … Bottles were strewn everywhere because they floated.
“The only saving grace was that we did board the place up and we did sandbag the place up such that we did get 4 feet of water but we didn’t get sand. The building was not compromised structurally which was a big, big difference from everyone else … Everything from 5 feet down has been removed and rebuilt.”
The scene at the restaurant nowadays is very different from the one Wood saw at about 4:30 a.m. Oct. 30 as Super Storm Sandy was moving out of the area. “It was pitch black,” he said. “All the buildings were destroyed and it was a dangerous situation in town because of all the gas leaks. I looked at the building very, very quickly and then got the hell out of there.
“When I initially looked at the building, I thought, hey, it didn’t look that bad … Due to the saltwater intrusion, that’s when you realize all the issues. Relative to everybody else, we were in good shape,” said Wood, who initially opened Woody’s in August 2011, the day after Hurricane Irene.
While the damage from Sandy was “still massive,” Wood believes he may have had it a little easier recovering since he had just built the restaurant less than 18 months ago. “I can’t imagine what some of these (other business owners) have to do who opened 20 years ago. You are opening a business from scratch and how do you do that after having been in operation for 20 years? We were fortunate because we just did this 18 months ago. We knew what we’re doing.”
During the past two weeks the movement at Woody’s has been frenetic with multiple deliveries arriving each day to stock the restaurant with food, liquor and supplies to get ready for the opening.
Between the day of the storm and the reopening of his restaurant, Wood has been invested in the borough’s recovery. During that time he organized what became a massive food operation that at its height was feeding thousands of recovery workers and residents working to get their lives back into some kind of order.
The eight-week cooking and feeding operation came about because Wood, a self-described “A-type personality,” was going stir-crazy in the days following the storm. “I talked to some of my employees and we said, ‘Let’s do something with all these out-of-work chefs.’ And lo and behold, we cooked for 3,000 a day for eight-plus weeks.”
The effort really began to gel after a plea went out on Woody’s Facebook page. Andy Bott, the owner of Merrimakers, responded by bringing in a mobile kitchen. A call went out for tents and Party Corner brought six huge propane grills that were used for the duration. When the mobile kitchen had to be pulled back when the early November nor’easter hit, that’s when the Army National Guard came forth.
Wood called a friend in the governor’s office and asked if the state could offer any assistance with the effort. “The next thing I knew at 2:30 in the morning, some major from the Army National Guard called,” Wood said. “He said, ‘I’ve been told to see what your requirements are and get you what you need to get your relief effort going.’”
A unit from Port Murray in Warren County arrived with 20 people, a mobile kitchen, a sanitary unit, feeding tents and living quarters for unit members. “Their initial mission, from what I understand, was 72 hours … It worked so well that you had the government, the Army, working hand-in-hand with a grassroots volunteer effort,” Wood said. “It was seamless. The Army guys loved it. The volunteers loved it. It was an unbelievable, well-organized effort on everyone’s account.”
The kitchen initially fed utility workers, borough employees and people working on the cleanup of the town. Others, including law enforcement – state troopers from Mississippi, Maryland and Illinois – were also served. “We got the reputation from the rotating state troopers that the food was so good in Sea Bright that they wanted to get in on our rotation,” Wood said with a laugh.
As cleanup widened and residents were allowed back into town, they were added to the ranks of those eating at the Sea Bright tents.
Corporations donated truckloads of food, beverages, other goods and refrigerator trucks for food storage. At one point almost 4,000 meals were served in a day. So much food was donated that volunteers delivered some of it to relief efforts in other communities.
After Gov. Christie visited, a second army unit was dispatched and their stay was extended. “We’ve heard countless times that this may be used as a model for future disasters for grassroots/common citizens working with the National Guard” or other government organizations, Wood said.
The effort never lacked for volunteers and the high-level skills of many people in the Two River area were used to their fullest to make the operation run day-in and day-out.
“I’m shocked at how big it got,” Wood said. “Am I surprised? No, but I am astounded by the sheer volume of the volunteers that wanted to help and did help … I think, like me, there are so many people around here who hold such a deep spot in their heart for Sea Bright. ”
Part of that help has expanded into Sea Bright Rising, an organization formed to assist borough residents with their needs as they continue to try and recover from the devastating storm.
“Sea Bright is full of hardworking individuals that need the help,” Wood said.
The organization has been granted $150,000 from the 12.12.12 concert in Madison Square Garden and continues to seek donations for those in need. The organization’s website is seabrightrising.org.
“Our needs are still financial,” he said.
The organization is about to establish an office called the Sea Bright Solution Center in borough hall to help residents with what they need in a variety of areas, including their taxes, computers and construction advice.
Meanwhile, Wood is happy that Woody’s has reopened and is now on its usual winter schedule of lunch Wednesday through Sunday and dinner seven days a week. The website is www.woodysoceangrille.com. The telephone number is 732-936-1300.