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Restaurants

An Iconic Houston Restaurant Continues to Work Toward Reopening After Harvey

Inside Reef’s Insurance Saga — and Gulf Coast Commitment

BY // 01.12.18

It’s an understatement to say that Hurricane Harvey served up a massive amount of damage to Houston’s metropolitan area — and a record $125 billion in damage overall. That damage permeates every aspect of Houston’s culture, including the city’s diverse restaurant scene.

Proving that no industry is immune to a “1,000 year flood”, restaurants like Holley’s Seafood Restaurant, Peska Seafood & Steaks, and Liberty Kitchen Garden Oaks all permanently shut down, citing Harvey’s blow as the catalyst. For pioneering Houston seafood restaurant Reef, owned and operated by Bryan and Jennifer Caswell, the destruction caused by Harvey has cost an estimated $300,000 worth of damage.

“We took in water”, says Jennifer Caswell, who owns and operates Reef with her husband, well-known chef Bryan Caswell.

Reef flooded from above, with water coming through the window seals, doors, and even through the lights. “As it came in through the ceiling and the roof, it would go through the walls. It started to look like the walls got a disease because the bubbles of water would form growing hourly, and would then explode and water went everywhere” Jennifer Caswell says.

At one point, Reef’s dining room had four to five inches high of water in it.

Thankfully the water didn’t come into areas where food preparation was handled, allowing the restaurant to serve anywhere from 16,000 to 20,000 meals a day. Jennifer Caswell says that the booth she was sitting in to oversee the meals given to first responders and community members started to take on mold, giving her an allergic reaction.

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“It was miserable”, she says. Afterwards, two feet of dry wall had to be taken out and all the carpet had to be ripped away.

The molding on Reef’s floor has to be redone along with the seal in the kitchen, and chairs and table bases were rusted through from the humidity. The humidity from the storm was so bad it tore right through wood. Since Reef was already planning on undergoing a renovation in 2018, Harvey speeded up the process. Not even table four, where Oprah famously dined in 2014, was spared.

A Hurricane’s Aftermath

After weathering Harvey, Reef then had to start the long and arduous process of dealing with insurance claims. The Caswells smartly up their coverage after noticing the water in the Gulf had gotten much warmer. Since the Caswells have always been close to the water (Bryan Caswell is an avid fisherman), they always have a good read, and knew that it was only a matter of time before a major storm hit the Gulf Coast.

“Every year we said this is the year it’s going to happen and this just happened to be the one,” Jennifer Caswell says. The Caswells decided to add on loss of business to their insurance plan, as well as employee coverage, which would allow them to pay employees for 60 days.

Jennifer Caswell tells PaperCity the problem with that plan is that the 60 days starts on the day of the storm, and only if the business is shut down due to storm damage, not if employees can’t make it to the restaurant due to being flooded in, which some of their employees were for up to two weeks.

Jennifer Caswell says the insurance drama didn’t stop there, every day would bring a promise of a check in the mail from their agent, and soon it would be three weeks without one appearing.

“You feel like the world’s biggest asshole because this is our work family,” Jennifer Caswell says. “It’s hard to look them in the eye and tell them they won’t be able to take their wife out to dinner for an anniversary because the insurance company hasn’t taken the time to put the check in the mail.”

The Caswells eventually resorted to paying employees out of their own pocket, to fill in the gaps between insurance payouts.

This restaurant couple originally planned on reopening Reef in December. But due to insurance delays and difficulty finding crews to rebuild due to the massive number of businesses needing repairs, they are now hoping to open up Reef’s doors again in late January if things go as planned.

Jennifer Caswell notes that the reopening will be tethered to their non-profit the Southern Salt Foundation which is dedicated to holistic preservation of Gulf Coast habitat through education, exploration and conservation.

“We raised over $100,000 to go back into efforts to repair the Gulf Coast,” Jennifer Caswell says.

The Caswells plan to hold a benefit their first night back open in which every last dime will go into their nonprofit. Jennifer Caswell says that with people expressing concern over other charities and not knowing where the money is going, they will be meticulous in getting every last dime they raise to the efforts to rebuild the Gulf Coast.

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