In the wee hours of March 12, 2022, an electrical fire broke out in the basement of the Red Hook Tavern — a cozy restaurant and bar on Van Brunt Street. Smoke rose up through the restaurant on the ground floor and into the apartments above, where a tenant called 911.
Firefighters quickly got the fire under control, but the aftermath was gruesome.
The basement was gutted — electrical panels were destroyed, as were the walk-in refrigerators and other equipment. The restaurant itself was mostly spared, but it couldn’t operate without electricity and food storage.
The Tavern would have to close indefinitely — at least for a few weeks.
Closing down, and finding help
“It took us two months in total to get back up and running, which we’re very grateful for, because it could have been longer,” said Dori Ann Scagnelli, Director of Operations at Red Hook Tavern. “We’re still coming out of the pandemic, we’re still coming out of all this stuff … thankfully, it was very, very fast.”
That was still two months without pay and tips for their staff, and when the Tavern first closed, it was unclear how long the repairs would take. Within a day, a GoFundMe was created to help support workers.
After that, the restaurant’s owner, Billy Durney, got in touch with his friend Chris Shepherd, the co-founder of the Southern Smoke Foundation.
“This is what we’re here for, this is why we do what we do, is to help people in the industry in a time of crisis,” Shepherd said. “When their restaurant catches fire and they don’t have a job, that’s a crisis.”
They moved quickly to get in touch with Dori Ann and the entire staff, said Catarina Bill, director of philanthropy at Southern Smoke, planning for at least a six-week closure.
“On average, what we were trying to do the most quickly was assist with loss of wages, so everyone could have that portion covered,” Bill said. “The way that we work it, we want to make sure that monthly expenses can be met.”
Among the employees they met with was Diana Pearl, the Tavern’s bartender, who had been working at the restaurant since it opened in 2019. Pearl lives just a few minutes from the Tavern, and a neighbor texted her about the fire on the morning it happened.
“I didn’t pay that much attention, but then the next text was ‘You might not have a job,’” Pearl recalled. “So that got me interested.”
She jumped up and walked over to the restaurant, where she saw Durney arriving with another manager, Mitchell Rosen. Pearl joined them as they scoped out the damage in the basement.
“The magnitude of the heat was shocking, that it had such destructive force down there,” she said. “Everything was just melted. But we also saw that the restaurant upstairs was pretty untouched, besides a lot of nasty smoke.”
The closure stretched on, past where she and her colleagues could keep paying rent and bills. Derny reached out to tell Pearl and the staff that the team at Southern Smoke would be in touch.
Southern Smoke handles each case individually, and every person gets a different amount of monetary assistance based on their situation, Bill explained. A single parent with more financial responsibilities might get more funding than someone in a dual-income household.
“They started asking for expenses and what we were looking for that they could help with so that we could maintain our lifestyle while the place was being rebuilt,” Pearl said.
She needed some help with her mortgage and utilities, and her colleagues figured out what they most needed help with.
Southern Smoke also figured out which staff members were eligible for emergency unemployment or other programs. About ten people got funding directly from Southern Smoke, and the rest were supported by the online fundraiser.
“The community was incredibly, incredibly supportive for us,” Scagnelli said. “Whoever didn’t qualify for Southern Smoke, we were able to fill in. There was no one that went without being paid and taken care of.”
When Red Hook Tavern reopened two months after the fire, every single staff member came back.
“The great thing about the Southern Smoke money was that it kept our team together,” Pearl said. “Because people who don’t have some savings, or have higher living expenses than I do might have had to go look for other work, and they might have left us.”
Receiving aid through Southern Smoke is “completely anonymous,” Bill said, which can be helpful in an industry where people have a lot of pride, and don’t like to ask for help. Many people don’t even know help is out there, Shepherd added, even though the restaurant industry is so challenging.
“The margins in restaurants are so thin, and there’s just not structures set up for restaurants to be able to say ‘Hey, I’m going to give everybody insurance, and if we have a fire, I’ll just be able to pay everybody,’” he said. “It doesn’t work like that.”
The Red Hook Tavern’s grand re-re-re-opening
“Of course, when we saw each other again, it was amazing, it was great that we were all there,” Pearl said of the restaurant’s reopening last spring. “But it felt like the third damn time we opened that place.”
The Red Hook Tavern opened in July 2019 and closed, like everything else, in the spring of 2020. After months of takeout and limited service, things had finally started to level out in 2022, until the fire broke out.
March, historically, has not been a great month for the eatery.
“I don’t know if we’ve made it to a St. Patty’s Day,” Pearl said. “It’s funny because [Durney] is obviously an Irish guy, it’s like his favorite holiday. And I feel like every St. Patrick’s Day it’s one thing or another.”
Just past the anniversary of the fire and four days out from St. Patrick’s Day, things are looking up for the Tavern. As Southern Smoke continues to raise awareness of their services and help people out, Pearl said she would love to return the favor.
“It’s an important job,” she said. “Through COVID, we realized how many people depend on people who are in jobs where they have no safety net. Southern Smoke was amazing, and hopefully, at some point, we can give back. I would be happy to be involved.”