Long Beach coffee shop supports residents after Sandy

It was the day after the storm. Long Beach looked more like the setting of a natural disaster movie than a suburban Long Island town.

“It was surreal. It was very strange. It was weird. There were military trucks out on the street, no power. It didn’t feel real,” said Patrick Luyster, one of the owners of Gentle Brew, a local coffee shop in Long Beach.

That Tuesday, the town was a shadow of its former self.

“It was quite a shock,” Luyster said. “I never thought it’d be that bad.” Luyster himself was displaced from his flooded Long Beach home and had to stay with family in Hicksville for two weeks.

Gentle Brew

Gentle Brew owners made sure to stay open when Long Beach needed them most.

The coffee shop was lucky. Before the storm, they had elevated everything, which saved most of their items and all the coffee beans. However, the flooding destroyed several refrigerators, an ice machine and other inventory items such as paper goods. But in comparison to the rest of the town, this was just mild damage.

So Gentle Brew did what it did every other day; it opened.

“It was definitely surreal opening up. The first day, it was probably one of the more harder things to do. We weren’t sure if it was the right thing to do, to open up,” Luyster said. “But we got good feedback from it. People were happy that we were open and they could get a cup of coffee at the very least.”

Bryan Banquet, another one of the store’s owners, said that it was the only thing that they could do. They needed to get the store back on its feet as soon as possible.

“I just thought it was the best thing to do. We just decided to open the doors, this is our lives too. If our business isn’t up and running, we aren’t going to be surviving either. I just thought the only hope we have of the businesses surviving is getting at it as quickly as possible and showing that the businesses aren’t going to go away,” Banquet said.

Gentle Brew had moved from Hicksville to Long Beach just a few months before, in July. Still, the newcomers in town, Banquet, Luyster, and the store’s third owner, Michael Shcherbenko, wanted to be there for the community.

“If the business aren’t here, then they can’t be here. Then there’s nothing to do. So I just thought it was the best thing to do,” Banquet said.

Despite the conditions, the owners tried to operate as close to normal as they could. The shop had drains in the floor that helped with the flooding.

In addition to the clean up, actually brewing the coffee provided a challenge. The coffee shop couldn’t use the water, so Luyster brought bottled water with him from Hicksville everyday to boil. Not having electricity to heat the water complicated matters further.

“We got little butane burners and little canisters of gas and we had a bunch of burners to put water on,” Luyster explained.

Banquet recalled the time-consuming process, “Every morning getting that water to boil took an hour and we were just constantly making coffee. It was just trying. The whole experience was memorable.”

Gentle Brew was one of the only places open that first day. Business was quiet.

“We got some stragglers, people that were walking around, but I think a lot of people stayed in their own neighborhoods the day after,” Luyster said. Those who stopped by were often surprised to find the shop open.

But as the days wore on, things began to change. People began coming by, and the store’s role evolved from just a small coffee shop to a community focal point. One customer brought a couple of blankets and clothes, and Gentle Brew realized this was a way that they could help the community.

“A light bulb went off in our heads and we decided, ‘Why don’t we just start taking donations?’ We started getting clothes, another customer brought in a thing for hanging clothes, and then we started getting volunteers folding laundry and sorting everything, sorting the blankets, the sweatshirts, jeans, pants, anything you could imagine, it was all sorted,” Luyster said. Soon the store was filled with donations.

Seeing the whole store rearranged was when everything finally hit Luyster: “It didn’t look like the store. All of a sudden, we come in and this table’s in the middle and there’s just a big row of chairs with clothes on them and then you kind of realize we might have a bigger impact than what we originally thought.”

As Long Beach’s official donation center filled up, Gentle Brew helped take in some of the overflow. Volunteers were constantly organizing the donations. “It just became a spot where people came, just to get a cup of coffee to pick out clothes and they dropped off food, the soup kitchen came and ended up bringing food for us. It just turned into a community spot,” Banquet said.

To the owners of Gentle Brew, it was just a little thing that they could do to show that they cared about the community.

“We were just here. We were just doing the same thing that we always do. It wasn’t like we went out of our way to do this, it just kind of evolved into it and we just thought it was our duty to do something,” Banquet said.

A couple of weeks went by. Luyster was able to return to his home on Long Beach.

“My whole basement flooded, I needed to change my boiler, and my hot water heater. But compared to my neighbors, I’m lucky. I know the neighbor right next to me, his house got a notice that he has to raise it and he’s unable to move back in,” Luyster said. Luyster was without heat for a month, but was just thankful to be home. “At least I had my house back.”

The progress in the rest of Long Beach was slow. Many residents were still displaced and the local businesses were struggling to get back on their feet. Although still hopeful for the future, the town became frustrated.

“Right as it happened, everyone banded together, and then there was a low when everyone realized what really happened. There was frustration because FEMA wasn’t coming through and the businesses weren’t getting up and running as quickly as everyone thought they would, and so it’s almost like a feeling of, I don’t know, just desperation,” Banquet said.

Banquet added that even now, six months after the storm, things aren’t back to normal. For Gentle Brew, a coffee shop that has a variety of customers, the effects haven’t been nearly as bad as those on the niche businesses.

“Across the street, we have a friend that has a clothing store, and he’s just suffering, because no one’s buying high quality clothing right now. So he’s going to have to wait a long time for it to regulate. We were very fortunate,” Banquet said.

As things are starting to get better, there’s a lot of pressure right now on whether or not the boardwalk will be done in time for the summer season. A loss of the summer beach-goers could be another setback for local businesses.

“Little by little the business are coming back, so it’s a little more lively here and I think if the boardwalk gets done, the summer’s going to be great. But even that’s dragging out longer and longer. So there’s just a feeling of, not hopelessness, but people are unsure. They’re thinking about moving away, but they have a dedication to Long Beach so they want to stay. So it’s just a weird moment for everyone here,” Banquet said.

But in the end, there was one light to come out of the storm: “Seeing the community come together. Everyone just becoming one thing, it was pretty amazing,” Luyster said.

Luyster added that he just wanted people to remember that they were here during the worst of it, and they have. Now, Long Beach is giving back to them.

“I think people are more loyal to us. We opened just in the summer, and then I think that people saw that we were there for the community and they’re there for us now and they keep coming back,” Luyster said.

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