shelter from the storm

The convenience store industry was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, and many retailers are still recovering from the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Hurricane Katrina caused nearly $1 million in damages to a dozen Danny & Clyde’s convenience stores owned by Donna Cyprowski and Chris Rittiner, who took the chain’s reins from their fathers.

Amid the churches and crawfish markets of downtown Slidell, La., where a once-burgeoning commercial landscape continues to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, is a lasting reminder of the Aug. 29, 2005, storm that splintered this town of 26,000.

Reflected in giant puddles that still dot the town’s main street is a dry cleaners, where, scrawled atop its entrance about eight feet above the muddied pavement, are the words "H20 line"—a haunting monument to the most destructive and costliest natural disaster in U.S. history and the deadliest hurricane— with a confirmed death toll over 1,600—since 1928.

Now more than nine months later, Slidell and, 30 miles away, New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish—not to mention the Gulf coasts of Alabama and Mississippi—is still in recovery mode.

Some convenience store operators now face challenges ranging from lingering water damages to a lack of employees, while fortunate others were spared Katrina’s wrath and are simply trying to move on.

Scattered about Slidell, part of St. Tammany Parish, are 10 Shell gas stations owned by B&K Management LLC, a family-owned company that’s held properties there for 60 years. The company’s oil jobbership, Slidell Oil, leases the stations to individual operators throughout town.

Each store shows little evidence of Aug. 29, when the eye of Hurricane Katrina literally passed right over Slidell, stripping canopies, knocking down fuel pumps and, in one particular store, flooding stores with water up to the cash register.

"Our damage was pretty minimal compared to others that I saw," said Slidell Oil partner Keith Baker, who along with his brother, Brian, is a third-generation jobber. "The thing about Slidell is the community stepped up and just started fixing things. You can see damage was done, but you also see a whole lot of things open."

By Sept. 5, less than a week after Katrina ravaged their town, the Bakers reopened a half-dozen stores. Business was jammed. Of the first eight stores to reopen in Slidell, seven were the Bakers’ Shell stations; the other was Wal-Mart.

Across Lake Pontchartrain, which separates Slidell from New Orleans, Danny & Clyde’s—a 33-year-old chain of convenience stores—had problems of its own. The unit outside its headquarters in nearby Gretna, La., was leveled, mauled by a tornado that left nothing but a couple pumps and a skeleton of a canopy. The company’s corporate offices, on the third floor of the nextdoor Regions Bank building, were unscathed.

Prior to Katrina, Danny & Clyde’s operated 14 locations; they now operate 10, selling two since the storm and working to rebuild another two, including the main store on Belle Chasse Highway. The chain reopened several stores on Sept. 7, others a week or two later and one, because of flood damage, had to wait until Nov. 7.

The company’s second-generation owners, Chris Rittiner and Donna Cyprowski, consider themselves fortunate, with no major flooding and $875,000 in damages covered by their insurance company.

"We just feel blessed for being spared," said Cyprowski, the company’s vice president.

Caught Off-Guard
As the Danny & Clyde’s main office closed for business on Friday, Aug. 26, 2005, news and weather reports forecasted the storm would miss New Orleans and pick on somewhere else as a target. When word hit that Katrina would touch down on the Crescent City, Rittiner and Cyprowski made attempts to board up their stores, but traffic from fleeing residents prevented them from reaching more than two.

That Saturday, main office computers were shut down. Danny & Clyde’s stores, many of which are 24-hour operations, stayed open as long as possible to sell fuel and food to evacuees.

"We got caught a little bit off-guard because we thought it was headin in a different direction," Cyprowski said. "So we really didn’t get to do the things we normally would do in a time like this."

By Sunday, Cyprowski and Rittiner evacuated their hometown; both families set off for Destin, Fla.—a five-hour drive that took 16. Cyprowski’s husband stayed in New Orleans, where he works on a Mississippi River tugboat. She wouldn’t return for five weeks, staying with her in-laws in Tampa, Fla., so her 7-year-old daughter could attend school. Nothing was open in New Orleans.

Across the lake, Keith Baker evacuated to Rolling Fort, Miss., with his pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter. His home was flooded by 18 inches of water, his brother’s by three and his father Bill’s by four.

Baker returned to Slidell the next day, chartering a small Cessna to fly over his town—"You heard the stuff on the news, and you didn’t hear anything about Slidell, but the western eye-wall passed directly over us," he said.

Immediate Impact

The most damaged of Slidell Oil’s stores, on Old Spanish Trail, was flooded with five feet of water, which made its way above the counter, knocking down candy displays and anything else in its path. Remarkably, another unit, on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, flooded with just eight inches of water – "I expected that one to be gone," Baker said.

"This whole area was decimated," Baker said of Old Spanish Trail, a quasi-suburban strip of convenience stores, shopping centers and fast food joints. "The good thing is, you can’t really look at it and tell anymore."

The Old Spanish Trail store is open for business, although restoration was just completed a month ago, with the addition of new fuel pumps and a new canopy. Across the street, an Exxon station remains boarded up, roofless. A nearby Wendy’s has yet to reopen as well, perhaps still recovering from the five feet of water that flowed through just a few months back. "The crazy thing is, the Tuesday after the storm, there wasn’t water in this street or anything," Baker said. "It just got sucked back out." Driving through Slidell in the days after Katrina, Baker said he saw things that made him check twice. A car dealership whose vehicles were pushed up and piled in a corner. A sailboat suspended in the air, stuck between two houses. Homes floated off foundations. "After the storm, I had to crawl over or under 50 pine trees to get to my house," he said. "You’d go down a road, and it was sort of like driving through a tunnel because the debris would be stacked eight to 10 feet high the whole way, on every road." For Cyprowski and Rittiner, the storm’s immediate impact stretched beyond water and wind damage. Upon returning to New Orleans, Rittiner said, looters had ransacked five Danny & Clyde’s stores, swiping anything and everything. "I understand the circumstances people were in. If they needed to break in and steal drinks and food and things to sustain themselves, that’s understandable," he said. "But, in most cases, when they came in, they just destroyed stuff. They smashed cash registers, tried to break into ATMs and sledge-hammered counters." As for naturally caused damages, th
e majority at Danny & Clyde’s was from wind and the loss of power, which, combined with water, brought mold. One store, which reopened in November, had about three inches of rainwater; the ensuing mold meant walls had to be ripped out and equipment replaced. The scene inside some stores was a nasty one, Cyprowski said. Spoiled food. Exploded milk in the walk-in coolers. Food turned green and liquefied. Flies everywhere.

"When we did come back, it was like a war zone," she said. "Armed military, a curfew; they declared martial law. Chris and the other guys had to come back with guns."

A Helping Hand
One week after Katrina, as Danny & Clyde’s began the rebuilding process, the chain’s suppliers didn’t disappoint. Cyprowski and Rittiner asked vendors to put bills on hold from the time Katrina struck until they could collect their insurance money. No one refused.

"We needed to restock the stores and we had to replace all this product, but we needed to still have them deliver all this stuff that we couldn’t pay for," Cyprowski said. "Because we’re well respected and have established credit with a good reputation, they were willing to help."

For example, Professional Datasolutions Inc. (PDI)—the chain’s software provider—didn’t charge to help restore lost server communications between stores and the main office.

Slidell Oil had a similar experience with its vendors, from Shell to Jobbers Oil Transport Co. (Jotco) to local contractors, who helped replace signage and canopies. Even the insurance companies came through expediently, Keith Baker said, helping the company recoup more than $1.5 million in damages. A laundry list of vendors pitched in, including Southeastern Canopies, Rittner Equipment and Gilbarco, which delivered gas pumps in about two weeks; it normally takes eight.

Baker shared a story of a fellow Shell operator in Baton Rouge, who one day inquired if Slidell Oil needed anything after Katrina. Baker asked for some Romex, a plastic-insulated wire used for generators. The retailer got in his car and drove 90 miles to Slidell to drop off 200 feet of Romex. He turned around and drove back.

"I saw him at a trade show recently and said, ‘I never paid you for that Romex,’" Baker recalled. "He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’"

Now Hiring
Perhaps the greatest concern among Louisiana and Gulf Coast retailers these days is the absence of people who want to work, especially when the federal government is doling out free money.

Nevertheless, many retailers report, business has been robust—a result of an increased population following the storm. Enough contractors and costtion workers have made the region their temporary home during the rebuilding efforts to offset the loss of the natives Louisianans.

At Danny & Clyde’s, where most stores before Katrina were open 24-7, operating hours were only recently extended to 10 p.m., opening at 6 a.m. Prior to April, stores closed at 6 p.m. The chain’s self-branded delis still close on Sundays.

"It’s amazing, because in most cases, even with the decrease in hours, our store sales are probably fairly consistent with the sales they were prior to the storm," Rittiner said. "I guess the lack of competition has meant sales haven’t taken much of a hit."

The cost of labor has increased significantly, however, as convenience stores jostle to compete with the fast food industry for employees. Wages that once hovered above the minimum now approach $10 an hour, plus monthly bonuses if an employee works all of their assigned shifts.

Still, Danny & Clyde’s is desperate for able-bodied help.

"It’s at the point now where if somebody comes in the store, the question from our human resources director is, ‘Are they breathing?" Cyprowski said. "Anybody that comes in at this point gets hired; there is just no choice."

The cost of labor, Cyprowski added, is a legitimate concern for the future. As more businesses reopen and sales start to decrease, where and when can the higher wages stop?

"We had to give everyone a raise when they got back, plus the bonus program," she said. "At what point can you take that bonus away?"

Managing employees post-Katrina also has become an issue, because people know they can get jobs just about anywhere. Indeed, "NOW HIRING" signs are posted throughout southern Louisiana, from gas stations to ballparks to real estate agencies.

Danny & Clyde’s retained about 60 to 70 percent of employees, mostly longtime, following Katrina. The others were predominantly high-turnover, entry-level positions.

"It’s really hard to fire employees when you can’t replace them, so you’re kind of at their mercy," Cyprowski said.

In an effort to stay open longer, Danny & Clyde’s enlisted a Baton Rouge company’s help in bringing seasonal, immigrant workers from Brazil through the federal H2B Temporary Workers Program. Rittiner and Cyprowski had asked for 10 workers, who were supposed to arrive April 1. They had yet to start as of mid-May.

"You have to be creative to try and find help," Rittiner said.

Also crucial is making accommodations for folks who need special attention, added Cyprowski, who cited one particular employee who brings her son to work in the morning, to sleep on a cot in the manager’s office, until school opens.

"We have to be sympathetic and we have to allow these people to take care of themselves personally," she said.

The Bakers, who lease their Shell stations, fortunately don’t have to deal with a lack of employees. But, Keith Baker said, the stores’ operators are struggling to compete with FEMA and independent contractors, who are hiring —and paying substantially higher wages to—local workers.

Not Just New Orleans
Television and newspaper coverage of Katrina has focused on New Orleans, but, as Baker pointed out, seldom are places like Slidell, or the small Alabama and Mississippi towns along the Gulf Coast, mentioned as being hammered by Katrina.

Consider Hurley, Miss., in the Southeast corner of the state, where 2000 U.S. Census data indicates a population of fewer than 1,000 people. Mack Hamilton is one of them. He owns a Chevron station, there, as well as another 25 miles away in Mobile, Ala. The Mississippi store, which includes a Subway and a proprietary hot food program that serves such local favorites as catfish and potato logs, was the hardest hit of the two, losing its canopy and windows as a result of the storm’s sweeping winds.

"As soon as we got power back, we started serving customers," Hamilton said. "We looked beat up, but we were open."

Even in tiny Hurley, which has only one other convenience store—across the street from Hamilton’s Chevron—workers are hard to come by. Hamilton has kept the location running 24 hours a day, but on a slim staff.

"It’s slowly starting to get a little better now," he said. "I guess people are running out of the government moneey."

Like his counterparts in Louisiana, Hamilton said, business is thriving at his stores, primarily because of an influx of people—likely contractors—buying and renting previously unoccupied homes. In addition, folks who used to live 20 miles away, by the beachfront, have moved inland, to Hurley.

"We’ve been through ‘em before; we usually shut down several hours before the storm gets here," Hamilton said. "You just tie things down the best you can, and it’s pretty much wait and see, and hope and pray. That’s all you can really do."

Beyond the Storm
Cruising down Oak Harbor Boulevard, which runs parallel to Interstate 10 in Slidell, Keith Baker softpedaled the brakes as his truck approached a large puddle. A praline shop sits seemingly unharmed on the right, Lake Pontchartrain on the le
ft. What had been fishing camps—small homes built on pilings along the lake—is now nothing but splintered wood and an open view of Pontchartrain and the twin spans that traverse it.

"I’m sort of numb to it now. It doesn’t even really bother me," Baker said. "But it kind of hits you on a personal note when you see your town ripped apart. It also makes you proud the way everybody stepped up and put it back together."

Winding through Slidell, it’s apparent the town didn’t waste time rebuilding. The community, Baker confirmed, stepped up—from churches serving meals to local contractors pitching in. Drainage remains a major concern, as storm drains are backed up, spitting random pools of water back into residential streets and making the sight of sump pumps commonplace.

"You just couldn’t get enough fuel, you couldn’t get enough employees, you couldn’t get enough stuff repaired fast enough," Baker said. "Everything just happened at 900 mph."

The same was true at Danny & Clyde’s, where uncertainty was the prevailing sentiment for Cyprowski and Rittiner—when to reopen, when the insurance money was coming and how much and, most importantly, how the areas around their stores were impacted.

"If we had a huge investment at a store and the entire community is destroyed, then that entire investment would pretty much be for nil," Rittiner said. "Luckily, that didn’t happen."

An Unknown Forecast
Looking to the future, something becomes frighteningly evident when conversation with area retailers turns to hurricanes: There’s really nothing much they can do, other than board up and run, if another storm were to strike.

Danny & Clyde’s has started to fashion a new emergency plan, citing the No. 1 obstacle last August as communication. When Katrina hit, Cyprowski and Rittiner had a list of all employees’ telephone numbers, but one of the first things to go was phone service. The company also is developing an online message board via an out-of-state hosted Web site, on which employees can communicate.

"If we get put in a bullseye again, our employees are going to hit the road three days early," Rittiner said. "And for people who wait until a day or two before the storm comes to get out of town, there may not be any services left for them to get out."

Keith and Brian Baker, meanwhile, already have employees with designated jobs in the event of a hurricane. They leave and check telephone messages at remote locations as a means of communication, which during Katrina was sporadic at best.

The brothers also have pre-assigned certain tasks to vendors if a storm were to hit. The canopy companies know to have trucks on their way, for example, and some of their contractors know they’ll be needed.

"I can tell you that I can never go through this again and remember and take lessons learned," Keith Baker said. "It’s not one of those I need to repeat."

"Somebody asked me recently what we’re going to do the next time," he added, trailing off. "Well, to be honest, I really don’t know.

Help Wanted

Editor’s Note: CSD’s Retail Relations Editor Ross Markman spent a day working at a Danny & Clyde’s convenience store in Metairie, La., observing the chain’s struggles to move on after Hurricane Katrina damaged 12 of its stores, causing nearly $1 million in damages.

After spending an afternoon shift last month, flipping, slicing and grilling behind the deli counter at a Danny & Clyde’s store in Metairie, La., one thing became clearer than plastic wrap— employers in the New Orleans are in desperate need of help.

“Great, a warm body,” store manager Ann Moore said upon shaking my hand and handing me a uniform. “Don’t worry, we’ll put you to work.”

Assistant manager Crystal Dykes reviewed my duties: The customer orders; you punch this button, then that button and the receipt prints. This means that much roast beef goes on that sandwich, and don’t forget to see if they want gravy or not. And this means what toppings he or she wants— and make sure to check if they ordered fries. Burgers sizzled in the background as I tried to digest my responsibilities. It was a lot to comprehend in three minutes, but lunch traffic was brewing and work had to be done.

For the most part, I wasn’t too much of a doofus behind the counter, although several times I miswrapped some poor, unsuspecting customer’s sandwich, after tussling with the butcher paper and a pesky roll of tape.

But Crystal was patient, thankful to have a fifth set of hands working the afternoon rush. I escaped the shift injury-free—and without hurting anyone else, fortunately—but that’s only because customers didn’t realize exactly who put the extra mayo on their fried shrimp sandwich.

So much to learn. And this was just the foodservice element of the store.

But this story really isn’t about me. It’s about the value of work, and how New Orleans and other areas struck by Hurricane Katrina have plenty of it to go around. Unfortunately, it seems, entry-level jobs like those at Danny & Clyde’s aren’t being gobbled up by the unemployed, many of whom opt to remain jobless and dependent on government assistance.

During my shift, one customer watched like a hawk that hadn’t eaten lunch in six years, as I gingerly sliced her ham and cheese sandwich. Condiments spilled out the sides. I tried using Jedi mind manipulation, telepathically saying—”You will take your lunch, smile and go.” She did.

Serviceable on the grill, I continued to be at war with the sandwich paper. Crystal again shared her method. “It’s just like wrapping a present,” she said. But I still couldn’t get it right, perhaps because my gifts are never shaped like hamburgers.

Shift by the numbers: 37 sandwiches made, 11 pairs of plastic gloves worn and torn, one ladle full of chili dropped on my shoes. Lots of “thanks for your patience.”

But this story really isn’t about me.

It’s about New Orleans, in particular convenience stores like Danny & Clyde’s and other businesses scrambling to rebuild and rebound more than nine months after Katrina. If you don’t believe me, take a trip down there. They’re hiring.

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