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Open for Business

How do the owners and employees of a small restaurant in Brooklyn respond to a world-changing tragedy just a few miles away? Not by fleeing or closing, but by staying open for business and serving the needs of the neighborhood.

Like most major streets within a few miles of the World Trade Center, Brooklyn’s Smith Street served as a conduit for people trying to flee as the towers collapsed. Before the neighborhood was engulfed in a cloud of dust, before paper from offices in the World Trade Center began blowing over New York Harbor and settling on the pavement, before thousands fled over the Brooklyn Bridge, parents were the first to take to the streets. The neighborhood is filled with schools, and as the enormity of the tragedy became clear, people raced one way up Smith to retrieve their children and back again to take them home.

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In that crowd was Saul Bolton, who ran to the local elementary school to pick up his son, Miles. Unlike many parents, Bolton not only lives but works in the area. He and his wife, Lisa, own Restaurant Saul, a restaurant on Smith Street, and Boerum Hill Food Co., a bustling café a few doors down that’s typically open at least 12 hours each day. As he walked back down Smith, away from the school and past his restaurants, Saul was faced with the same decision we all faced last week: Should I simply go on working?

At first, he was inclined to shut his doors. “He thought we should just close down,” Lisa says. “I think he just wanted to get out of the city.” At that moment, all Saul could think about was his children. “I was torn,” he admits. “I felt as if I should be with my kids at a frightening time like that. Do you have a responsibility to your family at that point or to your customers and your community?”

As ash rained down on Smith Street, the Boltons struggled to answer those questions. But they quickly realized that as business owners, they had a responsibility not just to their own family but to their employees’ families as well. Both Boltons admit that when they opened their restaurants, their obligation to provide their staff with livelihoods wasn’t the first thing they considered. But on Tuesday, it seemed important since many restaurant workers live paycheck to paycheck. “We couldn’t just close for a week,” Lisa says. “People were still going to need to pay their rent.”

Fallout Shelter

Then the crowds descended. They came in such numbers, so quickly, that no one at the restaurant had time to wonder why until later. “I think people didn’t want to be holed up in their apartments all day, especially in New York where apartments are all so small,” Saul says. “What better place to run into members of the community, to sit with your friends, or just to sit and stare into space than at a neighborhood café? It just felt like a very neutral space.”

Lorena Asidao Spence, who works at the counter at Boerum Hill Food Co., stayed until the late afternoon on Tuesday. “I could see people breaking down crying in the street,” says Spence. “This is New York. People are supposed to be too tough to be engulfed by that kind of fear and agony.” But for all the sadness, Spence also recognized that for the regulars, it felt good to see that some part of their routine had not been horribly disrupted. “It’s a way to feel as if part of your life is under control even when everything else is out of control,” she says. “Even if it’s just a large latte. Or being able to come here to talk, as the teachers in the neighborhood do. And a lot of the regulars did come.”

Though many people felt uncomfortable about returning to work later in the week, Saul didn’t feel that there was anything unseemly about conducting commerce in the midst of a national tragedy. “It’s not as if we were jacking up the price of gasoline or sitting behind bullet-proof glass taking away everyone’s money for rations. People want to hang around and eat somewhere. This is a normal business where people want the product.”

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In retrospect, Saul wonders whether he should have discounted the food or given it away to the teachers, but he participates in plenty of charity events and doesn’t feel badly about having earned money this past week. “Did I feel righteous about being open? No,” he says. “I’m not making big money, and I’m tired as hell. People are thanking me for being open, and I get satisfaction from that. But what you do for a living is what you do. You should think about the tragedy and document it in whatever way makes you comfortable. But should we all just stand back and not work? To me, that’s ridiculous.”

Saul doesn’t see the decision to stay open as a political act. He does note that Starbucks chose to close all its coffee shops nationwide on Tuesday and to keep most of them in New York and Washington, DC closed Wednesday, and wonders if the company saw things differently. Certainly, his cook at the Boerum Hill Food Co. does. “The terrorists want us to stay home and do nothing,” says Galit Rasad, who served in the Israeli army’s parachute corps. “To close down is wrong. If life stops because of the terror, they are satisfied. If you stop life, you let them win.”

By Wednesday, as the Boerum Hill Food Co. was doing land-office business, the Boltons and their employees also realized that hard work was a form of therapy. “People feel better if they keep moving,” Saul says. “At one point, Lorena said that she hadn’t thought about the attacks in more than two hours. We were so busy just picking up orders, trying to remember whether the coffee was iced or hot, soy or skim. She was happy that she didn’t have to think about it for a little while.”

Unbroken Chain

Saul didn’t have the luxury to lose himself in those details for long. Both restaurants were running out of food, and Saul realized that deliveries might not begin again for days. It’s easy to forget what a global industry the restaurant business has become once you have a chain of suppliers delivering regularly. But when your lettuce comes from California and your fish from France and New Zealand, any disruption in the transportation infrastructure causes complete chaos.

By Wednesday morning, Saul had no dairy, no meat, and no vegetables. Bridges and tunnels all over the region were closed. So he took off for Jetro, a large wholesale operation in Brooklyn that’s closed to the public, to check out sections of the warehouse he had never seen before. “I’d only used Jetro for dry goods,” he says. “But it turned out that they had great meats. I bought three days’ worth of lettuce, everything they had. They had oxtails for my oxtail terrine from the same supplier that my upscale meat-delivery guy uses. They even had arctic char. Who knows how they got it, but it was beautiful fish.”

By Thursday, many of his purveyors were delivering again. By that evening, Restaurant Saul was subbing rib eye for hangar steak and swapping butter cookies for the gingersnaps that accompany the lemon creme. Everything else, however, was available just as described on the menu. He even had a few specials. “New York is a massive machine that does not stop,” Saul says. “All of these people running these little subcultures of commerce were all out scheming to figure out how to start up again, looking at all the different means of transportation to circumvent the obstacles. These people do not stop.”

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Comfort Food

It was a good thing too, because customers weren’t ordering the way they normally do. “First, it was the people who had walked over the bridge on Tuesday,” Lisa says. “They were very thirsty. We sold out of bottled water, and then we sold a lot of lemonade.” At dinner, Saul had to make a second batch of mashed potatoes — which he’d never had to do before, particularly when the temperature was in the 70s. Later, Boerum Hill Food Co. ran out of hamburgers. The barbecued ribs were huge sellers, as was the spaghetti with meat sauce.

The next morning, the odd ordering patterns continued. “Normally, people will come in and have toast or a muffin or a croissant. Maybe one-third of them will have eggs,” Lisa says. “Wednesday morning, it was all pancakes. I walked in, and everyone had them.” One of the local schools called to open a tab on its credit card, so teachers could come over and eat for free at lunch. Later in the day, someone called to send a couple of dozen sandwiches over to the firehouse around the corner. There, the firemen stood outside staring at one of their emergency vehicles. It was caked with dust, dented, and all of its windows were shattered.

Saul’s more upscale venue, Restaurant Saul, is normally closed on Tuesdays. The Boltons weren’t sure what to expect on Wednesday since the entrée prices make it a special-occasion destination for many neighborhood residents. Still, they served 29 tables that evening, not bad for a Wednesday. Many customers couldn’t finish their food; one family had its meals wrapped after their teenage daughter kept bursting into tears. Two tables over, however, a party of four ordered appetizers, entrées, and desserts, and wiped their plates clean. The group included one man who worked at the World Trade Center but hadn’t gone in Tuesday morning.

Will people ever feel normal about eating out in New York again? Boerum Hill Food Co. seems to be just the sort of neighborhood refuge that people seek out in times of crisis. With Restaurant Saul, it’s tougher to tell. The restaurant’s revenues were already down 30% in the year before the terrorist attacks. The Boltons are lucky in certain respects, though. Saul says that they have an “old economy” rent on the space, and because he and Lisa are the sole owners, they don’t have investors breathing down their necks.

By Thursday, people in the restaurant were at least trying to pretend things were normal. Couples were out on dates. People laughed loudly and joked with the waiters. Meanwhile, Saul worked quietly back in the kitchen, cooking up pasta for 200 to send across the Brooklyn Bridge to feed the rescue workers.

Ron Lieber (rlieber@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor.

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