Hurricane Irma

Fifth Avenue South Coming Back to Life

After getting hit hard by Irma, the Naples hot spot is slowly recovering.

BY September 20, 2017


Naples' iconic Fifth Avenue South on Tuesday looked a little bit like the shadows playing on the sidewalk in the afternoon sunlight: patches of light and dark.

Much of the south side had had its power restored last week; much of the north side remained in a blackout.

The operational businesses had propped doors open to lure in customers or hung signs out front like the one at Cafe & Bar Lurcat, “We have ice for cocktails!!!”

Patty and Jerry Tedesco enjoy lunch at Vergina restaurant.

Yet even on the side where electricity flowed, openings were hit or miss: Caffé Milano: open; Starbucks: closed; Provident Jewelers: open; Hob Nob: closed; Oh My Gauze: open; and so on.

There are piles of debris pushed onto side streets—mostly downed tree limbs—but the avenue itself looks largely untouched, Naples’ gem polished as quickly as possible in order to resume business as quickly as possible.

Which it did.

“Our mantra was to try to get up and running as fast as we could,” says Jason “JD” Diaz, a manager at Bar Tulia. Management there wanted the place to be a respite from the post-hurricane mess—the tainted water, absent power, malfunctioning sewage pumps—for staff and guests alike. They served some 600 people over the weekend.

“Everybody just has a lot of charisma in here,” Diaz says. “We’re just happy to be back open, and we’re trying to return to normal life.”

At neighboring Vergina, customers applauded the staff at last week’s opening—the first restaurant on the avenue to resume operations, says manager Augusto Morenco.

When you’re living in the dark on a curfew, the typically little pleasure of a hot meal and good service takes on a whole new magnitude.

Erin Rooney, manager of Oh My Gauze, had opened the women’s boutique just as soon as the boarding came off the windows and the power came back on. Some nearby streets had “looked like combat zones” immediately after the storm. She’s excited to see Fifth Avenue largely spared and quickly cleared. “I’m quite optimistic,” she says. “I predict you won’t even see an effect here in two weeks.”

Luca Rannisi, the general manager of Caffé Milano, voiced similar optimism. His regular customers, like a trio perched at the bar, were back, and he is postulating that season will start early this year, with homeowners eager to check their winter residences.

Carolyn and Barney Auton of Marco Island and Susie Sandstrom of Naples spend an afternoon at Caffe Milano, where they joke around with general manager Luca Rannisi.

“We’re hoping to make up for the loss,” he says.

On the opposite side of Fifth Avenue, restaurants are retailers started turning on the lights for the first time Tuesday. By Wednesday, kitchens were cranking.

“Our employees are doing incredible. They are all rallying and trying to get restaurants open as fast as possible,” says Jennifer Chin, the director of operations for Culinary Concepts, the local company behind Fifth Avenue mainstays Chops City Grill, Yabba Island Grill and Pazzo! Italian Cafe.

Those restaurants have been closed since Friday, Sept. 8—an eternity in an industry where employees can’t work unless there are power and patrons.

“We hope that Naples rallies and everyone joins together and comes out and supports the local restaurants,” Chin says. “We know everyone is suffering. We know everyone is traumatized, but we’re looking at our employees. They need to get back to work right now. We need Naples to come out to eat againI’m talking about all the small restaurants.”

Yabba and Pazzo! will open tomorrow, Thursday, followed by Chops City on Friday. Phone lines are down, but reservations can be made online.

Make no mistake; in spite of the welcoming smiles flashed along the avenue, resuming business has been a challenge. Staff members have yet to return to work; those who are working go home to power outages, property damage and sewage; financial losses in the form of lost revenue and lost food will add up to tens of thousands of dollars at some businesses.

Nevertheless, Rannisi at Caffé Milano says, “I’m very proud of this city. I saw so many good things—the recovery and the solidarity of people.”

An Italian, he ends his conversation with this, “I’m not an American but I’m proud to be in America.”


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