November 13, 2012
N.J. kosher cheese company bidding for recovery after Sandy
A flooded warehouse, decomposed wall beams, sodden sheetrock, crumbling brick walls, a fried electrical system and about $2 million worth of rotten cheese waiting to be chucked: That’s only a glimpse of the woes facing Brigitte Mizrahi.
Mizrahi owns Anderson International Foods, a small kosher cheese company she founded in 1995, and her warehouse is located in an industrial area of Jersey City about a mile from the Hudson River waterfront. Although the facility isn't in the designated flood zone, it was under four feet of water soon after superstorm Sandy blew through town two weeks ago.
“The only reason why I look calm is because I’ve already had time to decompress,” said the petite native of France while standing outside what was once her office.
“It was such a beautiful building. The roof over here blew off, it’s pretty much gone, and all that used to be brick,” she adds, pointing to a wall with a mound of brick rubble piled high.
More than two weeks after the worst storm to hit the northeastern United States in memory, life has returned to normal for most of the millions of residents in the storm's path. Still, thousands remain without power. And for those with homes and businesses that took the brunt of Sandy's beating, the cleanup and restoration work is just beginning.
Inside the AIF warehouse, a team of workers from a recovery company is working on repairs. Three men in masks are power washing the floors with bleach and sanitation solution to get rid of the dirty residue from the floodwater, attempting to restore the facility to the pristine cleanliness required of a commercial dairy.
Out front, a Dumpster teems with removed sheetrock and beams. The walls must be completely redone, ensuring that employees won't become sick from inhaling mold or mildew. A pile of computers, printers, fax machines, desks, chairs and wires is stacked to the left, boxes of the company’s paperwork are stacked to the right. Two forklifts with blown electrical systems droop in the corner waiting to be trashed.
“This is organized!” says project manager Yehuda Maimon. “You should have seen it after the storm. Pitch black, everything everywhere; it was terrifying. No one thought it was going to be this bad.”
Still, those piles at the front look minimal compared to the boxes of wasted cheese that stretch across and down the rest of the warehouse.
AIF sells cheese under three labels: Natural and Kosher, les Petites Fermieres and Organic Kosher. The company takes shipments from producers in California, Wisconsin and Israel, and distributes to stores across the United States as well as Mexico, Australia and Canada. But lacking power for two weeks, the company has been forced to write off an entire batch of inventory.
“The cheese must be stored at a temperature of 33 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit to be edible," says Omer Wienrib, AIF’s vice president of operations. "Once we lost electricity, there was no chance to save any of it.”
Standing inside an industrial-size refrigerator packed with some 100,000 boxes of cheese, Weinrib places his hand on a combo pack of fancy cheeses that should be on its way to Costco stores in Mexico. Some of the product is still cold, even though the air has the familiar stench of sweaty feet.
“Even though it’s cold out, it’s too much of a risk to be selling the cheese,” he says. “This is what people eat. We can’t mess with that.”
The cost of AIF’s devastation is significant. Mizrachi estimates the loss of her inventory alone could be as much as $2 million, with the building repairs nearly twice that figure.
Still, AIF presses on: It has received a new shipment of cheese, using several generators to power the refrigerated rooms, and their 20 employees are working full time on regular salary.
“We barely missed any days,” Maimon said. “We have a makeshift office in Brigitte’s apartment living room and we are getting right back on our feet.”
“Of course, we have some coffee, tea and candy,” Mizrahi adds. “Some nice Jewish hospitality to get through all this.”
For AIF, the storm could hardly have come at a worse time.
Kosherfest, the world’s largest kosher food trade show and perhaps AIF's most important marketing event of the year, is being held Tuesday and Wednesday in New Jersey. The members of Mizrahi’s team have been working around the clock to ensure that they have everything under control and promise their table will impress.
Meanwhile, the company is dealing with insurance assessors and hoping that government relief assistance will help cover the costs of rebuilding. For now, though, the price of rebuilding is being paid from company coffers.
“We don’t really know exactly what we will get back because you never know with insurance,” Weinrib said. “But if we have to, we’ll pay for repairs and move on. This can be a fresh beginning for all of us hit by this hurricane.”