Losing for Others' Gain

 
Sept. 10, 2002

E. Jay Meyers was in a deep sleep when his cell phone rang at midnight on Sept. 5.

The co-owner and president of Goodfella's Old World Brick Oven Pizza, Meyers answered and listened as an employee explained excitedly that he and his coworkers at one of the company's Staten Island, N.Y., stores wanted to construct a memorial for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the nearby World Trade Centers.

Still foggy from the unexpected reveille, Meyers paused, wondering whether to be pleased or perturbed.

"I said, 'It's midnight. Did you have to call now?' " said Meyers, whose company has seven restaurants. "I just told them, 'Great idea. Do what you want -- but let's talk about it in the morning. OK?' "

The next day, the employees were already at work building a scale model of the Manhattan skyline as viewed from Staten Island. Its centerpiece, Meyers was told, would be clear, twin four-foot-tall lighted towers symbolizing the fallen buildings. Lighted wood replicas of the skyline's remaining buildings would flank the Plexiglas monoliths.

Several Goodfella's employees spent five days creating a scale model of the Manhattan skyline for a 9/11 memorial service held outside one of the company's Staten Island restaurants. In the center of the model, which is mounted to the restaurant's storefront, are clear World Trade Center towers lit from below.

"These guys have been staying up until 3 in the morning working on this thing ever since Thursday," Meyers said in an interview four days after the project began. "Tonight we're going to have a memorial service here, and we'll light it all up. It really looks great."

The difference a year makes

Much has changed at Goodfella's Hyland Blvd. store since the day two hijacked jetliners crashed into what once were the world's two tallest buildings. Located about 10 miles away from the Ground Zero, the restaurant's typically festive atmosphere is back after disappearing for months amid the lingering gloom of the attacks. Sales, which nearly evaporated in the weeks immediately following the attacks, also have returned to normal.

"We couldn't project the goodwill we always projected in our stores; the whole experience changed for a couple months," said Scot Cosentino, Goodfella's co-owner and vice president. Stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike on the morning of the attacks, Cosentino witnessed the collapse of both towers. "Five-hundred people from Staten Island alone died in that. It was like everybody knew somebody. So everyone who did come in ... you were afraid to ask how they were doing because you didn't know if they lost somebody."

Today, both Cosentino and Meyers know it was a good thing that business dropped off immediately after the tragedy; it freed the company's staff of 200 to help feed thousands of volunteers involved in the search, rescue and recovery efforts across the Upper New York Bay in Manhattan.

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, Meyers called New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani's office to offer help. At 7 a.m. the next day, a Guiliani aide called back and asked if Goodfella's could prepare and deliver food to a Staten Island ferry-staging area. From there, the food would be shipped across the bay to Ground Zero.

"We cooked everything they asked for, even things that weren't even on our menu," said Meyers. "But the biggest request we got was for fruit. The people involved in the rescue knew they could eat fruit without having to stop digging. That gives you an idea of what kind of people these were."

Days later, a call from Gov. George Pataki's office asked that Goodfella's supply food for Red Cross workers as well. To help in the effort, Cosentino said foodservice distributors and "just regular people" stopped by unannounced to drop off provisions.

What soon became a nearly non-stop cook-and-deliver cycle left Goodfella's staff emotionally torn, Meyers said, because all were deeply saddened and many were angry. But the combination of their desire to help and the pace of all the activity took their minds off their own feelings.

"I remember at one point, Scot asked me, 'How much is this costing us?' I said, 'Does it matter?' And he said, 'No, it doesn't matter.'

"We wanted to do the right thing, and we didn't want finances to get in the way."

But two facts couldn't be ignored: Goodfella's, a relatively small company, had given away about $50,000 in meals, and since the attacks, its paying customers were still missing in action.

"Talk about a cash crunch," Meyers recalled with a laugh. "It certainly changed our financial condition in a hurry, and that didn't improve for a couple of months."

Added Cosentino: "We gave away 7,000 meals, coupled with no business for a couple of weeks. It got pretty lean around here for awhile, if you know what I mean."

Business returns

As winter settled in and rumors of terrorist threats diminished, locals ventured from their homes to resume their normal lifestyles. Goodfella's customer traffic picked up once again -- followed by a steady stream of requests for franchise information.

Many of the 200,000 workers displaced by the towers' destruction, Cosentino said, were considering a new line of work and had heard about the small chain via the rescue efforts.

Whether any of those inquiries will result in new franchises remains to be seen, but for the immediate future, Cosentino said the company is facing a daunting growth spurt. Last September there were five Goodfella's stores, and the company has added two since then. Five more, Meyers said, are slated for opening in Connecticut, New York, Indiana and New Jersey before year's end.

"There are about another 30 stores in the works," said Cosentino, whose company has recently broadened its wood-fired oven selections to include steaks. "Business has come back again, and now we're hoping it stays that way."

Meyers credits his staff's attitude as one reason good times have returned to Goodfella's, and he cites his customers' determination to make the best out of a bad situation as another.

Framed on a wall in Goodfella's Hyland Blvd. store are dozens of patches representing fire and police rescue crews that helped in the recovery effort. Many of the crew members visited Goodfella's to thank its owners for the donated food.

"Pretty early on we decided that we had to come into work in a good mood so that our customers could have a fun place to go. That wasn't easy for everybody, but we chose to do it," Meyers said. "You finally get to a point where you have to decide whether you'll be apathetic about this and let terrorism get the best of you, or you can say to yourself that this is our world and we've got to do something about it."

Perhaps most touching to both men, as well as Scot's brother, Marc Cosentino, a Goodfella's co-owner and former New York City policeman, was the number of rescue workers who thanked them personally. Framed on a wall in Goodfella's Hyland Blvd. store are dozens of badges from police and fire crews who came from all around the U.S. to help in the rescue effort.

"For months these people kept coming," said Cosentino. "Some of them were searching through the rubble that they took from Ground Zero to Staten Island. I mean, these people were having to look for body parts in all that, and they came to see us. We were blown away."

A time to remember

At 8:30 p.m., on Sept. 9, about 80 people gathered outside Goodfella's Hyland Blvd. store for a memorial service. Tucked neatly behind the store's large neon sign sat the end result of the staff's labor of love: a 20-foot-long recreation of the forever-changed Manhattan skyline. The clear towers in the center were lighted from below, and hundreds of Christmas lights glowed in the mock windows of the flat wooden buildings framing them.

Candles were lit, "God Bless America" was sung, and two nuns led the gathering in a few short prayers.

The overall mood was mixed, Cosentino said. Some in the crowd cried, while others chatted with friends, rehashing memories of that awful day. He said the evening reminded him of the days immediately following the attacks ... when the city's legendary drivers stopped honking their horns in haste ... when cars stopped to let pedestrians cross the street ... when strangers became friends by talking about the tragic loss that bound them.

"I've never seen people here stop what they were doing and talk to each other like that," Cosentino said, soberly. "We were all on the same team all of a sudden. I can't explain it. But that was such a plus point of the whole tragedy."

Asked on Sept. 10 whether locals were concerned that President Bush had put the country on high alert because of potential terrorist actions, Cosentino casually said he'd not heard a thing about it.

"If you listen to the press too much, you can get nervous easily," he said. "But you've got to live your life. Matter of fact, my wife and I are going to Manhattan tonight for some dinner. It'll be a good time. We won't think anything about it."


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