July 21, 2024

You’re the Boss: After the Fire: Do Not Touch Anything

The adjuster's advice: Touch nothing.Courtesy of Southfork Kitchen.When can we reopen? Who knows?
Start-Up Chronicle

“I have three rules. Don’t walk into a courtroom without a lawyer. Don’t go on a date without Viagra. And never settle an insurance case without Littman.”

That’s Danny Lembo talking. As usual, he has a drink in his hand, a blonde on his arm and a story on his lips: cold, hot and hyperbolic. He’s an old friend who called himself Mr. Connected on “Survivor: Nicaragua” last year, but the guys call him Too Tan Dan. His biceps are the size and color of tawny lap dogs, and they receive just as much attention, exercise and health-enhancing treats. By profession, Too Tan Dan is a property builder and manager; by avocation, he is a fixer. He knows people. He knows people who know people. He knows Littman.

Jeffrey Littman wears a pinkie ring and speaks softly, politely, incessantly. He’s been a public adjuster for 32 years, which means he advocates for policyholders, appraises damage, assesses coverage and negotiates settlements with insurance companies. His son is a lawyer, by the way, who defends insurance companies. I wouldn’t wish those kinds of Oedipal issue on anyone. (Except maybe Laius.)

“Lembo says you’re a friend, so I will give you my lowest rate, and you know I will do good by you,” says Mr. Littman. “‘Cause if I don’t, Lembo will have my head.” I trust Mr. Littman, too, is prone to hyperbole.

First thing, he says, touch nothing. Leave everything smelly, sooty and living proof that we need a special task force to clean every fork and light fixture and square inch of wall. This is expensive. (Mr. Littman, whose name may or may not be ironic, gets a percentage of the final numbers we collect.)

“Touch the wrong thing, and the policy could be null and void,” explains Mr. Littman. “Let the experts come and take pictures and do their investigation before you move a single salt shaker.”

“We don’t have salt shakers.”

“What do you serve your salt in?”

“We don’t serve salt. But if someone asks for it, we have little copper pots.”

“I’m asking you to not touch the copper pots. All your salt is ruined. Everything is ruined. You can’t see it, but everything is covered with a fine layer of soot. Salt is just a symbol.” (Not since Gandhi has salt been such a symbol.)

Mr. Littman also needs the cost of the building, the cost of the contents of the building, a copy of the deed, all insurance policies, rental agreements, reservations, payroll, a list of every opened bottle, all product thrown out that night, since that night, and before we can reopen. When can we reopen? Who knows? The fire investigators need time, the insurance companies need time, the cleaners need time, city hall needs permits, the board of health needs to inspect, and the staff needs retraining and probably restocking; surely, some good people will find other work during this unplanned summer hiatus. Then we have to let the public know we have reopened.

With no track record, no archives to present to the insurance people, there will be a fair amount of dickering about the moneys lost. The chef, sous chefs and managers are gathering all the pertinent information. It is not their favorite activity.

The two people in a small town you don’t want to know too well are the pharmacist and the reconstruction guy at city hall. It means something is out of kilter and you are less than tip-top; they both need prescriptions of a sort to make you feel better. Sal the Pharmacist knows more about my bloodstream than Lembo and Littman and my phlebotomist combined. The recon guy at city hall sends my blood pressure skyward as he hands me the building permit application checklist.

I need five copies of the survey, three sets of plans, one copy of the house certificate occupancy, an estimate from a licensed general contractor with New York-approved workers’ compensation, a check for an unknown amount (based on work to be done), and a drawing of the septic system with the red stamp from the Suffolk County Board of Health.

“The septic system?”

“Yes, with the red stamp.”

“But you have that here, on file. That’s how we opened in the first place.”

“You have to resubmit all these forms in order to start construction.”

“How long will all this take?” I ask.

“The sooner you fill out the application and satisfy all the requests, the sooner we can get to work on it.”

“Today is Wednesday. I’ll be back Friday.”

“I wouldn’t come back Friday.”

“Why not?”

“It’s summertime.”

“I know. That’s why I’ll be back in two days.”

“Everyone who wants a swimming pool or a new fence or a guest house stops here on their way to their weekend abode. Fridays are crazy. You’ll be in line for hours. Forget Fridays.”

The next day, Thursday, seven people converged on the restaurant at 10 a.m. They handed me business cards and commenced firing questions — about money and staff and guests and firefighters and mortgages and partners and family. I finally ask these men if they are actually divorce lawyers who made a wrong turn back on Montauk Highway. What the heck is going on?

They are, in point of fact, fire investigators, cleaning experts and general contractors. They need to know everything. In duplicate. The restaurant business has one insurance company (Scottsdale) and the property has another (National Specialty). Mr. Littman says the two companies could end up in a turf war: was it a kitchen fire or damage to property? No matter now. The reps pop questions and scribble in their books or type into their laptops and reveal neither pleasure nor displeasure to any response. This could be a poker game. Mr. Littman hovers over every conversation, adding his 2 cents or removing mine. There is no bluffing.

Meanwhile, two guys not taking part in the inquisition snoop around the restaurant with cameras and tape recorders. Eventually, they invite me to sit down in a booth. They are in their late 20s or early 30s. Nice guys. There’s no telling which one has rank. They come at me willy-nilly.

Willy: “What time did you first become aware of the fire?”

Buschel: “Around 7 o’clock, Saturday night.”

Nilly: “How did you become aware?”

Buschel: “The chef called me into the kitchen to show me the smoke.”

Nilly: “What is your relationship with the chef?”

Buschel: “I’m not sure I understand the question.”

Willy: “Do you two get along?”

Buschel: “We get along fine.”

Willy: “Do you owe him money?”

Buschel: “No.”

Nilly: “Is he a partner or an employee?”

Buschel: “Wait a minute. You think the chef started the fire?”

Willy: “He isn’t here today, is he?”

Buschel: “Are you guys from CSI Bridgehampton?”

Willy: “Sorry. We have to ask these questions.”

Buschel: “Why?”

Nilly: “We are investigating a fire.”

Buschel: “You can ask anything you want, but don’t expect me to answer.”

Willy: “We are here for your benefit, and we have to cover all the angles.”

Buschel: “Here’s my angle, gentlemen. Before two hours ago, I never saw either of you. You could be from Al Qaeda for all I know. Or you could be the arsonists. So I take the Fifth on questions I don’t understand. Nothing personal. But I can’t answer half these questions without consulting Littman the adjuster and Sal the pharmacist and Joe the chef. By the way, if you were the arsonists, you should be ashamed — that was a really bad job.”

Next: tips about insurance. And how we finished renovation in record time and opened to record crowds. (I made up that last sentence. I’m trying the power of positive thinking. Can it hurt?)

Bruce Buschel owns Southfork Kitchen, a restaurant in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=e4bdb592c6f4859cac5824eca7756481

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