For many people, the first day on a new job is memorable, but for mostly benign reasons. For Marilou Halvorsen, taking the helm of the New Jersey Restaurant Association on Oct. 27 proved to be a watershed day.
"The day the hurricane hit … that was my first day," Halvorsen said. "It seems like I just put my head down and now that it's March, I'm finally able to look up a little bit. I'm getting my head above water."
Halvorsen took the reigns of the organization, succeeding long-time President Deborah Ray Dowdell, who died in March 2012. That transition alone would seem daunting for anyone stepping in to lead 23,000 dining establishments, but Halvorsen had the added challenge of guiding her constituents through Hurricane Sandy.
"It was difficult for me, as well, because where I had left to come to (the NJHA) was Jenkinson's (Boardwalk) and Casino Pier" in Point Pleasant Beach, Halvorsen said. "The devastation and what has gone on at the Shore — (it) was so hard to not be part of that, and trying to get this association and its member to recover … it's been a really hectic four months."
The NJRA has supported its members by providing information to recovery assistance, and working to promote members as they reopen.
Halvorsen also has been working on behalf of the membership to get insurers to process claims so rebuilding can be finished before the busy season.
"By and large, most Shore restaurants will be ready, because they're working really hard … they realize that they do 80 (percent) to 90 percent of their business in four months," Halvorsen said. "They really have a fire under them to get up and running."
She added, though, that some members "haven't seen a dime" of insurance money, and are having trouble getting back on the path to reopening. Some, she said, "will probably never return."
As the list of Sandy-related tasks starts to dwindle, Halvorsen said she's just now starting to feel like she can get a handle on the day-to-day operations of an industry that generates more than $11 billion in revenue and employs more than 300,000 people.
"I have this sense — I think it started last week — I think I'm getting it now, I'm getting a pretty good feel for it," Halverson said. "It's not these monumental tasks that keep piling up; I'm actually starting to cross things off my list."
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