A great day out at the Jersey Shore includes flip-flops, sunscreen, beach umbrellas … and how about a great big Irish breakfast?
Irish sun worshippers already know all about the fast ferry to Sandy Hook in New Jersey, but do they know they can order one of the great Irish breakfasts on the east coast at Alice’s Café in the nearby seaside town of Sea Bright?
But first time visitors won’t guess that behind the now very successful business run by Alice Gaffney (originally from Ballyjamesduff in Co. Cavan) is an inspiring story about triumphing over adversity.
It all began, like so many Irish stories here, with a plane ticket. Gaffney and her late husband first came to the U.S. in 1986 with plans to stay for a year, but America worked its magic. Soon they were living in Sea Bright and she was running a restaurant.
“My dream was always to open a café,” Gaffney tells the Irish Voice. But to begin with she opened a restaurant. That she ran successfully for many years before changing direction and finding her way toward the café.
But first came the challenge that was the biggest one of her life: Hurricane Sandy, which happened on October 29, 2012.
“We were all devastated by Hurricane Sandy. I lost half my home, one floor of my house. I was more fortunate than a lot of people in my neighborhood. Our little town was practically destroyed. My son Dara is now 24 and my daughter Seana is now 21 and they both lost everything.”
The memory of the night still horrifies her. “I live directly across from the ocean; the sea wall is just across the road. We have lived through many storms before, but this one was unique. Around five o’clock we lost power and the ocean started to cross the road.”
The family was able to keep the worst at bay because they had generators that were powering draining pumps. But at six o’clock the nearby river and the ocean met, she says.
“You couldn’t see anything. There were no lights in the neighborhood. You couldn’t stop the water rising anymore. At about seven o’clock the water crashed through the downstairs windows and the house shook.”
Gaffney thought it was the end of the line. “I really thought we were done for. I really did. The water came through the vents inside the house and was shooting up into the air. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen, the most frightening event of my life.”
Finally, by late evening, the water started to recede. No one could go to bed or sleep, though.
“I sat up all night shaking. I was in total shock. The next morning I opened my basement door and the muck and dirt was unbelievable. Mud and dirt everywhere, it was like walking into a sewer pit.”
Across from her house there had been a platform to the beach. Now the whole thing was in her garden.
“People lost their lives in neighboring towns. When I walked out the place looked like a war zone,” Gaffney recalls.
It took two days for first aid to reach her house. Then she and her family had to leave their homes for months.
“They turned off all the gas. I stayed with my sister for three weeks. Then my son and daughter and I were in a hotel, sharing one room for seven months.
“I was still better off than a lot of people. Even now 30 to 40 percent of them are not in their homes. In a town of about 2,000 people that’s lot of displacement. It’s a small strip from the tip of Sandy Hook to our town, about two and a half miles in diameter.”
You’d never think the ocean could be so wicked, she says.
“A lot of businesses have reopened, but a lot of people have just walked away from their homes. Without flood insurance and with their homes so badly damaged – or with mortgages that weren’t worth fixing, well it was just very sad.”
Alice’s Cafe has opened in the space occupied for 37 years by Steve’s Breakfast & Lunch, which was wiped out by Hurricane Sandy. Making her own mark was always going to be a challenge, but Gaffney is up to it.
“It’s the Irish stubbornness. It just took over. And this place was a café since I came here, and I’m here 30 years. The owner of the building approached me and I thought about it and decided to give it a shot.”
In Ireland Gaffney went to culinary school in St. Bridget’s College and the urge to cook for a living never left her, she says.
“I didn’t pursue it at first. In Ireland I worked in the civil service in the old department of labor in Dublin.
“But I always loved to cook and create my own recipes. What I’ve learned is that running a café is perhaps more hard work than even running a restaurant. People in the U.S. are very particular about their breakfasts. It’s rewarding and it’s very hard work.”
The first year of the café, 2013, was a major challenge. “I thought I would get it open for Memorial Day, but in fact we didn’t open until the end of July. Then we had that hard winter. There were still very few local people around because of the storm, but we made it. We’re Irish, we improvise.”
This summer business has been very good, Gaffney says. One thing she did this year to mark the café as thoroughly Irish was to have an authentic old time Irish fireplace installed using the old time hanging pots and pans.
“We always planned to put them into my old restaurant but we never did. When we were cleaning out my old garage after Sandy we found them again,” she adds.
Gaffney had the pots sandblasted and cleaned. Then she had an Irish mason build the stone fireplace. It’s a touch that instantly added a lot of character to her café.
“There was a lot of blood and sweat getting this business on its feet, oh my gosh,” she confesses. “But you have to follow your dreams. I think it’s part of our culture, there’s no going back once you commit.”