Hurricane Irma

Stories from the Storms: Evacuations, Tostones, and VIP Dinners in Florida and Georgia

Having watched the devastation in Houston, Florida officials took no chances as gargantuan Hurricane Irma gathered power less than two weeks later. The governor ordered one of the largest evacuations in American history. Wider than the state’s panhandle, Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys on Sunday, September 10, and began moving up the state and then into Georgia.

Through it all, Bon Appétit teams did what they could to take care of each other while finding a way to serve meals to hundreds — sometimes thousands — of guests. Below, read about how our Florida and Georgia teams made it through Hurricane Irma, or read the previous story about how Hurricane Harvey made heroes at Phillips 66 in Houston. Because as President Michael Bauccio writes, we do whatever it takes to take care of our communities.


Giant inflatable duck

Campus Executive Chef Michelle Reuter with Bon Appétit’s giant duck that had to be deflated pre-Irma

Although Emory University in Atlanta closed for Monday and Tuesday, September 11 and 12, while being battered by Irma, the residential dining facility — housed in a temporary structure — and a smaller Clairmont campus location were kept open to feed students. The gale-force winds and rain made it almost impossible for much of Resident District Manager Kellie Piper’s staff to get to work.

Instead of hundreds of Bon Appétiters, she had a skeleton crew of mostly managers to feed 3,000 restless and anxious students Monday, and 3,500 on Tuesday. “Everyone did whatever it took to get the job done. Our financial controller was scooping gelato, our HR director was working the dishroom — the stories are endless,” says Kellie. “We had to forget what we had originally menu’d, and just work out how and what to feed them, 15 hours a day. We had a good vibe, we played music, and the kids were happy to have somewhere to go.” Many of the Bon Appétit staff who were there couldn’t get home that Monday night when the café closed at 10 p.m.; a manager made a run to buy bedding for the spare dorm rooms Emory was able to provide.

Dessert served to former President Jimmy Carter and university VIPs the day after Irma moved on

If that weren’t challenging enough, Jimmy Carter and his wife had been scheduled to attend Emory University’s 36th Annual Carter Town Hall on Wednesday, with a special dinner that Bon Appétit was catering for the former U.S. president, his wife, University President Claire Sterk, and 60 more university VIPs and student leaders.

And it wasn’t canceled. Of course, all produce, meat, and seafood deliveries had been disrupted. Kellie’s main distributor told her they wouldn’t be able to make it to her on Tuesday, and she politely told them that was not an option. (They complied.) Emory’s seafood supplier had lost power and so had to make substitutions, meaning the catering team ended up having to butcher whole fish instead of using the boneless fillets they’d ordered for the surf-and-turf entrée. But they pulled off the dinner!

“We’re just finally catching our breaths now,” said Kellie a week later. “It’s been a blur.”

downed tree

Hurricane Irma knocked down several centuries-old trees, including these on the Oxford campus, flattening cars and roofs


At the Oxford College campus of Emory University, some serious planning took place in the days while Irma was approaching.

“I’m from Arizona, I’d never done this before,” said General Manager Duke Walsh, who was asked to come up with a plan for how his team would keep the café open and feed the almost 1,000 students in Oxford, GA. “Some people were saying, ‘We’re in Georgia, we have nothing to worry about.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to be that guy.’”

Emory – Oxford General Manager Duke Walsh and Oxford Electrician Maurice Williams handed out water to students as they came into the café

The Bon Appétiters ordered 4,000 gallons of water for the students. They had to borrow a box truck from Emory – Atlanta and go pick it up and deliver it themselves, as all drivers were assisting elsewhere. They asked the school to rent a big generator to power the café’s walk-in and four ovens in the event the campus lost power — which it did, for 17 hours.

Duke and his team had made a list of duties, whether it was handing out disposables (if the dishroom went offline), wiping up wet, muddy tracks on the floors, or restocking the stations that were open. As the storm approached, the winds reached 50 mph, and some of the campus’s beloved old oaks began toppling. Only about 16 of the 25 employees were able to make it to work. They divided up the list the team had sketched out.

“Not one person complained. The café stayed clean, and nobody slipped and fell. From utility to chef, they just did it all,” says Duke proudly. They served chicken breasts, local vegetables, rice, baked cod, quinoa, a full salad bar, and plenty of desserts. And lots of coffee — the local and campus police and emergency teams were stopping in to get dry, use the Wi-Fi, and have a hot drink. Oxford Dean Douglas Hicks and his wife came in for dinner. The café stayed open until 10 p.m., two hours past closing time.

“Seeing the look on students’ faces, like, ‘You guys are HERE? For us?’ — well, that just made us feel real proud to be Bon Appétit.”

“We were here for 14 hours plus, even while some of our team didn’t know what was happening to their own houses. They just kept asking, ‘What’s next?’” says Duke. “You know, we set high expectations for our team daily, but when you see them act like this in an emergency situation, during chaos, that just speaks volumes. I have the greatest team there is. And seeing the look on students’ faces, like, ‘You guys are HERE? For us?’ — well, that just made us feel real proud to be Bon Appétit.”


Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ headquarters are located at the Port of Miami, and Bon Appétit General Manager David Marshall and Executive Chef Blas Baldepina were pretty sure they were going to get deluged.

They expected to lose at least one walk-in to flooding or the power going out, since that building’s generator was on the first floor. Another building known as “the bunker” had a generator on the roof; that café’s walk-in would make it, they thought. As the evacuation order went out, RCCL decided to close Wednesday afternoon, September 6, and David, Blas, and the rest of the managers spent Thursday moving as much dry-storage food as they could to the highest shelves, transferring things between the two walk-ins, and storing important documents on higher floors.

Executive Chef Blas Baldepina pulled together a salad with lentils, cherry tomato, roasted sweet potato, dried cranberries, arugula, and sweet agave mustard dressing to feed Royal Caribbean guests in Irma’s aftermath

Luckily, both buildings survived with only a little flooding and minimal damage, never losing power. On Monday, RCCL asked David and Blas to open on Tuesday in order to serve RCCL employees and their families breakfast and lunch — for free. They put out the call for their team — some of whom had evacuated, many others who’d just hunkered down in a safe place in town — to ask them to find a way to get back to work the next day. Then they headed into the kitchen to begin thawing meat.

All that week, Blas and his team cooked and cooked, doing the best they could from what he had on hand in dry storage and the freezer, since there were no deliveries except a partial one Wednesday. “The pasta bar was a huge hit. We managed to make soups, and we even had a salad bar and deli going in both locations,” said Blas. “We knew everyone would want comfort food, so we had to have the empanadas and the tostones.”

Usually the team serves around 1,400 daily; the week after Irma, they were averaging around 2,500. Schools were closed, and many of the RCCL employees had their kids with them at work for hastily organized day care camps.

“I think we were blessed and just very lucky,” says David. “The storm surge didn’t affect us, so we didn’t lose all our food. Everybody just did an incredible job of helping out so that we were able to fulfill our client’s requests. But hurricane season lasts through November. I hope we can stay lucky.”


“It’s been an experience, for sure,” says Eric Davidson, Bon Appétit general manager at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, GA. “Irma wasn’t as bad as Matthew, at least.”

For Hurricane Matthew in 2016, SCAD had to evacuate 1,700 students to its much-smaller Atlanta campus; this time, SCAD was able to delay the start of school by a week, and only about 500 international and “Jump Start” students were already in residence. On Friday, September 8, they were loaded onto buses — with Eric and 10 members of the culinary team following in their cars — and what was usually a three-hour trip took seven. Executive Chef Emanuel May and another chef drove a refrigerated truck full of food.

In Atlanta, another 200 international and other students were waiting. This time there were enough dorm rooms for the students, and Eric and Emanuel were able to get hotel rooms for his team, whose immediate families and pets had been allowed to accompany them.

On Saturday, the day after evacuation, the joint Savannah-Atlanta Bon Appétit teams opened for breakfast and ran service for 13 hours, with a cookout in between. They managed to feed 600 to 700 guests per meal — there were resident assistants, faculty, and staff who came with the kids, plus Atlanta faculty and staff, and security forces — out of SCAD – Atlanta’s minimal kitchen.

And these weren’t hot dogs or pizza meals, either. Emanuel and the culinary team served a variety of composed salads every day, and featured a shrimp-and-grits bar, curried vegetables, and a coffee-rubbed pork tenderloin carving station. They hosted a movie night with popcorn and sodas, and other events to keep the students occupied. “We were lucky, we were about to get a full three-café delivery from our Farm to Fork vendor Savannah River Farms, and they were really kind and delivered it to Atlanta for us,” says Eric. “And [Atlanta-based] Coca-Cola brought us over a trailer with 12 pallets of water.”

If Irma had hit the way it was expected to, “we would have been in a world of hurt. But SCAD was very proactive, and delaying school by a week helped a lot,” he continues. And there was a silver lining to this storm: “It ended up being a great opportunity for our Savannah managers to meet their Atlanta counterparts for the first time. They got to put names and faces together, and collaborate. The Atlanta team picked up some tricks from the Savannah team, and vice versa.”


Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL, is literally steps from the water. Taking no chances, the university’s emergency team announced a few days before Irma was expected to make landfall that the school would be closed from September 7 through 15.

General Manager Eric Foster, Executive Chef Raymond Gallace, and the Bon Appétit team sprang into action, ordering more canned food, such as tuna, peanut butter, and jelly, than they would have normally, and other dry goods. The team made 500 boxed lunches for the final meal before the school closed, only to discover that most students had already left. They ended up giving some to the emergency response team who were left on campus and to the Red Cross downtown. They tried to waterproof their office, which is “maybe two and a half feet above sea level,” says Eric.

Then Eric hit the road for Charleston, SC, with three gas tanks strapped to the roof of his car. Others stayed around or headed for the middle of the state. Watching Irma approach on TV, Eric “started freaking out about the office. You’re always going to say ‘I should have’ — but really there’s nothing we could have done if we got 10 feet of water.”

Miraculously, they didn’t. The storm turned slightly, enough to spare St. Petersburg the worst of it. And Eckerd allowed plenty of time before reopening for the campus support staff to return. The office was fine. Still, Eric is planning on ordering some watertight boxes with seals!