As Hurricane Sandy slammed into Red Hook, Tone Balzano Johansen was in the basement of Sunny’s, moving booze and supplies to potentially dryer places. Suddenly, the sea broke through an above-ground window. “It all came in like a Hollywood shot,” she said. “It was really quiet, then it’s just an explosion.”
Johansen, who owns the bar with her husband Sunny Balzano, dropped everything and rushed upstairs, where she threw all of her artwork onto her bed and waited for the flood to stop. When it was over, more than six feet of water stood in the basement.
That next week, bartender Chris Tsanos, along with other volunteers from the neighborhood, spent as many as 12 hours a day pumping the water out from Sunny’s basement, only to see it fill up again and again as more and more water found its way to lower ground.
Gas for the pumps and generators was scarce, so one of the volunteers began siphoning gas from the cars of friends. Without heat or regular electricity, they burned wood in 55-gallon drums and drank whiskey to stay warm.
Johansen was in dire straits. She had lost her business – and with it her income – and also the townhome attached to the bar that she shared with Sunny and their teenage daughter. The foundation had separated from the bar, the boiler was destroyed, gas lines were crushed. Without heat, she was sleeping in her clothes to make it through the nights, and during the day using a coffeemaker as a stove to make soups and oatmeal. “We were living the hobo life,” she said.
Sunny’s was closed for nearly a year as Johansen, Tsanos and a legion of volunteers put the bar back together. An outpouring of support came Johansen’s way, and through fundraising campaigns and a benefit concert, she raised nearly $105,000 to replace the boiler, fix the foundation, and put the bar and her home back in order. On August 29, 2013, Sunny Balzano’s 79th birthday, Sunny’s reopened.
Sunny’s has been in the Balzano family for more than a century—dating back to the late 1800s—and has seen its share of change. At certain points in its history you’d be as likely to find pasta drying on its tables as sweating beers, but one thing has remained: Sunny’s commitment to the community of Red Hook.
Until the late 1990s, Sunny Balzano’s father and uncle ran the bar. But when Sunny’s father got sick, Sunny returned from a spiritual trip in India to lend a hand to the family business. In 1997, Sunny’s uncle became ill and it was up to Sunny to keep the bar open. He opened up as Sunny’s first on Friday nights, just to help make ends meet. But without a liquor license, Sunny’s kept up a members-only status. Each member was given a card and marked a chit for every drink that was ordered. Beer and whiskey were $3 a glass. When you got ready to leave you counted your chits, multiplied by three and settled your bill. In 2001, Sunny’s finally opened to the public a few more nights a week, this time with a liquor license.
In the last year, “business has been great,” Johansen said, “and I take great pride in that when people come in they say ‘Oh, everything looks the same.’” But she knows behind the scenes everything is different.
Shortly after Sandy, the Balzano family, consisting of 18 cousins who jointly own Sunny’s with Johansen and Sunny Balzano, decided that they wanted to sell the bar. They’ve filed a petition to do so, but Johansen is holding out as long as she can, waiting on a loan from the bank and a contract from the family so she can buy them out. Her first loan request was denied, she said, because she lost all her business records in the storm. She was denied certain relief funds because she doesn’t have a formal lease. So she spent last winter writing a business plan in hopes that the New York Business Development Corporation will step in and provide the funds she needs to hold on to the bar.
It’s “a 1,002 step process from Sandy,” she said, “and I’m on step 1,003.”
Instead of dwelling on the past, Johansen is looking toward the future. In the turmoil of the storm and its aftermath, she had a spiritual awakening that encompassed the body and mind. “I saw a psychic today for the first time in my life,” she said. “I never would have done any of that stuff if it wasn’t for Sandy.”
On the body side, she now has diabetes, which she believes was an outgrowth of physical and emotional stress. “It’s like I had a point where my body just broke and it like went on strike and didn’t want to do anything more,” she said. “So that’s where, you know, all the healing comes in.” To help the healing process, she’s taken a liking to lighting candles and burning incense as well as alternative medicines like acupuncture and self-hypnosis.
Healing for Johansen takes place on two fronts. She has to heal the bar, but she also has to heal herself, and the two are intertwined. An artist by trade, Johansen never set out to run a bar (she immigrated to the United States from Norway in the late 90s on an arts grant doing mostly sculpture, painting and music). But once Sunny was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2004 and could no longer work, she took over the operation of the bar completely. (Sunny beat the cancer, but remains in poor health. At 80, he recently contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized.) Now, Johansen sees the bar as her art. “It’s performance art,” she says with a laugh. “It needs all this tending to otherwise its gonna die.”Johansen admits that even though she had been running Sunny’s for 13 years before Sandy, she was ignorant about a lot of things when it came to business. She was simply going with the flow, doing things the way they had always been done and making vague plans without following through. “I used to feel like I’m fine right now and there’s things I want in life but then this year passes and here’s another year,” she said. “Now, I’m like, ‘Oh, we have to get this done by the end of this month and by the end of this week I have to do this.’”
She also admits that her new drive for change at Sunny’s didn’t come entirely from herself. As part of the recovery from the storm, Restore Red Hook, a non-profit dedicated to getting small businesses in the neighborhood back up and running after Sandy, sponsored a business course attended by Johansen. The course “really helped me understand who I am, and who I can become as a business,” she said. It gave her goals and taught her how to implement them.
Her big dream is to open Sunny’s during the day as a coffee shop before it turns back into a bar at night. She wants to expand the bar’s programming, and bring in more musicians and artists for shows. She wants to bring kegs into the bar to help the bottom line, and organize the liquor into an automated POS system. All in all, Johansen wants to build a smoother running, more efficient business so that she can grow the culture, practice her art and reach new people.
“Its about sharing lives. It’s like you go in there and, you know, you see friends, you meet new friends and you care about people’s lives. It’s like a chain reaction of caring,” she said. “That’s how we got through Sandy.”For customers and employees like Chris Tsanos, Sunny’s has always been a symbol of the neighborhood and its tight-knit community. “This is the last vestige of what New York was like as a kid for me,” said Tsanos, who is a web developer by day and a part-time bartender at Sunny’s by night. “To those people who move into the new Red Hook that’s going to happen in the next two, three years, it will give them an echo of what Red Hook was.”
Pete Waldman started coming to Sunny’s 18 years ago when Red Hook was overrun with feral dogs and cabbies refused fares to the neighborhood. “It was the fulcrum of what made this neighborhood cool,” he said.
An artist and entertainer, Waldman recalls Sunny’s as the only place to get a beer after work, a home away from home. The thought of Sunny’s drifting away is tragic, he said. “Sunny and Tone have worked hard to make that place what it is, and anyone who wants to sell doesn’t know what it means to them or to the neighborhood.”
But Johansen keeps looking forward, taking a more personal meaning from Sunny’s journey since Sandy, and finding pieces of herself as she continues to mend her bar. “I’m a different person in so many ways because of Sandy,” she said. “I’m actually kind of excited to see where I’m going to be in another year or so.”