Santa arrived by fire engine in City Point Sunday night. Irene had destroyed his usual entrance on the back deck of the Sage Grill
Despite wrecked back and side decks and $100,000 in hurricane damage still being repaired, Dave McCoart and his Sage American Grill and Oyster Bar still turned the holiday lights on bright and hosted the 11th annual Christmas- comes-early party for the kids of the Hill and City Point.
On Sunday night, just after a temperate late November sunset, about 50 kids like Edwardo Crespo and their families joined chief organizer Kris Sainsbury of the Hill /City Point Neighborhood Action Group at the harbor-side restaurant.
Sainsbury said she didn’t think the event would come off.
First, Sainsbury had lost her husband Jonathan in June. For more than a decade he had been her right-hand-guy in the organization of the festive holiday party.
Then in late August, Tropical Storm Irene ripped apart Sage’s deck, knocked out the electricity, destroyed costly food supplies, and put in jeopardy the livelihoods of owner McCoart’s 35 employees.
Both Sainsbury and McCoart rallied. They obtained an emergency grant from the Greater New Haven Community Foundation and found inspiration in how much the community wanted them to persevere.
All they had to do was make a few adjustments.
At the centerpiece of the party, the tree lighting, for a decade Santa had appeared on the balcony above the back deck, where he threw enchanting handfuls of fake snow on the little ones as they beheld the magic of the lighted trees.
Problem number one this year: no more back deck.
Problem solved: On Sunday night, the seven trees festooned with their lights and in their planters were moved to the front of the restaurant facing the parking lot. Temporary electrical lines were run to them.
Problem number two: How to sneak Santa into the proceedings.
Solution number two: Santa surprised the kids, trading in his sleigh for a hitchhike in the cab of an engine from the firehouse on nearby Howard Avenue. The vehicle arrived with lights flashing and alarms resounding.
Firefighter Vincent Caruso and Lt. John Vendetto reported that during his transport Santa, aka as McCoart’s brother-in-law Rob Herman, had behaved fairly well.
However he was not 100 percent good: During the ride “he pulled the siren a couple of times,” Vendetto said.
Inside, the good cheer, chicken wings served by elf-hatted waiters, and the holiday music provided at the piano by Tom Ciancia, were all the same as in years gone by.
However, instead of shopping bags bulging with gifts, this season there were more modest-sized stuffed stockings presented to kids who patiently lined up to talk to Mr. Claus.
After his tete-a-tete with Santa, 6-year-old Tyler Skapczynski checked out his stocking. It was crammed with a bear, a candy cane, a Sherlock Holmes book and a Winnie the Pooh puzzle.
What struck Tyler about this year’s party most: “Santa is a fireman.”
McCoart said that while the back and side deck of the Sage need still to be repaired, in the three weeks between the striking of Irene and his reopening on Sept. 16, he was able to keep all 35 of his employees going.
Some were on unemployment. Others helped in breaking down the damaged floor of the restaurant and participated in replacing the subfloor, laying down a new carpet, and painting the entire interior.
The $100,000 figure represents structural damage, loss of food stores, and loss of business and income for himself and his employees. From an insurance point of view, McCoart said, “We’re well covered, thankfully.”
Then he motioned to his staff, who were busy in their elf hats distributing stockings full of gifts and making everyone feel at home.
While many of the wait staff lost the tips they counted on, the full crew is back, McCoart said, and he is grateful for that.
Rafael Crespo and his son Edwardo showed their appreciation with the bottle of homemade coquitos. It’s a potent holiday blend of secret Crespo family Puerto Rican moonshine, Palo-Viejo run, vanilla and cinnamon extract and several other mysterious ingredients its brewer refused to reveal.
Greenwich Street resident Crespo has been bringing a bottle every year since 3-year old Edwardo was born in order to show his appreciation for McCoart’s community-mindedness.
“He needs all the help he can get this year, ” Crespo said as he handed over the bottle.
“It’s good in tough weather,” replied McCoart.