One look at Cornerstone restaurant and artisanal market in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and it’s hard to believe anything bad could ever happen in such a charming place. The bright, inviting space is an ideal backdrop for oysters and wine, Nantucket-style bluefish pâté, savory burgers and steak frites (a few items on their menu.)
Owners Christine Doherty and Nick Kondra care for their diners like family, coming to work every day with grateful hearts. As an integral part of the community, Cornerstone is more than just a place to grab a bite or meet a friend – it feels like home.
Caring for their community is a fact of life for the Kondras, who created Cornerstone Cares to support over a dozen charitable causes. After their cousin Jennifer Sedney suffered a fatal brain aneurysms rupture in 2013 on Christmas Day, Christine Kondra and her sister Erin Kreszl founded The Bee Foundation to increase awareness and support preventative research. Their lobbying efforts resulted in millions of dedicated funding for brain aneurysms and legislation in Jenny’s name. And, the Kondras raised money for the 2017 fire victims in Sonoma, among whom were close friends who suffered devastating losses.
As the culinary couple supported their wine country colleagues, they were unaware that Cornerstone would be next to experience a devastating tragedy.
“We were with some of our friends at wineries that lost everything in August and it really put everything in perspective, because little did I know what was about to happen to us,” said Christine Kondra, who with her husband closes Cornerstone for two weeks annually to meet with remote purveyors, glean new ideas and bring them back to inspire their menu.
It was during one of these such annual trips that Cornerstone flooded, resulting in half a million dollars in damages and the loss of all of the restaurant’s supplies and ingredients. Adding to the devastation, the Kondras had just completely renovated and expanded the restaurant over the summer at a monumental cost.
“After the flood we remained closed for a month as all of our wine was downstairs, along with cheese and everything else valuable was down there, including every single item in our walk-ins and the dry goods – we lost everything,” said Kondra. “Even so, we just felt it could always have been worse and I thank God no one was there to get hurt during the flood.”
The Kondras caught the flooding on video camera. The dramatic footage is enough to strike fear in the hearts of any restaurant owner or chef. The cause of the flood was a water blockage on a cistern, covered by trees and branches, which diverted the water in another direction. When the water rerouted it rushed quickly, like a tidal wave. Cornerstone was one of many local businesses and families affected by the flood. Friends in the industry from Boston to Nantucket to Philadelphia, the wine community, diners and fellow restaurateurs rushed to the aid of this special gathering place.
“Vendors and fellow chefs stopped by to lend a hand—and to see that support from our neighbors was wonderful,” said Kondra.
Cornerstone’s diners and supporters lifted up the beloved eatery until it could stand on its own. But within the rebuilding, the Kondras learned that the flood was only part of the problems they had to face.
“The silver lining of the flood was it brought everything out of the woodwork, literally, because it revealed some things we hadn’t known, such as a notable discrepancy with a staff member where we would have woken up in 2019 and had to ask, ‘Where’s the money?’”, said Kondra, who discovered nearly all of the wines were grossly mispriced and listed as the wrong vintages. “If the flood hadn’t happened we wouldn’t have noticed it and been able to make changes, so the flood was also the catalyst to bring in a new sommelier from the ground up.”
Indeed, the wine program at Cornerstone is a source of tremendous pride for Kondra. Now, thanks to additions to the Cornerstone team, Kondra says she has a better crew than ever in the three years since Cornerstone opened its doors. One of the servers is also a sommelier.
As the water rushed in, so did the hard lessons. The Kondras had to rethink a majority of their business practices and revise many of them on the fly.
“It made me realize advice I’ve given to so many friends: look at every policy, question your providers and make sure you are protected,” said Kondra, who says they trusted everyone in their inner circle with business matters. “One example, we were told we couldn’t get flood insurance, but actually the truth was our carrier failed to carry that insurance, so we were exposed on every level.”
The Insurance Information Institute reports that 90 percent of all natural disasters in the United States involve flooding and also reports that flood damage can often strike in low or moderate risk areas. And because flood insurance is different than other policies, only specific flood insurance policies provide coverage. It is possible to purchase additional insurance called excess coverage to rebuild properties for properties with values that exceed the typical $500,000 limit. Many restaurateurs are not aware of these flood facts because their agents do not tell them, especially in areas not considered a flood area and these policies often have a waiting period. The FEMA website has a portal at FloodSmart.gov which contains how to buy or renew flood insurance, understanding flood risks and reducing cost.
Cornerstone has been through its share of battles and prevailed, including being locked in permitting battles with town officials uneducated in some matters pertaining to a kitchen and gourmet market. With regard to the flood insurance, the Kondras didn’t question their insurance agent because the agent was a friend. Kondra admits they got so busy running the restaurant, as the months went by it was difficult to catch mistakes and realize something wasn’t adding up.
“My biggest piece of advice for other restaurateurs is the old adage – always pay your vendors and your staff and as hard as it is, carry your employees,” said Kondra. “It’s really hard when everything is so devastated but you must unite together to stand strong and our team pulled together.”
Kondra now insists on forming best practices with purveyors, as well. She says she doesn’t pay a penny until everything is reconciled.
“I don’t want a credit, I want everything—and another thing we have realized is that food is one-tenth of what makes a restaurant successful and you have to have those business practices in place,” she said. “From LifeLock to health insurance to 401K, we are benefit heavy to make sure our staff is okay—your staff has to be priority one.”
Cornerstone recently marked a major milestone in the restaurant business, their three-year anniversary. The Kondra’s posted this message of thanks on the Cornerstone website: “What a year it’s been! As we celebrate three years of Cornerstone, we can’t help reflect on how much the support of our community means to us. Between the excitement of our expansion and our liquor license to the devastating flood, we’ve certainly had a rollercoaster of a year. We can’t thank you enough for your support of what we do.”
Now, that’s what we call perseverence.