For Treva and John Chadwell, the co-founders and owners of Williamsburg’s BeeHive Oven Biscuit Cafe, hurricanes signify more than an intermittent, calamitous natural disaster.
The Chadwells shared their first kiss as a hurricane blew into New Orleans 32 years ago.
They own furniture bearing the marks of Cecilia, Hugo and other powerful storms.
And the couple traces the origins of their Texan comfort food eatery to the day they served a free meal of fried chicken biscuits and Frito pie to Far Rockaway residents and volunteers rebuilding lives and homes after superstorm Sandy.
“People were asking us while we were serving them, ‘Well, where’s your restaurant? This is delicious.’ And we thought, we don’t have one,” said John Chadwell, 52, who was working for the learning management company Blackboard at the time. His wife, Treva, a former math teacher and a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education, was working for the Food Network as a recipe tester. They’d moved to New York from Texas in 2007.
The couple, then residents of Kew Gardens, Queens, was away on work assignments when Sandy slammed into the Rockaways with full force on the night of Oct. 29, 2012. Rising waters from the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay flooded the peninsula, causing power outages across the 11-mile tract of land. Waves on the Atlantic side washed away a section of the Rockaways’ iconic boardwalk, smashing it into waterfront homes and buildings.
When the Chadwells flew back into New York from San Antonio, Texas, on Oct. 31, they witnessed the devastation Sandy had wrought from tens of thousands of feet above, as John documented in a series of photos: roads resembling canals, sand strewn across city streets, boats littering backyards.
The Rockaways community would feel the impact of the storm acutely for weeks, months and even years after the waters receded. Damage to electrical equipment left the hardest-hit areas without power or heat, as crews of electricians and plumbers went from door to door, making repairs. Distressed families worked around the clock to clean up their homes, relying on word of mouth to locate relief efforts supplying food and clothing. Local bars and restaurants that sustained a beating during the storm struggled to reopen their businesses and apply for government funding.
When the Chadwells learned their friends were planning to contribute to relief efforts in the Rockaways about 10 days after the Sandy had ravaged the area, they decided to help, too. “We’ve always felt the need to be party of the community and to be good neighbors,” John said of their “small” gesture “in the grand scheme of things.”
To do their part, the Chadwells baked about 750 extremely portable biscuits, heated up fried chicken John recalls as being purchased from Costco, and prepared about 5 gallons of Frito pie, a popular Southwestern dish of chili poured over Frito chips. (“People had never heard of Frito pie,” Treva noted, but “they loved it.”)
The couple loaded boxes of biscuits and stock pots of casserole into their car and drove to Beach 24th Street, where they asked the National Guard for permission to set up tables and feed residents repairing their two-story houses.
John described the mood of Rockaways’ denizens on that day as battered but determined: “It felt like when everybody kind of knows that Penn Station’s going to be suck, and it’s going to take forever to get out of there. And everybody has that resigned face on, like, ‘OK, I’m just going to deal with it.’
“That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about New York: is the ability to bear something with grace,” said John, who fell in love with the city he’d come to adopt as his own after working on the installation of The Gates in the mid-aughts.
The Chadwells served their food on paper plates for five hours, John estimated. They watched other volunteers — some wearing T-shirts and shorts, others hazmat suits — work to clean out homes pummeled by high winds and water.
“You’re serving tired and hungry people while you yourself are tired and hungry,” Treva said of the experience that drew the Chadwells into the service industry. But “you can rally… you can keep pushing through, although all you’ve eaten all day is a crappy piece of frozen apple pie.”
“We weren’t anywhere near as tired or desparate feeling as the people we were trying to help, but it felt good,” said Treva, now 50.
Praise for her fried chicken biscuits motivated the chef to apply for a booth at Smorgasburg. The Chadwells and their college-age daughter cooked everything in a commercial kitchen in Long Island City and debuted their concept at Williamsburg’s weekend foodie market in April 2013. They called it BeeHive Oven, a dome-shaped oven common in American homes until the advent of gas and electric models.
“We started there,” John said, “and very quickly people kept saying, ‘Where’s your restaurant?’ “
On Oct. 11 of that year, the Chadwells signed the lease for a space in South Williamsburg, at 182 S. Second St.
“We’ve been very fortunate in the three and a half years that we’ve been open that people have embraced us in that community largely beyond my dreams,” John said of the predominantly Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban neighborhood where he and his wife attempted to establish a restaurant embodying the hospitality of their back porch. “We try to continue the same thing as when Sandy hit: Just feed people and try to make them feel comfortable and welcome.”
The Chadwells built their brick-and-mortar business on versatility of a proprietary crusty-yet-fluffy, six-sided biscuit, serving them as sandwiches named after the grandmothers in their lives (such as the Ruby, served with fried green tomatoes, shrimp and bacon, and Cajun and remoulade sauces) and as sides to recipes inherited from their Southern families, such as chicken-fried steak. Their general manager, Maggie Garcia, likes to joke that all the food is Dominican now, since she makes it.
Though John and Treva remain the owners of BeeHive Oven, they no longer live in Queens. They’ve moved to San Antonio to support their aging parents and establish a new commercial kitchen for food entrepreneurs.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana in late August of this year, flooding cities and destroying homes, the Chadwells organized a fundraising effort at BeeHive Oven, donating a portion of proceeds from sales of Texas-shaped waffles on Sept. 6 to the San Antonio Food Bank. The restaurant and its customers raised enough money to cover 2,570 meals, John proudly reported.
Strangers pitched in to help, as had been the case after Sandy. “People from all over the city and all over the country just rushed to New York and do what they could,” Treva said of the 2012 storm’s aftermath. “It was an incredibly sad, demoralizing time — but also the complete opposite when you saw all the people who were willing to help.”