Three Brothers Bakery’s long recovery after Hurricane Harvey

As Janice and Bobby Jucker looked at security camera footage from the days when Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters swept around their Three Brothers Bakery, they saw that a current had indeed formed in the store. Containers filled with flour and loose bagels surfed the room just before the power completely turned off the video.

The devastating storm of 2017 wasn’t their first and they know only too well it won’t be their last. Three Brothers has been a Houston institution since 1949, when Polish siblings opened their first location on Holman Street. In 1960, they moved an outpost of the store to South Braeswood Boulevard off Stella Link Road, a stone’s throw from Bray’s Bayou. The bakery has weathered powerful hurricanes such as Allison (2001) and Ike (2008), the Memorial Day (2015) and Tax Day (2016) floods. Then came Harvey, the largest rain event in US history.

The Juckers were on their way to Colorado to visit friends when news of Harvey’s return from the Gulf reached Houstonians stronger than ever. They called their general manager two days before landing on August 25 and asked if he thought they should turn back—last chance, because once they got past Amarillo, they wouldn’t be coming back before the storm, Janice recalls . They finally decided against it. A few days later, they watched CNN from afar and spotted acquaintances being airlifted from their homes and taken to safety on an overpass.

“There’s nothing you can do, you just have to wait,” said Janice.

It took four days for the water to recede and they finally got inside the building. Janice says it’s “disgusting”. Heavy equipment had tipped over, baked goods and dough had been soaked. For major structural problems, they hired a restoration company, and together with their staff, the Juckers set about cleaning the bakery from the ground up. They scrubbed the display cases with toothbrushes and washed countless pans. Janice says she remembers a nearby restaurant that opened immediately — she vowed never to eat there again.

Spoiled dough outside the Three Brothers Bakery after Hurricane Harvey.

Bakery Three Brothers

Three Brothers was closed for 17 days. When they reopened they didn’t even have a product to sell, the bakery simply became a place for people to meet and share stories as the neighborhood synagogues and Jewish community center were still under water.

Janice emphasizes that recovery isn’t just about cleaning up and reopening your doors in the days and weeks after a storm. It takes years to get back on its feet, and though five of them have passed since Harvey, Three Brothers is still paying off a $760,000 Small Business Administration (SBA) catastrophe loan across its three locations at one interest rate of 3.305 percent. You still owe $483,000.

When applying for the loan, you have to prove that you can repay it, says Janice. The SBA had to use the Bakery’s 2014 finances for documentation because it had so many insurance claims from previous floods, as well as an unrelated fire. After Harvey, the Juckers would post all expenses to their credit card so they could keep some cash in the bank. The first bill after the storm was $100,000, which they were able to pay in full. The next one cost $140,000 — by then it was late October and they still hadn’t received the loan they had been approved for a month earlier. “That credit card bill was keeping me up at night not knowing how to pay it,” Janice said. They eventually called Senator John Cornyn’s inaugural service office to plead for it, and two days later they were funded.

Chaos at the Three Brothers Bakery after Hurricane Harvey.

Chaos at the Three Brothers Bakery after Hurricane Harvey.

Bakery Three Brothers

Property damage is not the only aftermath of a hurricane. There is the economic impact when much of the neighborhood is gone or recovering, resulting in a loss of business from regular customers. As an example, Janice cites a 300-unit apartment building nearby that has since been bulldozed. In 2019, Three Brothers lost their kosher certification for staying open on Passover, a decision they say they had to make in order to survive financially. Then, of course, there are the old photos and historical documents that have been lost to flooding, although Janice said it’s nothing compared to, say, wedding photos being swept away from an apartment building.

Three Brothers Bakery on a sunnier day.

Three Brothers Bakery on a sunnier day.

Bakery Three Brothers

So why stay? The Three Brothers Braeswood site is set in a 100 year old floodplain on the banks of the Bayou. Bobby points to their history and importance in the neighborhood over the past 60+ years. He remembers being closed for nine months after Hurricane Ike. When they finally reopened, the grateful response from customers was overwhelming. The community expects the bakery to be there all the time, he says. Janice adds that the government allowed floods to get this bad, but she also keeps an eye on disasters.

“If we think about the story of Three Brothers Bakery, Bobby’s father and two uncles were Holocaust survivors,” said Janice. “A flood is an inconvenience.”

The Juckers have learned a lot from repeated flooding. Janice says they’ve gotten really good at cleaning up and have a comprehensive recovery plan. The couple have become extremely adept at dealing with lawmakers and are committed to doing more to help small businesses affected by natural disasters. They’ve also become experts at reading between the lines of flood and hazard insurance policies. (Janice is telling you—yes, you—to sit down and read your insurance policy tonight.)

Bobby and Janice Jucker, owners of Three Brothers Bakery, at their South Braeswood bakery that was inundated by 4.5 feet of water during Hurricane Harvey.

Bobby and Janice Jucker, owners of Three Brothers Bakery, at their South Braeswood bakery which was inundated by 4.5 feet of water during Hurricane Harvey.

Michael Ciaglo, Staff Photographer / Staff Photographer

They have been looking at some flood mitigation initiatives for the business. One they liked was FloodFrame, which builds walls into the ground around your property that rise with the water, but found it too expensive. After Ike, they also learned that by city ordinance, if they changed anything about the building’s perimeter, they would either have to demolish it or build it, disrupting business for months.

It is necessary to keep their doors open to pay off their SBA loans. After years of multiple disasters, the company is finally growing again and preparing to open a fourth bakery, which they had planned in 2014 before something hit them every year — and let’s not forget the COVID-19 pandemic. The Juckers are very calm and matter-of-fact about their problems, but Janice admits that mentally she doesn’t think she can handle another disaster.

“The next one that’s coming, who knows if we can pull it off?” said Bobbi.

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