In the 37 years that manager Tom Mailander has been with the Surfside Club, they’ve never missed a summer season.
Even when the restaurant burned to the ground in March 1981, Tom said, the place was rebuilt and reopened three weeks later.
But now, with the Missouri River covering the parking lot and creeping toward the patio, Tom is abandoning ship.
Employees and friends have spent the past three days cleaning out the building and laying down sandbags.
The Surfside Club is closed.
Closed for the week — maybe for the season. Maybe, well, maybe closed for a while. ...
Tom’s trying not to think too far ahead.
* * *
When you’re standing in a muddy building, talking to a man about his livelihood, it’s pretty horrible to start feeling sorry for yourself because you don’t know when you’re going to have fried catfish and corn fritters again.
But I couldn’t help it.
I love everything about the Surfside Club. The wobbly picnic tables, the misspelled signs, the melancholy big-band music ... And the catfish. Dear Lord, the catfish.
Even though it’s a half-hour drive from our house, we made it to the Surfside Club about every other week last summer. I have photos of my kindergartner eating catfish, his face covered in hot sauce, and my toddler trying to throw leftover corn fritters into the river.
A summer without the Surfside Club almost doesn’t seem like summer.
And a future without the Surfside Club is too dire to imagine.
When the river started rising this week, the restaurant started taking more and more calls from concerned customers. “Are you open? Are you staying open?”
By Friday, more than 200 people were calling a day.
“One of them called me at home last night, crying. ...” said Tom, one of three owners. “I don’t even know how this guy got my home number.”
Some callers, people who don’t live near the river, don’t understand how serious the situation is at the Surfside Club. When one customer was told the Club was closed, he responded, “Do you think you’ll be open tomorrow?”
Tomorrow it will only get worse.
The last time the river was this high was in 1993.
That summer, the water was full of debris and dead animals. “And it stunk,” Tom said. “People had trouble sitting out on the patio.” But the water never leaked into the parking lot, and the restaurant stayed open.
This time, as fast as the water is rising, Tom is almost certain it will reach the building.
He’s not sure what happens if it does. Growing up in rural western Iowa, when a home flooded the neighbors would get together to clean it out. But Tom isn’t sure what the rules are for reopening a flooded restaurant. ...
The Surfside Club has about 20 employees. Most have other jobs, but some depend on the money they make each summer. The restaurant was already having kind of a lousy season, thanks to a cold and rainy spring. Business didn’t really pick up until Memorial Day.
If the flood damage is too great, Tom has considered looking for a new location. But he feels like it’s too soon to make any big decisions.
While we talk, friends are rolling up mats and lugging out the last kegs of beer from the kitchen. We had to drive through 2 feet of water to get inside the restaurant — and the mosquitoes, always a nuisance at the Surfside Club, are thick and murderous.
“We’ve been through fire,” Tom says, “and now we’ve been through flood. I guess, what’s next? Pestilence? Famine?”
Maybe not actual famine. But for Surfside fans, this might be a long summer.
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