3 Businesses That Rebuilt After 9/11

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Everyone knows the story of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond firm on the 105th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center, which lost more than 650 employees -- one-third of its workforce -- when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into it Sept. 11, 2001.

Cantor Fitzgerald and CEO Howard Lutnick became the poster child for all businesses that suffered in the 9/11 attacks. Ten years later, Cantor Fitzgerald's Lutnick is sharing a new story -- one of rebirth and rebuilding.
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But what of the other businesses in Manhattan's Financial District?

Some, such as Harry's Cafe & Steak, were able to not only reopen shortly after the attacks but to grow. The family-owned cafe has since expanded to 11 pastry shops and eight restaurants across the city, with two more restaurants coming soon.

Others, such as Abracadabra Digital Color, which had headquarters in the center's south tower, eventually had to shut down due to the lack of business after the terrorist attacks. But owner Greg Carafello went on to start another venture -- one he plans to expand to lower Manhattan.

Here are the stories of three small-business owners and how they've been able to come back from those dark days and thrive.

Harry Poulakakos
Harry's Cafe & Steak has been a staple in lower Manhattan since its opening in 1972 by Greek immigrant Harry Poulakakos. (The famed restaurant for Wall Street powerhouses closed between 2003 and 2006 for renovations.)

The entrepreneur, now 73, remembers what it was like in downtown New York in the weeks after the attacks.

"It was very difficult even to get down here. No cars were allowed down here for a couple of months," he says. "Business was hurting everywhere. We opened Harry's one week after and the funny thing was we had a lot of support. My old customers, they wanted to show support, and we had a very busy week, but for a while we suffered. Business was not that great."

Little by little the area started to see signs of life. The Poulakakos family, under the leadership of Harry's son, Peter, decided to expand.

In 2002, the family opened the first of what is now 11 pastry shops under the Financier Patisserie name.

"Everybody says, 'Why did you do that?' This area is going to suffer. It's not going to develop," the elder Poulakakos recalls critics saying.

"We always had a lot of faith in the area," Poulakakos says. "I spent all of my life down here, since the day I came from Europe in 1956 . I was never afraid. I always told the boys the area is going to come back. It's going to be better than ever, and thank God I was right."

The family went on to open a host of restaurants in a then up-and-coming area in lower Manhattan. First was Ulysses Folkhouse in 2003. Two years later, a stone's throw from Ulysses, was Adrienne's Pizza Bar. Four more restaurants opened in 2009-11, with two more restaurant concepts set to open by early next year.

"The expansion downtown was perfect. We do more business now than we ever did before," even with a down economy, Harry Poulakakos adds.

The family also anticipates a tremendous increase in business downtown when the new towers are finished.

"I'm happy because that's where New York started -- downtown -- and it's coming back again. It's a great feeling," he says.

Greg Carafello
Greg Carafello, now a master franchisee of Cartridge World's New York City and New Jersey stores, just barely made it out of the south tower before it too was hit by a plane.

Carafello's printing business, Abracadabra Digital Color, made its headquarters on the 18th floor. The company also had four satellite locations in New Jersey, but many of its clients were in the towers.

Carafello escaped with one other employee. No others were in the office yet, he says thankfully.

"At first we thought it was a gas explosion, but then we heard it was a plane. My back was to the building when the second one was hit. The noise level was unbearable. At that point you start sprinting. You know you're under attack. This is not a mistake. So we ran down to South Street Seaport," he recalls.

He and the employee ended up walking to midtown to the Waldorf-Astoria, where they got a room to rest and take showers. "We didn't even know the towers had fallen until we turned on the TV," he says.

Carafello was so shocked by the experience -- including the loss of his best friend in the attacks -- that he didn't think much about his office for several days. "It was a matter of just getting away," he says. "You think as an owner you think of the business the next day. It was a week of doing absolutely nothing on the couch. I had competent people running the offices in New Jersey."

But eventually Carafello did have to think about his business -- or rather the lack of business.

"We did a lot of trade show graphics. There was nobody traveling. We went right into a recession. People had no funds," he says.

The Port Authority, one of Carafello's biggest clients, kept giving him business, and Carafello was able to keep his staff of 30 employed for the next two years. But by 2003, the business started to ramp down, and he ended up selling in 2004.

In the meantime, Carafello was already plotting his next venture -- which didn't include New York City, to begin with. "I wasn't ready to go back yet," he says.

He became a franchisee of Cartridge World stores, buying the master rights for its New Jersey territory. Between 2003 and 2005 he opened some 30 stores in New Jersey for the 1,700-store, international specialty retailer of printer and toner cartridges.

But Manhattan eventually lured him back. In 2007, he bought the rights to an additional 30 stores in New York City. He's been slowly opening stores there. Between all of his territories, 46 stores are open under Carafello's franchise territory, and New York City still has virgin opportunities for Cartridge World, he says. He wants to put five stores in lower Manhattan alone.

But the tenth anniversary of 9/11 drums up painful emotions.

"It's been a painful 10 years. Thankfully I got out alive, but financially I got hit. But you get back up and go back to work and be the best at what you do," he says. "The new business is doing well. It's starting to really take off. Now we've got a mature system that's really starting to grow."

Jane Labanz
Calligrapher Jane Labanz doesn't have a storefront, but her business was still severely hurt by 9/11.

Before the attacks, Labanz was doing primarily wedding invitations, selling exclusively at a high-end stationary store in Manhattan. After 9/11 her business all but dried up.

"My business dropped to half of what it was instantly because a lot of my work was in New York City," Labanz says. "At the time I was doing mostly bridal, and people didn't get married in New York City for a long time. They went to other places because they weren't going to risk planning a wedding. People cut their budgets. The whole city was affected."

Labanz realized she would have to expand her services if she wanted to stay in business.

With counseling help from SCORE and a $2,000 grant and further help from Career Transition for Dancers, a nonprofit organization committed to current and former professional dancers, Labanz's business is thriving. She is also an actress.

"He said people who survive in times like this use their noodle," Labanz says, referring to her SCORE counselor. "You have to use your noodle."

To get business, Labanz started attending trade shows more frequently. She contacted retail stores more frequently with new samples. She spent a significant amount on her website, The Delicate Pen, and recently put together a YouTube video to catch the eye of manufacturers.

In addition to her bridal invitations, which are sold through retail stores across the country, Labanz has been hired to do calligraphy by wedding venues, theaters (for props), even by Macy's ( M) for a Christmas-themed poster.

"I learned a long time ago that I cannot be everything to everyone. I have a niche. I have a very romantic hand, and that is going to appeal to a certain part of the community. That's who I cater to and I don't stray too far from what I do," Labanz says.

The efforts have paid off.

"I targeted bridal for so long, it really made me think of all these other ways I can use my calligraphy. Bridal is part of what I do now, but it's about half of what I do," she says.

"I have had the busiest summer I have ever had. I have had to hire extra help to get me through the summer," Labanz says.

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

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