Peter DeGast, the franchisee of the International House of Pancakes Restaurant located on 32nd Street and Kennedy Boulevard in Union City’s Kennedy Center, was in his restaurant when the World Trade Center was attacked on the morning of Sept. 11.
"I went to the roof of the Kennedy Center," said DeGast, talking about the building on the corner, which houses Drug Emporium and other stores. "It was like watching scenes from Pearl Harbor."
The next day, DeGast called the regional manager for the tri-state area IHOP stores to see what IHOP could do to help in New York.
Although DeGast said that he and Nick Forster from the Hartsdale IHOP in New York were ready to throw some shovels in the trunk of their cars and head over to Ground Zero, DeGast knew that he would never get clearance to help with the rescue and recovery efforts.
However, with the help of volunteers from more than 50 IHOP stores, DeGast and IHOP served anywhere between 300 and 800 breakfasts a day to American Red Cross volunteers.
"I wanted to see if we could help out with what we do best," said DeGast.
How they got there
After hearing that Tricon, the company that owns Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other chain food stores, was stationed outside Ground Zero to help feed the volunteers, DeGast and the IHOP Steering Committee began making phone calls the next day to see what they could do.
"Tricon was serving 6,500 meals a day to help in the volunteer effort," said DeGast. "What they did was huge."
The National Red Cross set up headquarters at an abandoned school in Brooklyn just over the Manhattan Bridge. All of the volunteers first met at an abandoned school building before being transported to other locations closer to Ground Zero.
By October, IHOP was set up to serve breakfast and one lunch a week in the school building.
Once word got out that we were there, people started coming in from the woodwork," said DeGast about the amount of people who were served each day.
IHOP served volunteers as well as police officers, firefighters, members of the National Guard and the United States Marshals.
The first day that IHOP began serving breakfasts, they worked out of a mobile truck leased by the company. They lacked running water and had to use bottled water.
The company received two additional grills from the IHOP in Fairlawn and transported batter made at the Jersey City store on Route 440.
However, after one week, the operation was taken completely inside and meals were prepared in the school’s cafeteria. The Hobart Company even donated a $13,000 60-quart Hobart machine so that the cooks could make the pancake batter on site, rather than in Jersey City.
The volunteer effort
More than 200 cooks, waiters, owners and former employees came to Brooklyn to help. Volunteers from IHOP stores in Maine and Massachusetts drove through the night to be ready for breakfast.
"We can do this, no problem, as long as we have the volunteers," said DeGast after visiting the site for the first time. "My biggest fear was not getting the volunteers to prepare and serve the food. But the response we got was overwhelming. Many people volunteered multiple times."
"We were getting up at three or four in the morning to have everything prepared for breakfast," said DeGast.
The volunteers from the Union City IHOP included DeGast, General Manager Robyn D’Anna, Assistant Manager Kristy Eckert, and cooks Jesus Garcia, Romiro Caamano, Edward Morales, Jr., Luis Carrasquillo and Daniel Walkuul.
The tri-state area, including Southern Connecticut, New York City and Northern New Jersey, contains 56 IHOP stores.