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Julia Jaksic On Life After The Tornado In Nashville

The storms hit the city hard, and they were only a preview of the struggle to come.

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Julia Jaksic trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, then moved to New York City where she started working in kitchens and food styling as a side hustle. She was a longtime consulting chef for Jack’s Wife Freda and head chef at Employees Only, and she continues on as restaurant consultant and executive chef at Employees Only Singapore. When Jaksic decided she wanted to downsize, Nashville spoke to her, and she is now the chef/owner of Cafe Roze, an all-day cafe that she opened in 2017 in East Nashville. Plans are in place to open Roze Pony, another all-day cafe and grab-and-go market in Nashville’s Belle Meade district sometime in 2020.

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The tornado on March 3 happened really early in the morning, around 1 or 1:30 am, so most people were sleeping. There was really no warning—only about six minutes, I’ve heard from multiple news sources. That was the scary thing about this.

I happen to live next to a school where tornado sirens are located, so I heard the sirens in bed and thought, “Do I really have to get up?”. Unfortunately, tornado sirens are a common occurrence here. I immediately went to an incredible Twitter feed here in Nashville that just deals with the weather. The first thing I read was “take shelter,” so I jumped out of bed and went to the basement.

At that point a bunch of friends started texting–local business owners and my staff who were actually closing down at the restaurant. I think the internet is a great tool in something like this because you can use it to your advantage. I learned some of my staff were in Five Points drinking—that was the really affected area. I was trying to get hold of them, and talking to friends who were in different locations, trying to gauge the severity of it all. Fortunately, where I live not much happened, because I was sort of right next to the tornado path. It just seemed like a really bad thunderstorm.

But the main area of East Nashville was completely devastated. So many friends lost businesses and homes. It really devastated not only this community, but North Nashville and out even further into some of the surrounding counties of Nashville. It was just indescribable and completely surreal to see what happened.

Photo: Eliza Kennard.

Nashville is no stranger to tornadoes, but it’s new to me. I was in New York for Hurricane Sandy and saw the blackouts and stuff. I think the difference when Sandy came through New York, though, was we had a few days warning. It was “okay we’re going to shut down the subways tomorrow at 3 pm”, and people had time to secure their homes or businesses.

Weirdly, a lot of friends just slept through the tornado, which is crazy. You know, it rains here all the time, it rains so much. Last year at Cafe Roze, we lost power four times throughout the year, just from storms, and so it becomes, unfortunately, something that you sort of become immune to. This has really woken me up to taking this stuff seriously. If a tornado siren’s going off, stop what you’re doing and go take cover, because you don’t know which siren is going to be the one that disrupts your life.

In East Nashville, some of the places that were really hit were Burger Up, the Basement East, High Garden Tea, Attaboy, Margot Cafe & Bar, Marche Artisan Foods, and BoomBozz, which is kind of the local pizza place. In addition to that the tornado just kind of ripped down a few streets so all these beautiful turn-of-the-century Victorian houses were also just devastated.

I lived in New York City a long time before moving to Nashville, and when I was opening Cafe Roze, one of the biggest things that I noticed is that there’s an amazing sense of community here, more so than I’ve experienced before in my career. Opening Roze, people were so supportive and people really champion you here. New York is such a huge city, so you get that on a micro level, but here it really comes out on such a huge level.

Just watching what’s happened after this disaster, I see this “Spirit of Nashville” that existed here before the tragedy. To see everyone just rallying for each other and the amount of volunteers that have gone out on a day-to-day basis and just helped people clear their yards, helped businesses salvage what they could, and people buying tarps and diapers and formula and personal supplies for donations … it’s amazing.

A lot of organizations have also rallied around the cause, like Hands On Nashville, which has been a huge resource for organizing all the volunteers, figuring out what supplies people need, when they need it, and where they need it. The Nashville Food Project is a wonderful organization that is keeping the volunteers and victims fed through the whole process. Another organization which has been incredible is Gideon’s Army, which is really helping, especially in North Nashville. There are GoFundMe pages for businesses who have said, “we’re going to try to raise $5,000” and they raise $50,000. Just the generosity of people really pulling behind businesses and residents has been pretty incredible.

Like me, I think a lot of people didn’t sleep the night of the tornado. I got to Cafe Roze very early because I really wanted to be there so the community would have a place to congregate. I think the best thing you can do when things like this happen is to be around your neighbors and talk and share and feel supported. So we opened Roze that morning and we were just kind of giving out coffee and giving out meals and whatever we could to people that lost everything.

For the entire week we’ve been checking in on regulars that have been affected—buying them dinner or lunch or breakfast, just kind of being there to support them in any way we can. If that means a free meal or free drink or whatever, I know it’s such a minuscule thing compared to what they’re dealing with, but it’s just more of a gesture of “this is what we can do”. When you’re talking to someone that was sleeping in bed and was woken up by glass shattering all over them, let alone the trauma that is caused by that, you just are there for them in whatever way you can be.

Photo: Eliza Kennard.

As a business owner who hasn’t been affected, I wake up every day, and think, “what can we do today to help”? Is it giving free coffee, is it going to cook with the Nashville Food Project, is it handing out meals, is it hiring someone—even if my payroll swells a little bit—I can give back in that way.

A lot of people have lost jobs, and at Cafe Roze, we’ve hired a few cooks, temporarily until their power’s restored or their workplaces are rebuilt, and I think a lot of restaurants in Nashville are doing the same. I’m sure as the days and weeks go on, we, as a food and beverage community will continue to come together to help people in our community. I think in the industry it’s about supporting each other and knowing that if something happened to Roze, without a doubt, I would be supported by this community.

I worked with the Nashville Food Project on Wednesday, and we gave lunches out all day around East Nashville to everyone that was cleaning up. A ton of the local restaurants and bars have been donating food or fundraising for organizations like the United States Bartenders Guild, and for the families of two of our bartenders from Attaboy who, unfortunately, didn’t make it that night.

I think with a tragedy like this you always have to reassess what’s important and what’s not. Like, how do I treat people? And there’s that saying that I’ve heard so many times over the last week—hold the ones you love close, because you never know what’s going to happen. And I think everyone in the community is feeling that, just based on the amount of money and time and energy that everyone is throwing into the city. Personally, I’m also making sure that I have great insurance. That I have loss of income insurance and I have all my natural disaster insurance up to date and just preparing in that way.

I definitely think the first few days were just being in this fog, and in the coming weeks, I think we’re going to start really figuring out what really needs to be done, and how can we continue helping, and how can we ensure that it’s not just the first response with people saying “Yay, we’re going to help,” and then someone becomes homeless three months later because their insurance screwed them over, or whatever.

After the shock has settled a little bit, you start to realize that all these volunteers and assistance that is happening are amazing, but it’s going to be a long road. I think the rebuilding process is a marathon, so that’s something we are thinking about and talking about, not only in our restaurant, or just the food and beverage community, but in the city in general.

And now with the coronavirus, we are listening to the information coming out from the CDC and educating ourselves the best we can on the virus. Unfortunately, we have decided to close our dining room for the safety of our employees and guests. It’s really about survival at the moment and doing whatever is the safest for our communities. Guests can help by ordering takeout, or buying gift cards or other merchandise.

We’re all in this together! We’ve received so many amazing messages from our customers which have kept us going through this difficult time.