By Charlie Pogacar | Photos by Jamie Barrese Photography
Erin McLaughlin has been in the restaurant business since she was old enough to work. At age 14, she gained employment at a diner, where her love affair with the industry began. Ever since, she’s held at least a part-time job in the world of restaurants. But, as well-versed as McLaughlin is in the industry, nothing could have prepared her for the challenges she’d face in assuming ownership of Armetta’s Restaurant & Pizzeria in Chinchilla, Pennsylvania—a small Appalachian town outside of Scranton—in 2017.
Since buying the restaurant, McLaughlin has endured an ongoing legal battle with the former owner. Then, in 2020, the pandemic shuttered the dining room at Armetta’s. While many restaurants experienced the same adversity, McLaughlin takes pride in the fact that her restaurant didn’t close for a single day. Armetta’s continued to offer takeout and delivery through the heart of the pandemic.
“She bought the established business before COVID-19 hit,” notes Jim Mirabelli, who publishes the NEPA Pizza Review, a blog and website focused on pizzerias across northeastern Pennsylvania. “Extraordinary challenges ensued there. She pulled through. She kept getting hit with equipment breakdowns, all kinds of stuff, but she still supported every cause in the community that came her way, despite the struggles.”
But McLaughlin and her team’s ability to overcome adversity was recently tested again—in a new and frightening way. On Saturday, September 9, a freak flash flood hammered the restaurant, doing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. Everything McLaughlin and her team had built over the past six years was nearly undone in the span of less than an hour.
The Great Flood
On the otherwise average Saturday evening, McLaughlin got a call from her go-to delivery driver. He let her know it was raining heavily and wondered if the pizzeria should pause delivery. McLaughlin emerged from the restaurant to take a look for herself. What she saw was rather shocking: Knee-high water was rushing so violently that street benches were floating away with the tide.
“Within five minutes, you could hear the water rushing into our basement, coming from all angles,” McLaughlin said. “Once the water in the basement was getting high enough, we literally had a brand new ice machine floating around down there. The staff knew how much I had wanted that ice machine, and they kept saying, ‘Don’t even look, Erin—it’s too sad!’”
Soon, Armetta’s team members were using 50-pound bags of flour to barricade the dining room, where guests were still sitting, growing increasingly concerned. A call to 911 was placed, and emergency responders worked to keep diners and staff in the restaurant until it was safe enough to drive home. In the meantime, team members scurried about to save any food or equipment they could. McLaughlin has a close relationship with everyone on her team, but even she was blown away by their commitment during a time of pure chaos.
“They had a fire line going where they were pushing water down the steps so it wouldn’t get into the dining room,” McLaughlin said. “It got to the point where we were all sliding and falling all over the place. I’m crazy about my staff. I don’t know if I have friends any more after being in this business—my staff practically is my family, I spend all my time with them and they’re just really special people.”
At that point, with little else to do, the staff turned to the food that had been boxed up but couldn’t be delivered. They offered it to diners, some of whom had never gotten to eat—their food had been in the oven when the flooding started to disrupt operations. With little that could be done, the Armetta’s team members ate the leftovers with diners and watched as the watermark climbed higher.
By 11:30 p.m., most diners had been successfully evacuated. McLaughlin and her team stayed into the wee hours of the morning, assessing the damage and salvaging anything they could. McLaughlin has flood insurance, but what she didn’t know was that it wouldn’t cover claims like lost wages or food that was damaged. She has since been going back and forth with the insurance company in an exhausting tug-of-war, trying to find ways to rebuild the restaurant.
After the Deluge
In the meantime, Armetta’s had to communicate with its loyal following to let them know what had happened and when they could expect service to resume—if ever. Armetta’s tapped its outdoor road signage, long known for displaying humorous messages that help with grassroots marketing efforts. “That sign in front of the business has been famous locally for decades, as they change it with funny or uplifting words every week,” Mirabelli notes.
McLaughlin decided this challenging time should be no different. As is often the case, she and her team members bounced ideas off one another. “We always try to be as creative as possible with our signs,” McLaughlin said. “We try to keep them uplifting and positive. Even during this time, I didn’t want to put up anything sad. An employee of mine, Matthew Siegler, came up with something and it made me laugh—it felt like the first time I chuckled since the flooding—so we went with it.”
They changed the sign. It now read: “Gone Swimming. Be Back Soon Dough.”
It was an instant hit on social media, receiving thousands of likes, comments and shares. The outpouring from the community began.
Armetta’s Restaurant & Pizzeria has become a local institution, in business in the same location since 1988. The pizzeria makes three distinct styles of pie: traditional New York, Sicilian and the Old Forge style that famously originated in the Scranton area. Armetta’s differentiates itself from the competition by using high-quality ingredients, but it’s also known in the area for having an unwavering dedication to the community. McLaughlin sponsors local sports teams, donates food to homeless shelters, and cooks turkeys during the holiday season for those in need—and that’s just the start of Armetta’s community service.
Now all of that good karma is coming back to McLaughlin and her team in spades. The town of Chinchilla organized a two-hour benefit event at the local fire department, with the proceeds donated to the flooded pizzeria. Other local residents and businesses have rallied around Armetta’s, donating time, labor and money to ensure the pizza place can open its doors once again. Members of the community have also launched a GoFundMe campaign and a Paypal giving fund.
The rebuilding effort is already underway. As of September 29, McLaughlin had reopened Armetta’s with a limited carryout-only menu, and customers poured in to support her. McLaughlin considers herself lucky to even have a chance to rebuild—she credits the community support for the tailwinds that made the flood relief effort possible. She is keenly conscious of the fact that her own staff members have families to feed, so she’s determined to get Armetta’s fully operational as soon as possible.
“She’s only worried about her employees, not herself,” Mirabelli says.
“I’m crazy about this business, and I’m crazy about my staff,” McLaughlin said. “I just want to do good in this community, and that’s all coming back to us now. The kindness the community has been showing tells me we’re in the right community. We belong here, and we’ll be back.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the original version posted on September 20, 2023.