Winter 2016-17 has brought more than its fair share of oh-my-god-the-world-is-ending moments, including, but certainly not limited to, some very weird weather across the nation: unusually bitter cold snaps, way-above-average snowfall, heavy rains, and an onslaught of storms. And while an unexpected snow day might be seen as a godsend by schoolchildren, for business owners such an unforeseen event can be damning — particularly for restaurants, which operate on notoriously razor-thin margins.
On January 13, the city of St. Louis braced for what meteorologists said could be the worst ice storm in a decade, a warning that caused hundreds of schools, government buildings, and of course, restaurants, from corner coffee shops to farm-to-table tasting menu spots, to close for business early Friday and on into Saturday. But the actual ice accumulation turned out to be much less than expected, and thanks to slightly higher than forecasted temperatures, what ice did fall on the city was mostly melted by Saturday afternoon.
Meanwhile, early January brought unusually heavy rainfall in Northern California, leading to widespread flooding and even mudslides. In the Bay Area, the rain caused power outages that left thousands of people without electricity for a short period. Businesses such as Flaco’s, a vegetarian Mexican restaurant in Berkeley, were forced to temporarily shutter due to lack of power, while a Starbucks location in Martinez had to throw out all its dairy products due to lack of refrigeration.
While flooding was worse in the Napa Valley area due to its proximity to major rivers, many restaurants, including Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry, were already closed anyway for their regularly scheduled winter break, an annual hiatus taken when tourism is typically at its lowest point. Press in St. Helena, for instance, closed after New Year’s Eve and won’t reopen until January 25, so heavy rains have had zero impact on business — and general manager Spencer Weiss notes that all the rain hasn’t caused the restaurant any structural or maintenance issues, either. Restaurants that were open during the wet weather, such as popular burger spot Gott’s Roadside, did see a drop in traffic, with diners reporting unusually empty dining rooms.
But what happens when a city is repeatedly pummeled with harsh winter weather that it’s completely unprepared for? To find out, one need only take a glance at Portland, Oregon, where in mid-January a snowstorm — the fourth one this season — dumped more than a foot of snow on the city in just one day, forcing numerous restaurants to shut their doors.
For Nate and Jamie Snell, who own a Northeast Portland doughnut and coffee shop called Pip’s Original, the brutal winter weather has hit hard: Nate estimates the business has lost around $12,000 in revenue due to being forced to close for several days during the last couple snowstorms.
The Snells haven’t been shy about sharing their weather-related hardships with their customers, either: Nate wrote on the shop’s Facebook page, “Closed today... They are projecting this snow is going to last until at least Saturday. We obviously cannot afford to be closed that long so we're going to take the day to strategize, enjoy the snow and figure out a way to get open tomorrow.” In an attempt to mitigate their losses while the shop was shuttered, Pip’s sold gift certificates online for customers to use at a future date.
Even for restaurants specializing in cold weather-ready comfort food, the snow presents major hardships. For popular ramen spot Boke Bowl, which has two locations on opposite sides of the city, winter is typically its busiest season — but owner Patrick Fleming says business is down as much as 35 percent compared to prior years, largely thanks to the week or so worth of snow days the restaurant has had to take over the last month. The city’s most famous chefs aren’t immune, either: Chef Naomi Pomeroy, who owns two restaurants, Beast and Expatriate, tells Eater PDX that one snow day can result in losses of $3,000 to $6,000.
Restaurateurs who decide to brave the weather and open anyway are struggling, too. Chef Aaron Barnett, who owns a French bistro called St. Jack as well as La Moule, a mussels and frites bar, has only closed his restaurants for one day this winter. (The Canadian-born Barnett hails from Winnipeg, so he’s no stranger to driving in snowy weather, and he also notes that many of his staff live within blocks of their respective restaurants.)
Even still, Barnett says, “You go from having these nights where historically you’ll do X number of dollars and you watch that drop to half, a third, a quarter of that on any given night. December is typically a big month for private parties and corporate gatherings, and that’s big money for us. But we had a pretty good ice storm hit mid-month, and we had a bunch of them cancel because they just can’t get there. People just want to hunker down or maybe just go to the neighborhood bar. For the most part, they’re not making it out.”
Restaurants that do decide to remain open during severe winter weather have to figure out how to still turn a profit. At Boke Bowl, Fleming says he builds the schedule around the weather forecast, running with fewer staff to slash labor costs when he anticipates the restaurant will be extra-slow. “Many [staffers] understand getting shifts cut, but that doesn’t pay the bills,” he says, noting that they “typically meet somewhere in the middle” to ensure employees get some hours without busting the restaurant’s labor budget. At St. Jack, Barnett also runs with a smaller staff, serving a condensed “greatest hits” menu and moving all diners into the bar area to create the kind of cozy ambiance that a half-empty restaurant just can’t provide.
If there’s one segment of Portland’s restaurant industry that has suffered the worst in this unusually harsh winter, it’s the famous food cart scene. “In a restaurant, there is shelter, comfort, and alcohol (possibly) — a place to be,” Burger Stevens food cart owner Don Salamone tells Eater PDX. “At a cart, unless it's beautiful out, it's 'get your food and go’” — so when there’s a foot of snow on the ground limiting mobility, even the most popular food carts become ghost towns.
“Taking a hit is an understatement,” says Fleming, who also owns a popular fried chicken sandwich cart called Boke Dokie that’s he’s shuttered “until the weather takes a significant turn upward” — which he estimates won’t be until March.
Barnett places part of the blame on alarmist news outlets that warn residents to simply not leave their homes when snow falls. The problem is compounded by the city of Portland’s inability to cope with a large amount of snow and ice: The city has a policy of not salting roads due to concerns over adverse environmental effects.
“I don’t want to get into politics too much, but with this whole global warming thing we’re really going to have to reconfigure how Portland handles this type of thing,” he says.
And with no end in sight for dramatically shifting weather patterns, it seems restaurateurs will continue to have to adapt to the unexpected. Of course, not all restaurants are negatively impacted by inclement weather: When bad road conditions keep residents inside their homes, many turn to ordering delivery. On Friday, a Papa Murphy’s pizzeria in winter storm-ravaged Edmond, Oklahoma had to temporarily close its doors, too — not because of the snow and ice, but because it ran out of pizza dough.
• Portland Restaurants: The Real Cost of the Snowstorms [Eater PDX]
• Napa’s Restaurant and Wine Industry Rebuilds After Earthquake [E]
Whitney Filloon is Eater's senior reporter.
Editor: Daniela Galarza