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Improvising the menu around a hurricane

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“The advantage of hurricanes over disasters like earthquakes is that you know when they’re coming,” says Francesco Balli, co-founder and CEO of Grove Bay Hospitality, which operates six restaurant concepts in the Miami area. Balli’s primary concern is his employees’ safety before, during and after the storm—in this case, Hurricane Irma, estimated to make landfall in Florida this weekend. But restaurateurs also feel a responsibility to the community during these crises—feeding first responders, displaced residents and regular customers—and are often among the last businesses to close and the first to reopen.

Prior to Hurricane Harvey, “some of my managers said ‘Let’s not prep a lot,’” recalls John Moore, operator of Houston trattoria chain Palazzo’s Cafe, “but I said ‘Let’s prep like normal.’ And we got a crowd the night before the storm.” Moore discovered that people flock to restaurants before a hurricane because they don’t want to use up their own supplies, and they tend to come in droves after the storm clears because they have cabin fever. So how to stock up enough but not too much (power outages=spoilage) and keep the kitchen running? Balli, Moore and other affected operators share their strategies for working with suppliers and staff to feed the hungry during a natural disaster.

Be flexible about suppliers

Moore closed his locations for two to three days during the height of the storm and reopened with a skeleton crew, bussing tables himself. “We sold what we had on hand until we ran out. We were then able to offer about 85% of the menu,” he says. The first day, no suppliers could get through on the flooded roads, so “we ran to Restaurant Depot to resupply,” Moore says. On the second day, only one vendor could make deliveries, “and we ordered everything from that supplier.”

Look outside the box for ingredients

Ryan Pera, chef-owner of several Houston restaurants, was able to open his Italian concept, Coltivare, once the roads were passable three days after Harvey hit. He wanted to jumpstart service by making pizzas but ran out of flour. “I drove to the company that mills the flour and loaded two bags in my car,” he says. “My produce vendor still wasn’t delivering, so when the farmer’s market opened the next day, I stocked up on enough vegetables for two shifts and shared them among my three concepts.”

Set up communication channels

We kept in touch with all our vendors through phone, email and text, says Jonathan Horowitz, CEO of Legacy Restaurants, a multiconcept operation in Houston. “We were not able to get deliveries for three to four days after the storm, but we had just about everything ready for our full menus by the time we reopened,” he reports. Horowitz recommends creating communication channels as soon as a hurricane is predicted, forming text and social media groups to keep everyone in the loop—suppliers, employees, etc.

In Miami, Balli has an intranet in place to communicate with his restaurant group’s team members during Hurricane Irma. He’s also set up a call-in number for staff to get in touch after the storm.

Meet the delivery challenge

In Texas, most restaurant deliveries are made by surface transportation, and flooding made the roads impassable for several days, says Richie Jackson, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association. In addition, many warehouses flooded in Houston, Beaumont and other affected cities. In Florida, Balli hopes that sourcing may be a little less challenging, at least for his seafood-centric concepts. “Once the boats can go out, we will be able to get ingredients more quickly than we can by truck,” he says, assuring the protein component of the menu.

Cook what and where you can

Grove Bay Hospitality Group includes several chef-driven spots that will be difficult to operate with an abbreviated menu, says Balli. But at Shula’s 347 Grill, a steak-focused concept, “we’ll open if we’re just cooking burgers,” he says. And Glass & Vine, another of his restaurants, is in a residential neighborhood where Balli plans to do a meal in the park if there’s no power.

Reach out to the community

At his Revival Market concept in Houston, Pera used his outdoor smoker—which holds 1,000 pounds of meat at a time—to mass produce meals. A local supplier donated product, and one employee could handle the smoker. As soon as the meat was cooked, it was dropped off at shelters around the city and another animal was delivered. Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys, one of the concepts Horowitz runs in Houston, distributed its sandwiches to supermarkets, too. “As soon as we could, we came into our commissary with volunteers and used up all the existing product,” says Horowitz. “We created 11,000 sandwiches that we distributed to first responders, hospitals and people in shelters.”

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