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Steal this idea: Weathering a weekend blizzard

A weekend that should have delivered turn-away traffic because of the Super Bowl and Restaurant Week brought instead a business whiteout for some restaurants in Chicago, the result of a blizzard. Guests—and staffers—might have opted out of trudging through the storm, but having plans in place helped one local operator weather a snowfall of more than a foot without much of a drop in traffic.

DineAmic Group, the operator of such local restaurant as Siena Tavern, Public House and Bull & Bear, got several cancellations because the weather hit during the first weekend of Restaurant Week. Guests from neighborhoods farther away from the concepts seem particularly prone to change plans. “But it’s funny how it works in Chicago; weather is a double-edge sword,” says David Rekhson, principal of DineAmic Group. “We take a hit from those commuting, but make up for it in locals …it’s a little hit, but not as drastic as you’d think.”

And that is, in part, due to a system for filling reservations that open up. When the weather starts to get dicey, consumers who live or work nearby often call the restaurants early in the day, hoping for an open reservation that they can walk to, says Rekhson. DineAmic keeps a running list of those who call, and reach out to them as cancellations come in throughout the day, flipping the reservation for a local.

Another reason overall sales don’t dip as much, despite lower overall traffic: “People love to drink during snowstorms,” says Rekhson. Diners tend to let loose more when they know they have a snow day, he says. So he makes every effort to make the restaurants feel “extra cozy and inviting,” further encouraging guests to stay for one more cocktail.

But Rekhson also is realistic about the number of people who don’t want to leave their homes at all. “We do some delivery to make up for it,” he says. As long as the delivery services in Chicago are running (which hasn’t been a problem for DineAmic in the past), he makes sure his kitchens are ready and equipped to serve the many that choose to order in—and that they stay on top of delivery throughout service.

It’s not just guests who don’t come through the door, though. Not all staffers live nearby, so DineAmic tries to be accommodating while also having back-up plans in place. Front- and back-of-house staffers’ start times are staggered. And each restaurant has a list of on-call staffers that live close, in case those who commute run into timing trouble. Whether someone is going to be late or can’t make it at all, the restaurants have backups who can come in and fill the position. The key, says Rekhson, is open communication between staffers and managers.

Because DineAmic’s Chicago restaurants are in a relatively close vicinity to one another, the group also has the option to pull staffers from one restaurant to another. If one restaurant is overstaffed while another needs more hands on deck, managers can send someone to help out elsewhere.

And, says Rekhson, if traffic does wane due to weather, there’s no reason to keep the restaurants fully staffed. “We make the appropriate labor cuts, if need be,” he says.

One thing DineAmic avoids is increasing the size of servers’ sections. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” says Rekhson. If there aren’t enough servers to man the floor, managers close areas of the restaurant and don’t seat a number of tables. “It’s more forgivable to have guests wait at the bar than compromise the quality of service [because a server is overwhelmed],” he says.

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