5 lessons from the big chill

A collective sigh of relief was heard this week by winter-weary consumers and restaurateurs as the mercury began to rise above the freezing point. Granted, 40 degrees isn’t exactly balmy, but it seemed like shorts-and-t-shirt weather to residents in New England, the Midwest and even parts of the South who have been hit hard by relentless snow and ice storms and record cold temperatures.

In too many areas, hard-hit consumers delivered a hard hit for restaurants by staying home. Tables went empty and employees were idle. But though the winter's brutal weather may have chilled restaurant traffic, it kindled some hot ideas for doing business—ideas that have potential to help during other challenging times.

1. Work your relationships

As back-to-back snowstorms paralyzed Boston, cash flow became an issue for Jamie Tipping, owner-operator of The Boston Sail Loft Café. So he tapped into his business network for support. His lobster supplier agreed to lock in a low price, allowing Tipping to buy “lobster futures” that committed him to buying a certain volume in the future, he says. Tipping then offered lobster dinners at close to cost to the clientele that had supported the restaurant for 30 years. “The support of my supplier allowed us both to give back to the community,” he says.

To provide his employees a steady paycheck, Tipping worked with an alternative funding company he had used before to let workers draw against future compensation. Within a few days, he was extended a short-term loan—a bank usually takes much longer, Tipping says—and the restaurant’s entire staff was paid.

2. Communicate with customers and employees

When Snowmageddon 2015 crippled Atlanta, Casellucci Hospitality Group (The Iberian Pig, Cooks & Soldiers, Sugo and Double Zero Napoletana) emailed a newsletter to customers with the subject line “Defy Winter Storm Remus and Come to [name of restaurant]. The newsletters publicized the availability of tables and offered $5 cocktails and free tapas to guests who mentioned the email.

At Slurping Turtle in Chicago, Director of Operations Tom Roche had frank conversations with his employees to cut down on staff turnover and avoid layoffs during the winter. “We let them know we have no plans of letting anyone go; instead, we show staff how we will weather the slower months with a fairly allocated rotation of reduced hours,” he says.

3. Create a promotion with legs

Joe Cassinelli, founder of the Alpine Restaurant Group, runs three restaurants in a Somerville, Mass., neighborhood with a large concentration of millennials.  At the beginning of February he introduced the Snow Day Adult Happy Meal—a cheeseburger with hand-cut fries and a bourbon milkshake—for $15 at his Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar. The price just covered Cassinelli’s food and labor costs, but “the program was a way to do something for the neighborhood and staff during difficult times,” he says. It proved to be so popular that Rosebud is now offering the deal at a more restaurant-friendly price of $18 every Monday evening, calling the promotion “Milkshake Mondays.”

4. Arrange staff sleepovers

CBD Provisions was able to weather an unusually snowy Dallas winter because of its location next to the Joule Hotel. “During challenging weather, we offered some essential staff hotel rooms to stay the night if driving was an issue,” says Chef Richard Blankenship. “We’re not prepared to drive in snow here in Dallas, but we had a steady stream of customer clientele from the hotel.”  In walkable cities, some restaurants experienced a surge in traffic but employees couldn’t get to work. Operators in New York City, Boston and other cities reported that they provided lodging for some of their crewmembers.

5. Deliver the goods

Plan ahead by lining up a delivery service or extra delivery personnel. Chicago’s Slurping Turtle restaurant was proactive about dealing with the inevitable deep freeze. “Although our big bowls of hot noodles are perfect for cold temperatures, we had to explore other revenue streams to boost business when customers just want to hibernate,” Roche says. “This year, in addition to carryout, we partnered with two delivery services to give our guests enhanced service options.”

Driving bans or dangerous road conditions often make it impossible for vans and cars to deliver online orders, but restaurants in New York City hired bicyclists and pedestrians to deliver during the January blizzard. Until Mayor DeBlasio ordered everyone off the road at 11 p.m., the average delivery check was anywhere from 12 to 45 percent larger than normal, according to data from food delivery service GrubHub. Pizza topped the order list.

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