Opening a new restaurant is challenging enough. Imagine doing so with a hurricane barreling down on your city.
That’s what happened with Oxbow 7, a new eatery going into the Le Meridien Houston Downtown hotel, which was scheduled to open just as Hurricane Harvey devastated the area, one of the nation’s biggest restaurant markets.
Instead of planning a launch party, Oxbow 7 operators Bryan and Jennifer Caswell (who own several other Houston restaurants) are donating their time to feed thousands of first responders. They’re also pivoting their opening party into a fundraiser to support local nonprofit organizations, as well as some of their food producers that lost everything to the storm. And they’re scrambling for staff after one of their top chefs quit without notice, citing the stress of the hurricane and ensuing flooding. “It’s something restaurant people have to deal with daily,” Jennifer Caswell says. “We roll with the punches.”
Oxbow 7 appears to not have suffered any storm damage, unlike the Caswell’s original concept, Reef. It will likely take at least several weeks to repair drywall and other mold damage at the latter restaurant, she says. However, their recently upgraded flood insurance will cover the service interruption for the staff and the business, she says.
“When something like this happens, I start worrying about how will we take care of our restaurant family,” Caswell says. “I don’t want to look that person in the face and say, ‘I’m sorry. Tough …’ I want to be able to give him a hug and say, ‘We’ll see you tomorrow. Put on your gloves. We’re ripping out carpet.’”
The full effects of Hurricane Harvey and impending Hurricane Irma on restaurants in the affected areas likely won’t be known for months. But here are some of the impacts on the dining industry so far.
1. Curfew cuts into business
In the immediate days after Hurricane Harvey, Houston’s mayor imposed a midnight curfew on the city to cut down on looting and crime. Agricole Hospitality partner Morgan Weber said on social media that the curfew was hurting his sales. “Our restaurants are full,” Weber wrote. “Our bars are full. People want to support the community and we can’t let them. We are kicking out full houses in our places because of a curfew that honestly doesn’t make sense.” The mayor lifted the curfew several days later.
2. Adapting to loss of convention traffic
Both Houston and much of Florida are prime convention destinations. The full economic impact of this lost business is unclear, but these are events that draw thousands of attendees who take advantage of local dining options. The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Show postponed its convention until October, while two other Florida conventions cut their meetings short because of Irma, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The Society of American Florists Convention cancelled its Palm Beach, Fla., meeting altogether.
3. Shifting from business mode to goodwill mode
Houston Restaurant Weeks, an annual event to drum up restaurant business and raise money for the Houston Food Bank, was extended by several weeks after the storm. The move was made to help restaurants that might be temporarily closed due to hurricane damage, while also aiding a community agency.