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The Polar Vortex Survival Diet

When I moved to Chicago in December, the natives told me “don’t worry, the last few winters have been really mild and we only had a few inches of snow.” Seems I brought bad weather luck with me, as the first week in January I was caught in the forces of the now legendary polar vortex. True, the rest of the country was also shivering through freezing temperatures, but here in Chicago it was 35 below with the wind chill and the snow kept falling. The street corners were like glaciers and Lake Michigan froze solid.

We got a lot of warning that this deep freeze was coming, so over the weekend I went to my new favorite supermarket—Mariano’s—to stock up. Half of Chicago had the same idea. The aisles were packed and shoppers were obviously into hunkering down and cooking at home. I did the same, making a big pot of fish chowder. And I ate that fish chowder for the next few days, along with other chill-chasers like meatballs, pasta and wine.

With all this home cooking going on, it was probably pretty easy to score a reservation at Alinea or Grace or a seat at Fat Rice or Big Star. But few residents ventured out during those subzero days. Stories filled the local media detailing the chilling effects of the Arctic blast on the restaurant economy.

  • Crain’s Chicago Business reported that many restaurants were practically empty on January 6 and some closed completely as people heeded the weathermen and stayed home.
  • Eater Chicago listed over 100 restaurants that were closed or had limited hours during the frigid snap, including such notables as Little Goat, Nacional 27, Naha and The Purple Pig.
  • To lure customers, a number of restaurants offered polar vortex deals. Free soup, free coffee, half-price cocktails, discounted hot toddies and pizza priced according to the temperature (below 0 if was free!) were a few of the promotions.
  • Chicago Magazine noted that several restaurants postponed their openings because of weather-related issues. Aside from the cold, burst pipes and other emergencies pushed back opening dates.

In the end, couple of days of negative temps had minimal effect on the city’s economy, according to reports. As soon as the mercury returned to a toasty 20 degrees and continued to inch up, restaurant traffic revved up—albeit at January levels, which is usually a slower time anyway. But one company that profited from the polar vortex was Delivery WOW.

Coming from New York, I knew Seamless and GrubHub—two popular services, now merged—that deliver restaurant meals. But this was a new one on me. I discovered it when I ran into a WOW deliveryman in the elevator of my apartment building. He had trudged out over the frozen tundra to bring dinner from Weber Grill Restaurant, a place that’s several notches above Chinese takeout and pizza, for sure. Customers can order up the likes of Wood-Fired Crab Cakes, Tuscan Brick Chicken and Black Angus Meatloaf to enjoy in their cozy apartments or houses. You simply enter your zip code and the restaurants in your neighborhood pop up on the screen. There’s a $6.95 delivery charge and minimum order of $15, but hey—it’s worth it when the wind is howling outside your window. Or if there's a group of hungry people huddling together for warmth in one home.

I felt really bad for the delivery guy (who by the way, was wearing a tie) but I’m sure he got extra-good tips that night. I’m going to try Delivery WOW next time the mercury plummets. Which is happening this week, with wind chills once again returning temperatures to negative numbers.

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