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Record snows punish restaurants large and small

4 min read


This post is by Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.

Mother Nature piled on this week, hitting many parts of the Northeast with two storms in one day.

7 bright spots in the snow

  • Delivery. The winter’s series of storms has proved a mixed blessing for pizza chains that deliver. Business is good as more consumers opt to dine in rather than brave the elements. However, traffic conditions during storms and the high hills of snow that remain in the days afterward can make delivering pizza a hazardous job.
  • Location. Eateries in pedestrian-friendly urban areas that manage to stay open and staffed tend to fare a bit better during and immediately after storms than do their suburban peers whose guests almost always arrive by car.
  • Extending hours. Staying open after hours paid off for a handful of eateries that served a captive audience of stranded passengers waiting for flights out of Philadelphia’s airport.
  • Free Wi-Fi. Coffee shops with free Internet, including this Starbucks in Hyattsville, Md., managed to open Thursday morning in some markets and were rewarded with crowds of people who needed a connection after they lost power.
  • Promotions. Not all eateries depend on serendipity to fill their tables when storms hit. A chain called 99 Restaurants, which operates in 11 states in the Northeast, launched a promotion offering free children’s meals on snow days, with the purchase of an adult meal.
  • Social media. Savvy restaurants took advantage of social media tools to creatively promote specials aimed at bringing in customers during the storm, including Philadelphia’s Bistro Romano, which froze prices for a three-course meal on Wednesday and further enticed diners to turn out with a $20 gift certificate giveaway. Many are tweeting their status, either to let regulars know they’re closed or offer storm-weary patrons a place to get away from reality for a bit. Lucky restaurateurs in some cities got help publicizing their offerings, including eateries in Philly fortunate enough to land on this list from the city’s official tourism blog.
  • Capitalizing on Restaurant Week. Several Baltimore eateries announced plans to extend their Restaurant Week promotions because of the bad weather, including Blue Hill Tavern, which tweeted its promise to extend the fixed-price menu one day for every inch of snow that fell. The result: five more days of Restaurant Week.

At least one national restaurant chain is taking a hit, in part because of its size, and others are likely to follow. Red Lobster and Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants’ shares fell as Wednesday night’s storm loomed, and one analyst dropped his rating on the company’s stock in part because of the effects that storms in several parts of the country have had on the company’s sales. Chains also face longer-term uncertainty as bad weather threatens to contribute to further increases in commodity prices.

Independents miss their regulars

“It’s been the longest shortest winter already, that’s my favorite saying right now,” said Stacey Gondek, owner of Confectionately Yours in Franklin Park, N.J. “It’s only January, and we’ve had a storm every week since winter started.”

Snowstorms such as Wednesday’s take a bite out of at least two days worth of business — the day of the storm and the clean-up day — says Gondek, who has been in business for 30 years. Her eatery depends on local businesspeople and teachers from nearby suburban schools at lunchtime, two groups that disappear when schools and offices close because of snow. Falling snow and streets that ice up after dark keep more of her regulars at home during the dinner hour, she says, especially the seniors.

January is typically one of winter’s busier months for produce supplier David Young, whose Tailor Cut Produce and Life Produce provides fruits and veggies to New Jersey restaurants, but most of Young’s workers were shoveling snow instead of making deliveries on Thursday. The roads were clear enough for the company’s trucks to get through, but many of the restaurants hadn’t placed orders because of the storm and quite a few hadn’t opened for business by lunchtime.

“They’ll miss three-quarters of a day, go in, shovel out and be open for dinner,” he says.

How has your restaurant fared during the unusually cruel winter? Tell us about it.

Image: Woodmont Grill in Bethesda, Md., on Thursday morning.
Rebecca Pollack Scherr, SmartBrief.