Snow Business like the Bar Business
Venturing out to Iron Hill's BCtWC event last month after the first of two 20"+ dumpings of snow fell upon eastern Pennsylvania and watching my inbox fill up with notices that 'this bar' and 'that restaurant' were staying open no matter what got me to wondering.
Wondering why it is so important to stay open and ask employees to come out to work on days such as this. Surely they have more important things to be concerned with, right?
Wondering why patrons want to go out so badly to a bar in this weather. In all liklihood, if the bar closes it won't be much more than 24 hours before it reopens, right?
Wondering why we can't break from the norm once in a while and just stay put. I suppose that almost sounds like an outdated, an antiquated, way of thinking given this age of always being connected, always on the go, never willing to put the status quo on hold even for a little while.
I'd been pondering this and asking around informally these questions during the last few weeks. I noticed that Kirsten Henri of Grub Street Philadelphia had done the same in the City.
Out here in the Burbs, I've got a few tidbits to share with you from local proprietors. You'll hear their opinions on the situation directly; let us know if you agree or disagree or have different thoughts on the topic. And, hopefully, this will comprise the last significant mention of snow-related opening, closures, and the like for the year 2010.
I'd asked for observations that might span from the light-hearted and humorous to the more serious. I'd expected to get answers from the goofy ("we had a snowball fight between the employees and the management....") to the more sobering ("we had an issue with a collapsed roof") or something to that effect.
Generally, what I got was a determination to get back to business as usual as quickly as possible. Of course, that makes sense if you understand that these folks are not in the business of being closed. Every meal of the day that a restaurant is closed is a meal's worth of revenue lost to the business...plus potentially lost food that can no longer be used the following day. So, it makes sense that proprietors with the resources to open (employees who live down the street within walking distance, the business is located in a walkable/urban area, etc.) would make every reasonable effort to open. Gary Fry's comments about the ancillary costs of snow (plowing, salt, lost parking spots, etc.) were revealing as well.
Unlike in the City, there really were not any "snow specials" to speak of that would entice customers to come out during either of the big snowfalls. Unless you count Iron Hill's annual Belgian event that went off anyway (you may recall from my posting back here that we showed up as well). But, from those that stayed open, it was evident that people like to get out....to keep from being cooped up, plus just the adventure of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, or 4-wheel driving for a bite and a beverage is worth a memory or two as well from what has turned out to be a record-breaking winter here in the Philly area.
Here's what I found, in their words.
Gary Fry, Craft Ale House, Limerick, PA---
"My approach was, "I'll believe it when I see it", and boy did we see it.
We closed early on Friday night (Feb 5), for the safety of our staff, our customers and ourselves. We told our staff that we would make "the call" in the morning.
I was in denial that it would actually add up to something. Then on Saturday morning my wife and I made the call to close for the entire day. It was an extremely stressful and agonizing decision for us, being in business for just over a year, and to lose a full Saturdays worth of business. We then called everybody on our staff and told them that we were closed, we posted an update on our website, BlogSpot, and on our outgoing voicemail. None of our staff could make it in, so we couldn't serve people anyway. We were finally able to relax and accept what was happening. Now the only thing was that we had no food in our house, so we called around and found out a local bar/restaurant near our house was open, so I shoveled out and off we went.
This past Wednesday (Feb 10): It was much easier on us this past time to make the call. We were not going to lose out on a busy Saturday, and I was welcoming the time off just so my wife and I could chill out ourselves.
After each snow fall, we were busy with people that had cabin fever and just had to get out. I had people pull up on their snowmobile, some hiked and some snow shoed here.
Not only did we not have any money coming in on any of these days, but the plowing fees were ridiculous. Now the snow mounds are so big they are taking up spaces on my parking lot, and every day they melt, I have to go out and salt the streams of water so nobody slips and falls on them in my lot. This will go on for a while until the snow is gone."
Jeff Miller, TJs, Paoli, PA---
"We were open during both of the snowfalls. Was it worth it? Probably not. Sales on Saturday & Wednesday were 30% of the regular number. However, I come from the mind set that if you can, you should open the doors. We have several staffers that have 4WD, including Terri & I. We also have three employees that live literally right across the street. Everyone else we told to stay home. So we were able to open without putting anyone in jeopardy. And when it snows again...yes, TJ's will be open!"
Mark Edelson, Iron Hill, 8 locations---
"We look at a couple of things -
1. Can we safely get enough employees into work to operate the restaurant? In many instances, we have employees who live within walking distances or short drives to the restaurant. If they are close, we may even consider coming and picking them up. Not always popular, as everyone likes a good snow day.
2. Are we in a location where customers will show up? Restaurants like West Chester, Phoenixville, and Media, we have a lot of customers who live close by. In Newark, WC and Lancaster, we have a significant student population within walking distance as well. North Wales and Wilmington customers can't walk to us.
In some locations, customers living close by are grateful that you are open. They just like to get out for a while. In some cases, like WC, there was a power outage in some of the neighborhoods and people just came up to hang out and stay warm.
In the latest snowfall, West Chester and Lancaster were full. Media had some business. Not much for the other restaurants, if we opened at all. Delaware loves to declare a State of Emergency and keep everyone off the roads until they get around to clearing the roads. Keeping people off of the roads for 48 hours isn't good for business.
We didn't run specials. People are just glad we are opened where we can."
Brian O'Reilly, Sly Fox---Phoenixville & Royersford, PA
"Both restaurants were open for 4 or 5 hours in the middle of the day with limited food and staff. The customers that came were very grateful to be able to get some food and beer.
We had a similar plan for the first storm and it seemed to have more success. I'm guessing 4 times the sales. The last storm was a little too aggressive I guess?"
Howard Weintraub, The Drafting Room, Exton, PA---
"Whenever large snow is predicted we always inform staff to call before they consider heading into work. I usually do not like to make decisions until I actually see the snow come down. In theory, it would be great to be open, but what I wrestle with is the following:
Am I going to ask some staff to get here in rough conditions, and most likely they do not have 4 wheel drive vehicles? So we get a skelton staff here and offer a limited menu, and the traffic is quite limited. In other words, does a foot to a foot and a half in snow really drive people out to have a meal? Sure, we could get some bar activity, but is that activity worth all the stuff to be open? For example, the West Coast Beer promotion was better than I thought with the predicted snowfall. But, as the snow continued to fall the crowd slowly dwindled. I think if we are open for those storms, we probably would have closed early anyway."
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