BONUS CONTENT: How Restaurant Owners Can Prepare for Storms and Other Weather Emergencies
Man pitted against the elements is a story as old as the Earth and as current as the storm headed your way. But keeping a restaurant intact in the face of the foulest weather requires more than instinct. As one operator put it, "The phrase natural disaster is a contradiction in terms because no disaster is natural. Disasters are unnatural."
Agreed; but what could be more natural than the desire to protect one's property and livelihood from the ravages of nature? Saving food in the face of power outages and equipment in the face of flood waters, and communicating with employees, guests, utilities, emergency personnel and insurance carriers throughout the ordeal, requires experience and planning. And since an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, it is little surprise that experienced restaurateurs recommend having a solid plan in place as the best way to survive potential carnage.
"Inclement weather is our middle name up here," says Dennis DiPaolo, a co-owner of Ilio DiPaolo's Restaurant & Banquet Facility in upstate Blasdell, New York. "Just two years ago we had an ice storm and lost all of our power here for five days. It was one of those freak storms in October. We'd had a wedding booked. It started snowing, and then it all rose overnight and busted all of the tree limbs and knocked down the power lines." The restaurant seats 150, with room for 300 more in the property's banquet facility.
DiPaolo says the power company "couldn't get to us, so the volunteer fire department brought up their generators and got the restaurant going. Then we also had another businessman who had a $20,000 generator. We put it on a forklift, got it up here, plugged in and got it all adapted in. We ended up [staging] a 250-person wedding." The wedding became a local media event complete with TV coverage because no one thought it could be pulled off.
Scott Weinberg, the owner of the 48-year-old Blow Fly Inn in Gulfport, Mississippi, had his family restaurant shut down for more than 2.5 years due to damage from foul weather. Luckily for him and his employees, he was able to operate out of a nearby restaurant that had closed prior to the storm. "We stayed there until we could get rebuilt at our old location," he says. The restaurant seats 90 inside with another 40 on an outdoor patio, and offers a menu anchored by steaks, barbecued ribs and seafood.
"We are pretty lucky with hurricanes because you generally know that they are coming," Weinberg says. "My general starting point for worrying is when they enter the Gulf of Mexico. Once they enter the Gulf we keep a real close eye on them. If the general path is headed in our direction we start making preparations four or five days in advance as far as pulling my equipment from downstairs and getting it out of the way, because I know that I'm probably going to get flooding."
After Katrina "we went to work fairly quickly for the city, catering meals for the Public Works Department every day," Weinberg says, "so I was able to put most of my staff back to work. Then we were able to find that other restaurant and open up within a couple of months after the storm."
The original site reopened in December 2007. The restaurant now rests on stilts, and sits a full 18.5 feet above sea level. During the past year, hurricanes Gustav and Ike avoided direct hits on Gulfport, but came close enough to deposit two feet of water. Blow Fly's small downstairs bar area was hit, necessitating the staff to carry the equipment upstairs. When power is down, Weinberg's people hook their walk-in coolers and freezers to a generator. Indeed, he continues to pay his salaried staffers when the restaurant is closed, but the hourly workers simply get the unpaid time off. Preparing for savage weather requires anticipating every contingency, using one's imagination and heeding the lessons of the past.
Lessons From Katrina
"We certainly learned a lot from Katrina," says celebrated New Orleans restaurateur Ralph Brennan. "We changed a lot of what we do as a result of it when we're faced with a weather event that would shut us down and cause us some problems." It surprises no one that a city as old as New Orleans occasionally loses power or experiences street flooding during heavy thunderstorms and occasional hurricanes.
Brennan owns and operates a trio of restaurants in New Orleans -- Bacco, a Creole/Italian restaurant; Red Fish Grill, a casual New Orleans seafood house; and Ralph's on the Park, a contemporary Creole restaurant -- plus the Jazz Kitchen, a full-service operation with jazz club and quick-service shop, in Disneyland in Southern California. He is also a partner in several others. The Brennan family owns seven other restaurants in New Orleans, as well, including Commander's Palace, Brennan's and Mr. B's Bistro.
Brennan's managers and staff are trained to snap into immediate action when a weather event begins to take shape. Step one is to manage the customers. This past May, for example, an electrical transformer blew in the French Quarter, knocking out about 50 percent of the power in the famed tourist district. "Certainly what you want to do is, first, assess the extent of the damage," Brennan says. "Occasionally the power goes out and comes right back on, but the minute we knew it was a transformer we knew it was a long-term problem."
What the managers did immediately was communicate with the guests that we had a serious problem, that we probably would not be able to complete their meals, Brennan says. "In this case we said, 'If you would like to stay and complete what you have, please do.' We wound up comping all the checks."
The other thing the staff does immediately is race to protect the food. In the case of the transformer blowout, the restaurant was right at the beginning of service, "so the chef had all of his food out," Brennan says. Thus, he immediately began to put away everything that he could. Other staff members quickly emptied the ice machines and placed the ice into the walk-in refrigerators to try and maintain the temperatures. "We were able to do that throughout the night. We were also able to get some more ice. We tried to get some dry ice, as we normally do when a hurricane is approaching, but we couldn't get any, so we ordered as much ice as we could and tried to ice down as much of the food as we could in the refrigerators."
Later in the morning, when the power still wasn't back on and the timetable for its restoration was still unknown, Brennan borrowed a refrigerated truck from one of its suppliers. "We unloaded all the food into that and wound up keeping it in there for about 24 hours until the power came back on," he says. Kitchen staffers kept continual tabs on food temperatures in both the walk-ins and trucks, both of which he says "do a pretty good job of holding temperature."
Brennan's trio of restaurants helps each other through inclement weather as much as possible. When the transformer blew, Bacco and Red Fish Grill shared the refrigerated truck. (A second truck was also brought in, as Brennan worked with two other nearby restaurants.) Bacco had a wedding rehearsal dinner party going on at the time. "We were able to do limited food for them; we were baking bread puddings, which were just coming out of the oven" when the power went out -- "so we were able to get wine and Champagne for them," Brennan says. Key to it all, he says, is that the chefs and general managers communicated immediately.
Many parts of New Orleans are, of course, below sea level, Brennan says, but the city benefits from a "great" pumping system. "What happens is that periodically we get rain in greater capacity than the pumps can pump, and so the city then backs up. But it is only a short-term problem, an hour or two or three, and that's it; as soon as the pumps catch up, they drain right away." Fortunately for Brennan, all three of his restaurants are sitting on high ground, which kept them from flooding even during Katrina.
That said, they do sometimes take on water. "We get water in the streets," Brennan says. At the Garden District's famed Commanders Palace, for example, which sits on somewhat lower ground, street flooding from rainstorms gets pushed toward the restaurant by passing cars. "They try and block the streets because they don't want the wakes from the cars backing up and flowing into the restaurant." At his own locations, he says, "We just watch the cars and try and get people to slow down or not come down the street."
Communication at the Core
DiPaolo urges colleagues to communicate with their utilities as soon as possible. "We have an emergency procedure. Once the lines are down and we are without power, we transfer everything over to cell phone. Communication with the outside world is key, so you need to get through to your staff, your customers and utilities as quick as you can so you know what's going on."
It is "very important that those procedures are there, and that they are followed all the time," he says. "With cell phones today there is constant communication, so you've got a number, or at least an e-mail address and you can contact your key people."
The loss of communication created a lot of problems during Katrina, Brennan says. "We lost cell phone communications because the towers of the cell phone companies in New Orleans went down." The lesson? "You have to have some alternate source of communication for a weather event."
Brennan purchased a set of cell phones after Katrina that has an area code other than New Orleans' "504." "It's an Idaho area code, actually, and our thought there is that if we evacuate we will be able to communicate." In fact, he recently signed off on buying several Internet-based phones, which are due to be installed before the end of July. "They tell me I will be able to take the phone off my desk, plug it into an Internet connection and leave. They told me they can also put a virtual phone on my laptop, and that with a headset I can use my laptop as my phone."
Some businesses have put together a plan that includes storing information in multiple forms for maximum survivability. One form is a binder that key executives are expected to keep at their homes. At a minimum, the contact information should include employees, customers and key vendors and suppliers. The packet might also include contact information for individuals instrumental in the construction of his building, such as contractors, who might be needed to survey any structural damage.
That same contact information can also be put on both CDs and an intranet Web site. The site can store the same disaster recovery plans and information for those key employees who do not have the CD or binder. If they are someplace where they can't access the binder or CD, they can go to this Web site and get the information they need.
DiPaolo's staff always takes a return phone number when recording reservations, he says, "so we will call them back and let them know if we're going to be closing. But it's our family business, so most of the time if I'm going to get stuck I don't want to get stuck at home. I'd rather get stuck here at the restaurant. We won't run out of food, and we won't run out of booze." Canceling reservations is easy, Weinberg says, because "you have a few days to prepare for that kind of stuff."
Keeping Your Cool
Heavy snow, or the threat of it, will often move the local authorities to shut down roads because "they don't want people traveling, so that the plows can go through." That said, DiPaolo says, "We hardly ever close unless it's an extremely bad storm. Having been born in Buffalo, "we have to kind of learn how to survive. It's part of our instincts. The people who live nearby make it a point to get in here, and to some people it's surprising. But when people here can get out, they want to get out, especially if they've been locked in the house for a period of time."
Many of DiPaolo's hourly people are locals. "They live nearby to the restaurant, and if they can make it in they'll make it in," he says. "We have had people come in on skis and snowmobiles. People are out and about in the cold weather, saying, 'Hey, can we come in?' and we say, sure."
The goal for DiPaolo when the power goes off is to adapt quickly "and not lose anything. We take all of our cooler stuff and put it into a freezer to prolong the life at least another day. A lot of us here in Buffalo have gotten generator-adapted, so that's what we do: at least get a generator to run a big walk-in freezer. Then you can now house most of your highly expensive perishables."
DiPaolo's insurance company was "good to us in our last storm when we lost power and all that food," he says. "We were out for so long; five days is a long period of time; the most we have ever been out. They covered some of the losses."
In the Wake
The National Restaurant Association advises that, once the weather event is over, operators inspect for and record any damage to the restaurant and throw away any food item that has come into contact with the floodwater or was not sealed in an air-tight container. Wooden and plastic utensils should be tossed as well, and all china, equipment and food-contact surfaces should be assiduously scrubbed. Ceramic and metal dishes and utensils should be boiled and sanitized. Having a health inspector assess the cleanup effort is a wise precaution.
And what about next time?
"Have a plan of action in place so you don't have to scramble around at the last minute," Weinberg says. "We live here in what is pretty much Hurricane Central, so we go through it enough to know what we have to do in order to get ready, and how to recover. We have all those plans in place."
Brennan offers this additional advice: "What I have told a lot of people is this: Expect the unexpected. That's the lesson we learned from Katrina, because we were not prepared. You really have to think about what could happen. We were prepared for a fire, we were prepared for a traditional hurricane, but we were never prepared for the flooding of the city. Many of us who grew up here all our lives never thought that could happen."
"Expect the unexpected and plan, plan, plan," Brennan says. "Practice it. Execute it. Because things happen that you don't expect."
Which is, naturally, to be expected.
-- Restaurant Startup & Growth
10 Tips for Planning For and Dealing With Foul Weather Emergencies
First and foremost, manage the customers.
Race to protect the food.
Communicate with utility companies as soon as possible to determine the extent of the power outage and anticipated restoration of services.
Purchase a set of cell phones with numbers that have area codes well outside your local area, so that if you have to evacuate the region, owners, managers and key staff can communicate.
Store crucial business information and records in multiple forms and locations for maximum survivability.
Always take a return phone number when recording reservations so you can call them if weather requires you to cancel them.
Get a generator to run a big walk-in freezer. Then you can house most of your highly expensive perishables.
Once the weather event is over, inspect for and record any damage to the restaurant and throw away any food item that has come into contact with the flood water or was not sealed in an air-tight container. Wooden and plastic utensils should be tossed as well, and all china, equipment and food-contact surfaces should be assiduously scrubbed. Ceramic and metal dishes and utensils should be boiled and sanitized.
Have a health inspector assess the cleanup effort.
Expect the unexpected and plan, plan, plan.