Ask The Salty Waitress: Should I close my restaurant during extreme cold?

Photo: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/ (Getty Images), Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
The Salty WaitressThe Salty WaitressSalty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.

Dear Salty: I own a small restaurant in the Midwest, where generally we’re used to cold winters. But this week, we’re expecting to see record cold, unsafe temperatures way, way below zero. I have a feeling business will be slow that day, so I’m considering keeping my employees safe and closing the restaurant so they don’t have to come into work. But I also know my staff appreciates their paychecks, and I worry about regular customers showing up and finding out we’re not open. How do I make the call?

Thanks,
How Cold Is Too Cold


Dear Cold,

I just Googled the weather in Chicago, Minneapolis, etc., and it sent a shiver down my spine. Air temperatures in the -20s? My ass is freezing just thinking about your toilet seats. You’re fair to say that’s not just cold weather but extremely cold weather, which could become an emergency situation. You, sweet pea, have some decisions to make.

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This isn’t precisely my area of expertise, since I’ve only had my place of employment close once during a case of roads-closed, state-of-emergency flooding, when absolutely no one—customers or workers—could get anywhere without a boat. So I called up some restaurant owners in cold-as-Siberia Chicago and picked their brains. Basically, the decision boils down to the particulars of your business and your staff. Let’s go through the pros and cons:

Reasons to consider closing

  • You think your staff and customers can’t get to your restaurant safely, either by driving or public transit.
  • You think you’ll end up cutting most of your staff early anyway.
  • You’re going to do hardly any business.
  • Your heating system can’t keep up and the dining room will be uncomfortably cold.
  • You think too many of your employees would call off work.
  • You don’t think you can shovel/de-ice enough to keep the sidewalk outside your restaurant safe.
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Reasons to stay open

  • Does your restaurant deliver? You might make up for some missed dining-room business with deliveries. (Saltygram to customers ordering delivery during this type of weather: Tip big. Extra big.)
  • Some restaurant owners I talked to say their business is actually better during bad weather when people are staying close to home.
  • You’ll throw off your systems for the week—vendor deliveries, cleaning schedules, etc.—by closing.
  • If your staff wants to work, let them come to work. Even if business is slow, says Eddie Lakin of Edzo’s Burger Shop in Evanston, Illinois: “Do I take a day’s pay away from a guy just to save that money?”
  • Customers expect and appreciate restaurants being open when they say they will be, even in bad weather.
  • It sucks to cancel reservations. If you have tables booked, are you prepared to call them up and tell them not to come in?
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Luckily, your decision might not have to be either/or. There are a few in-between options that might offer a middle ground.

“Even if you have half the staff come in and half the customers, that’s still worth it to be open,” says Abe Conlon, chef and owner at Fat Rice in Chicago. “We might cut back staff. We’d adjust and that’s what you do in a restaurant.”

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He says you could schedule just half your normal staff, and let your employees make the call of whether they want to come in or not. He also suggests closing early if the roads are getting bad or overnight low temperatures are falling. If you don’t have late reservations, you could consider closing at 9 p.m. instead of 10 or 11.

Only you can do the math and figure out whether you have enough reasons in the pro or con column to open for the day. People come first, though, so if your staff tells you they can’t get to work safely, listen to them—and stay warm, Cold.

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Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or just a general question about life we can help you with? Email us: salty@thetakeout.com

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