Snow puts a chill on eateries' Valentine's week

Joey Baldino, owner of Zeppoli in Collingswood, expected to lose diners from Phila.
Joey Baldino, owner of Zeppoli in Collingswood, expected to lose diners from Phila. (RICHARD KAUFFMAN / File Photograph)
Posted: February 15, 2014

After a winter that's already been brutal for the local dining industry, the phrase snow emergency wasn't exactly the sweet nothing restaurateurs hoped to hear before Valentine's Day.

"The whole week has been a waste," said Chip Roman, who owns three restaurants, including Blackfish, the 48-seat Conshohocken BYOB where he has been most affected. "This is typically a big week for us, with specials all week to get diners out, but I'm off 50 percent over last year."

Destination restaurants in the suburbs were particularly hurt by Thursday's storm, including Tavro 13 in Swedesboro, which was closed. And so was Talula's Table, the coveted Kennett Square tasting table that requires a reservation a year in advance.

"We don't go dark very often," said Talula's owner Aimee Olexy. "But this year, we've already been dark three nights – definitely a record for us."

At her restaurants in Center City, Talula's Garden and Talula's Daily, lost business Thursday amounted to about $25,000 in sales, she said.

Multiply that by the 23 restaurants Stephen Starr owns in Philadelphia alone (including Talula's in the city, in which he's a partner), and the economic impact of one lost day is huge. An estimated 4,000 diners in the city canceled Thursday, Starr said, resulting in 800 to 900 employees being cut back without pay.

"You can never get that back, but I don't know who to be mad at: God?" Starr said. "Weather like this is devastating to us."

Most restaurateurs refused to consider the possibility that Valentine's Day would be a wash, despite predictions that more snow would fall overnight, predictions that rose in inches throughout the day.

"I'm always cooking here anyway, so I got to be positive," said Joey Baldino, who owns Zeppoli, the boisterous 35-seat Sicilian BYOB in Collingswood. "The Philly people who often travel here will probably stay home. But here's one positive: It'll be a little less loud!"

Terence Feury of Tavro 13 said he was determined to arrive at the restaurant early Friday to make up for an entire lost day of prep work for a Valentine's dinner still booked with 200 reservations.

"I'm going to be putting up stocks in the morning that need to be sauces that night," he said. "That's pushing it."

Whether he and other chefs get the ingredients they need to make that happen remains a major uncertainty.

Some purveyors "are going to run late or cancel," Olexy said. "Food modifications may happen."

Of course, the vagaries of weather and other spontaneous events are simply part of the restaurant business.

"There are so many ups and downs in this business," Baldino said.

Many small restaurants, such as the Fitler Dining Room and Blackfish, built up a wait list earlier in the week, and then diligently worked the phones to fill cancellations as they happen.

"I have a feeling we are going to make a lot of last-minute boyfriends and husbands happy," Olexy said. "We'll be the savior for a lot of people who did not plan ahead."

For some social-media-savvy neighborhood restaurants such as Pub & Kitchen, a winter storm can be a boon. Co-owner Ed Hackett said the pub opens for weekday lunch only on city snow days, and a notice on Twitter brought in more than 100 people for Guinness and oysters.

Mostly, though, restaurateurs simply hope diners will make it out for dinner at least one day this weekend, even if it doesn't happen Friday night.

"I have complete faith," Roman said. "I'm hoping for the best and preparing for the best. Because you can't catch fish sitting at home on the couch."



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