There is no doubt that winter is officially upon us in New England.
The first Saturday of the year brought a massive snowstorm that impacted bars and restaurants all throughout the region. As wintery regions in various parts of the United States hunker down and brace themselves for more snowy and icy precipitation in the upcoming few months, we sought out some ideas from locals on how bars can navigate inclement weather in snow and ice-prone areas.
Scarlett Delgado is a seasoned, popular bartender who works at three diverse establishments in Providence: the famous Hot Club on South Water Street (which served as a backdrop in a scene in the Farrelly Brothers’ 1998 comedy There’s Something About Mary), at the bar in arts nonprofit AS220’s downtown performance space and cafe on Empire Street, and at Nolan’s Corner Pub, a beloved West Side dive bar at the end of Atwell’s Avenue near the Route 6 overpass. Delgado offered us insights on how each one of these very different bars handles major snowstorms.
It should go without saying that the #1 priority for any establishment facing inclement weather should be the physical safety of its employees and guests. It is more or less guaranteed that some people will be willing to brace the elements no matter how bad they are, but just because they want to doesn’t mean that they should.
Most Providence businesses use citywide parking ban announcements as a determinant for whether to open late (or at all) or close early; otherwise, a lack of customers in the bar is often a good enough reason to close.
Location, Location, Location
Parking bans aside, a lot depends on where a bar is situated and whether employees drive vehicles equipped to handle snow, and in that sense, there are rarely any hard and fast rules. Because AS220 is at a downtown location primarily reached on foot, they are more likely to stay open provided that employee safety has already been taken into account, says Delgado, who lives outside the city and commutes by car. She notes that AS220 is great about insisting there always be at least two employees in the building at all times (including kitchen workers and others) so that employees can walk each other safely to their cars at night.
Because many West Siders tend to walk everywhere, Nolan’s receives a lot of by-foot patronage as well, with the added benefit that the owner lives above the establishment and is willing to cover the bar anytime an employee feels nervous about driving home late, so there is rarely (if ever) a need to close early. It’s good to keep in mind, however, that walking by foot can also be extremely dangerous, so it is best to always use caution.
Hot Club, on the other hand, has been located on the Providence waterfront since 1982 and has its own parking lot as well as street parking, and many of its patrons reach it by car. They are known for being open every single day of the year except for Christmas Day and the day of their holiday party. Delgado jokes that, “We’re open for rain, sleet, and hurricanes” and remembers working there the day of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when the bar was jammed full of people who had come to watch, drink, and enjoy the storm. The city’s hurricane barriers had been closed, but storms are always unpredictable; still, many patrons still remember and talk about it years later.
Despite its track record, Hot Club decided to close its doors at 4:30 on January 7th of this year, making a judgment call based on how bad the storm was already and how long it was expected to keep going. Having to plow and salt a parking lot obviously creates additional considerations, but Delgado admires how Hot Club’s owners prioritize their employees’ well-being and regularly offer to drive every single employee home in their large, snow-friendly SUV if there is ever a situation where snow hits unexpectedly while employees are already at work.
Capitalizing on the Storm
Winter months tend to be tougher for the restaurant and bar industry as a whole, so assuming that safety concerns have been addressed, it can be smart to come up with creative ways to make the most of the “snow day” bandwagon through clever marketing and promotions. The Rosendale on 55 Union Street downtown decided to spotlight their first “Snow Storm Party of the Year” on social media, with the bar open regular hours and kitchen open late, encouraging followers to “Grab your sleds and get down here!” A bartender at the elegant Dorrance downtown shared that when especially cold weather is coming in, the forward-thinking kitchen staff will prepare hearty comfort food classics as specials; a recent batch of shepherd’s pie sold out completely.
It’s also true that although parking bans are important, calling them is not an exact science. There is a local anecdote about a recent Valentine’s Day where a massive blizzard was expected to hit. Our restaurateurs count on Valentine’s as their biggest day of the quarter and one of the biggest of the year, and in this case, the snow hadn’t arrived despite the parking ban announcement. Establishments citywide were so frustrated that they got together as a group, called City Hall, and petitioned to have the ban moved back until later. City Hall listened, and it ended up being a successful day for restaurants.
Inclement weather is dicey for any business in a cold weather area, but the most important rule is to always put safety first. Because of major variations in location, topography, buildings, and state or city leadership, there are many grey areas that owners and decision-makers must navigate to walk that line between being safe and staying profitable. It can help to hear what others have done and are doing, but a lot of it will be trial-and-error. But as long as you are making sure your employees and customers are as safe as possible, you should be fine.