Biting cold puts a freeze on restaurant business

In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 photo, manager Randy Smith checks the register at Rascal's NY Deli in Cincinnati. Smith says overall business is down at the deli, because of the cold weather, but that their carryout and delivery business is up. (AP Photo)
In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 photo, manager Randy Smith checks the register at Rascal's NY Deli in Cincinnati. Smith says overall business is down at the deli, because of the cold weather, but that their carryout and delivery business is up. (AP Photo)

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — The homemade matzo ball and beef barley soups are lost on customers walking into Rascals’ NY Deli — because there just aren’t very many of them.

“After it starts getting really cold and the sun goes down, the people don’t want to come,” said Randy Smith, manager of the restaurant in the Cincinnati suburb of Blue Ash.

Across much of the eastern half of the country, bitter cold and snowstorms in recent weeks have put a chill on restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops, limiting the number of walk-in customers and shrinking tips. Some merchants report sales cut in half.

The January deep freeze wrought by the polar vortex in the Midwest, a big snowfall in the Northeast and abnormal cold and snow in the Deep South has moved many to hibernate.

Only four people picked at pancakes and eggs during what should have been the morning rush at American Table Family Restaurant, a Toledo diner, while the temperature dipped to 9 below Tuesday. The nearly 40 inches of snow this month is a record for January and more than what the city normally gets in an entire winter.

“Some of the regulars, I haven’t seen in a week and half, two weeks,” said owner Elton Bregu.

Viven McKinney, a retired postal worker, stopped in for eggs and coffee only because he had just dropped his wife off at work.

“Otherwise, I’d still be in bed,” he said. “I don’t like to be cold.”

All the waitresses are working two fewer days a week, said Bobbie Boyd, the only one on duty. And on the days Boyd does work, she draws half her usual tips.

“I’m a single mom,” she said. “It’s hard making ends meet, paying bills.”

Coffee shops that fuel legislators at the nearby Capitol in Madison, Wis., are seeing fewer state government workers stopping by, since many have been staying home with children whose schools were closed or because they just don’t want to venture outside.

Tori Mitchell, owner of Ancora Coffee Roasters, estimated she’s lost $4,000 a week because of ultra-cold weather over the past month. She’s trying to cut costs by dialing back bakery orders rather than cutting her workers’ hours.

Many, she said, are students who sorely need the money.

“We’re just hanging in there, waiting for nice weather,” Mitchell said.

Closing early has become routine at Bonbon Pastry & Cafe in Cleveland, where six days in January the low temperature has dropped below zero. Only the brave came out last weekend, with whiteout conditions making a culinary errand unappealing.

“I would have much rather been staying in bed myself,” said manager Rob Hood.

While eateries are taking a hit, a few places, including hardware stores, are booming, selling out of space heaters, pipe insulation and sidewalk salt.

“Unfortunately, I live off everybody’s misery,” said Jamie Ondrus, who owns a hardware store in Toledo.

But in addition to restaurants, other businesses that rely on walk-ins and appointments are seeing a hit, including health care specialists and hair salons. They can expect to recoup some losses as people venture out in warmer weather, but for now, that’s cold comfort.

Larry Guinn, a chiropractor in Toledo, figures one-third of his patients canceled in recent weeks.

“Way more than we normally see,” he said. “Usually the patients are there no matter what.”

Many of the older patients are choosing to stay home rather than navigate icy roads and sidewalks. Now, it seems, most of his customers are aching from shoveling snow.

At Hair On The Floor Barbershop this week in Covington, Ky., in suburban Cincinnati, the two barbers on duty played video games to pass time while temperatures hovered around zero at lunchtime.

Business has been down by about 90 percent in the past few weeks, owner England Wesley said. Just two customers had walked in before noon Tuesday.

“It’s terrible right now,” he said. “With weather like this, a lot of folks are just trying to stay warm.”

Warm they are in their homes — a silver lining, as the deli outside Cincinnati has found. Hungry folks unwilling to go out are clamoring for delivery. Chili is popular.

“We keep going through massive amounts of soup,” said Smith, the manager.

But at the other end of the state in Toledo, Boyd, the diner waitress, hoped February wouldn’t be as bad.

She watched as a couple bundled up to head outside the toasty, barren restaurant.

“Stay warm,” she said.

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