There’s an old story about a very poor man who was aggravated by having to share his very small house with six children and his wife. A rabbi advises him to bring his cow, chickens and goats inside, which at first only makes the frustrated family more miserable. But when the man puts the animals back in the barnyard, he’s struck by the roominess and quiet of his home.
To recast the moral for restaurants in 2020: After being closed to dine-in traffic for 55 days, the prospect of closing for another three or four days suddenly doesn’t seem that bad.
“A hurricane will feel like a light rain and rainbow (after) the mass hospitality carnage we just endured,” says Kenneth Emery, owner of Burwell’s Stone Fire Grill.
South Carolina restaurateurs understandably dread hurricanes, which can wipe out sales even if they don’t materialize as predicted. The Charleston area has been under a mandatory evacuation order in three of the last four years, leading to a statewide loss of more than $300 million in direct visitor spending.
Many restaurants have insurance to cover storm-related losses, but Nico Romo last year told The Post and Courier that the payout doesn’t make up for having to temporarily close a restaurant.
“You cannot add three more days to the year,” he said of the lost time.
While the two newest named storms, Marco and Laura, are tracking toward Louisiana, hurricane season hasn’t reached the halfway point. Over the coming months, a hurricane could again inflict significant physical and economic damage on the Lowcountry.
Yet restaurants owners here are surprisingly blasé about the possibility.
Rather than characterizing a major storm as the last nail in the coffin for an industry that has been nearly buried by the coronavirus pandemic, they instead describe it as a surmountable distraction.
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“It’s a threat we deal with every year in the Carolinas,” says Eran Maron, owner of Black Magic Cafe. “I talked to my staff and said, ‘You know what? I betcha we’re going to get bad storms to top this off.’ ”
According to Maron, his restaurants are positioned to survive even if they go dark during what would otherwise be a busy weekend in October.
“The week before, everybody buys generators and there’s a decline in business,” he says of what’s become a yearly ritual. “And the week after, there a decline in business because people had to leave town and get hotels.
“Is it the end of the world?” he concludes. “It’s not.”
Statistics bear out Maron’s assessment. In a story titled “More tough times ahead for restaurants as hurricanes clobber sales,” written in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, CNBC reported that casual dining restaurants’ sales were down 2.5 percent in the month the storm hit.
While 2.5 percent is noticeable in a slim margin industry, many restaurants saw their sales dip 100 percent under stay-at-home orders. In the first three months of the pandemic alone, U.S. restaurants lost $120 billion in sales, according to the National Restaurant Association.
“Hurricanes only hurt the little operator short term,” Emery of Burwell’s says. “Landlords still get paid; investors still collect loan payments; the city still collects taxes and food still moves through the supply channels. The loss is left to the operator, and some hourly workers are hurt.”
By contrast, he adds, “during any 5-6-month loss, everyone loses, often everything they worked their entire lives for.”
Classifying a hurricane as a nuisance, Emery says if one does reach downtown Charleston this year, he’s looking forward to paddling his canoe through the flooded (and presumably socially distant) streets.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.