Business

Winter weather puts damper on business for local restaurants

Pig and Porter owner Matt Melone sends a text as he stands in the kitchen during lunch hour at the restaurant in the New Bo neighborhood of Cedar Rapids on Friday, February 15, 2019. (Cliff Jette /The Gazette)
Pig and Porter owner Matt Melone sends a text as he stands in the kitchen during lunch hour at the restaurant in the New Bo neighborhood of Cedar Rapids on Friday, February 15, 2019. (Cliff Jette /The Gazette)
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The forecast keeps making Jesse Sauerbrei flinch.

Of course, he’s not alone, as storm after storm has dumped snow and ice on the region, not to mention the bitter cold that was the polar vortex. But for Sauerbrei, the concerns are more than running out of ice melt or missed school days; for him and many other small-business owners in the state, bad weather means bad business.

Sauerbrei owns Lincoln Wine Bar in Mount Vernon. Specializing in wood-fired pizzas, he relies on customers who drive in from Cedar Rapids and Iowa City for the bulk of his sales.

“We’re pretty much a destination joint. When the weather is like this, you know people are going to travel out of town less,” he said. “This is the worst first quarter we’ve had since I bought the place five years ago. It’s been tough.”

The weather has hit restaurants especially hard. While people flock to grocery stores for staples such as bread and milk, they can choose to forgo eating out when the snow is falling.

“We’ve had reservations canceled, or people not show up. Nobody is out in general,” said Matt Melone, co-owner and chef of Cedar Rapids restaurant Pig & Porter. “The consensus is, from talking to friends in the (restaurant) industry, this winter has been pretty awful from the month of January on. I can’t remember a winter like this.”

He said January was the worst month of sales the restaurant has had since it opened in July 2016. That was compounded when a broken hood system forced them to close the first week of February. After reopening, they posted on Facebook, promoting a night when they asked fans to come in and pack the restaurant.

“We depend on guests and customers to make it work,” Melone said. “You can’t expect everybody to come into my business. But I think if people are going to go out, they should make a conscious effort to support local businesses. That stuff does matter.”

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Social media calls can only go so far, however. During one of the season’s first snow storms, Lincoln Wine Bar promoted a discount on pizzas tied to the snowfall — for every inch it snowed, the restaurant would knock a dollar off the price of a pizza. Only a few people took advantage of the offer, Sauerbrei said.

That has a ripple effect. He has less people working most nights and is ordering less food and alcohol from his suppliers.

“Your employees aren’t making the money they depend on,” he said. “There’s just less money going around for everybody.”

Not every business has been able to weather the storms. Aurora Coffee Co., with locations in Marion and Lindale Mall, will close March 1. The coffee shop, which opened near Linn-Mar High School in October 2016, has been hit hard by the season.

“It just killed our sales,” co-owner Aurora Moes said. “Having to be closed — and school being closed as well, it took away a lot of our customers.”

She said the business was already struggling, but the winter weather was the last straw. She even tried offering a new service where baristas would deliver drinks to customers’ cars so people wouldn’t have to get out of their vehicles. It wasn’t enough.

“We couldn’t make rent, and we couldn’t make our loan payment. I had to make a decision,” she said. “I feel sad. This was a dream of mine, and it was my passion.”

Many in the restaurant industry already operate on thin margins, and Sauerbrei said he’s counting every dollar.

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Even if it’s just him behind the bar and one other employee making pizzas, he tries to open even in the worst weather.

“If it’s only going to be a $200 night, I need that. You have to do it because you need that $200 in sales. And then you think, ‘Oh, wow, we haven’t made one pizza for an hour,’” he said.

Still, he has hope that once spring comes, things will bounce back. Until then?

“We’re all Iowans. We’ve seen this weather before. There’s no reason to stay inside. Be safe, but go and support your local businesses,” he said. “Go eat pizza at a locally-owned pizza joint. It doesn’t even have to be mine.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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