Pushing a snowball uphill

Sign of the climes: Snow and ice forces some small businesses to close, putting a dent in already slim profit margins. Photos by Jonathan Welch

It’s unequivocal: Asheville's snowy winter has hurt local businesses. Though a combination of factors lead to the recent closings of restaurants like the Flying Frog, Sadie's and Steak & Wine (more on that in Small Bites), one thing is clear: Weather that keeps people huddled inside is not putting money in the pockets of local business owners. Too many winters like this one, and the culinary landscape in Asheville may change completely — unless, say some local restaurant owners, we all learn how to adapt.

Burger time

Chantal Saunders, co-owner of Burgermeister's, says that her business has dipped about 20 percent since the bad weather began. However, she says, it could be worse.

"We're lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where we have a lot of walkers," says Saunders of her West Asheville location. "Even if our customers can't get their car out of the driveway, they can hoof it on down the street and come visit us. Living in a walkable neighborhood helps us a lot when it comes to surviving the winter."

Though she acknowledges that safety is very important, Saunders says that media reports urging people not to try the roads for days — especially when they are clear — can tip toward the dramatic. Educating people about how to deal with the snow might help them continue to live their normal lives when the weather turns nasty. "It would be useful if they were giving out information about how to drive on the roads in the snow, like buying chains for your tires and other ways to cope so that you can live your life as normally as possible," she says.

Saunders says the key to keeping small a business alive during the winter months is consistency. That's why, she says, her restaurant never closes for snow. "People do know that when they decide to set out into the world, they will likely find us open." And whatever staff members don't walk to work, Saunders says, are rounded up via four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Even if the customers weren't coming in, Saunders says, Burgermeister's would remain open, just in case. "We would just run a skeleton crew. For any small business, cash flow is king, and doing a little bit of business is better than doing no business."

Not always easy

For some business owners, however, it's not that simple. Carson Lucci, owner of Over Easy Café, closed one day during this most recent snowstorm. One of her chefs lives in Hot Springs and often has trouble getting to work when the weather is bad.

"We closed and we probably shouldn't have," says Lucci. "We just anticipated it to be much worse." Lucci says that she justifies the occasional closing for bad weather because, at this time last year, the breakfast café was only open six, not seven, days a week.

Lucci says that she did hear from some customers that they tried to come by on the Tuesday the restaurant was closed. "And I hate that," she says. "That's a lot of why I plan to be open on every snow day that we possibly can."

Even if that means potentially paying people to stand around? "I guess that's just the give and take of it," says Lucci. "Sure the busy summers go a long way toward keeping us alive, but if we didn't have that regular local crowd that came in January through April, we would definitely die." 

Even with a local following, says Lucci, the snow has dampened business this year. Lucci estimates that the restaurant had only about 10 tables the day after the Christmas snowstorm. "We didn't break even. Obviously, that's not worth being open for, but I've learned that closing does not help people come in, obviously,” she says. “If you're slow, and you decide to close an hour early, someone may come twice and you're closed and never come back. I have learned that it's probably better in the long run to stay open as much as we can."

Coming in from the cold

Nine Mile co-owner Nate Ray says that his Montford restaurant stays open until 10 p.m., seven days a week, no matter what the weather. Throughout the storms, says Ray, Nine Mile stays plenty packed. A lot of the customers the restaurant gets when the roads are rough, he says, travel there on foot.

It's clear that Ray and his staff enjoy staying open despite — or perhaps even because of — the elements. "We love working here and it's fun," he says. "It's fun when people are coming in all covered in snow and skiing in the street and what not. People are walking in the door very thankful."

The fact that he and his staff are happy to be there, he says, makes for a welcoming environment for customers and crew alike. "Most of our employees are eager to work," he says.

Nine Mile, like Burgermeister’s, has a policy of picking up and dropping off all staff that can't walk to work. "Aaron [Thomas], the other owner, was raised in Pennsylvania and I was raised in Cincinnati. So driving in the snow? Not scary." 

Ray says that he's fortunate to have a menu that people want when the mercury dips. "I always thought that we would be more of a winter haven just because of that fact. We serve big bowls of comfort — when the weather's cold, people crave it."

"We just try to stay consistent no matter what," says Ray, "and I think that really makes a difference."

A tough choice

While neighborhood businesses like Nine Mile benefit from more foot traffic during snowy weather, downtown businesses suffer from the lack of it, says Carla Baden, who owns Santé, a wine bar in the Grove Arcade.

That's why during the warmer months, Baden focuses on saving a little nut to get her through the winter. This year, Baden says, she's had to dip into her reserve much earlier than usual. "It's just so early in the season to be sucking out of that winter nest-egg that I think all of us try to save in the summer," says Baden. "The suck has come much earlier this year."

Baden says that her employees suffer from the big freeze as well. "Of course their incomes have dropped. If there's nobody in here spending money, they're definitely suffering," Baden says that impacts the community as a whole. "My employees aren't going out and spending any money — they don't have it."

Santé missed only two days of business in December and none in January — so far, says Baden. She has closed early during inclement weather for lack of business, a decision that can be difficult, she says. One snowy night, for example, Baden was getting ready to close when a couple walked in. "I told them I'd stay open for another 45 minutes for them, and they left. I just beat myself up and down over it. It's such a tough call. I don't know what the right answer is as a business owner sometimes."

Baden notes that she also feels like news reports of snowy roads can be greatly exaggerated. "I get that they're trying to be prudent and keep people safe, but I think that the continual message of 'don't go out, you will perish,' has a negative impact on everybody. I get it, but in other areas of the country, that would not be the message — it's 'be cautious.'"

She adds that she can run Santé, if pressed, with just one other person. Other downtown restaurants don't often have that option.

"They're pushing an even bigger snowball uphill," she says. "Servers, busboys, cooks, bartenders — sometimes all standing around."

That, she says, means throwing money away — money that's tough to come by in the winter.

"The amount of competition for the 72,000 souls that live in Asheville is huge,” Baden says. “My worry is that, if people continue to hibernate, come spring or summer, some of their favorite places might not be available because they might not make it through."

— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at food@mountainx.com.


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