The winter breaks: How do offseason restaurant closures affect employees?

SEASONAL REBOOT: 12 Bones Smokehouse owner Bryan King, left, and manager Thomas Parr, right, are pictured fresh off the restaurant's annual winter break. King pays employees a stipend during the hiatus each year. Photo by Dan Hesse

Winter weather can slow down the pace of life and the number of tourists and locals eating out. Many Asheville-area restaurants take advantage of the sluggish part of the year to take a step back from the hustle and bustle and get some much-needed downtime. Others schedule deep cleaning, repairs and renovations so the store can be in top form when the weather warms and tourism thrives.

The length of these breaks varies from business to business, as do the ways owners deal with their staff during the time off.

12 Bones Smokehouse implements an extended, planned closure every year. Co-owner Bryan King says both 12 Bones restaurants keep hectic hours, and stepping away is necessary. “Both restaurants get hit hard in the tourist months,” he explains, and the break “is really a nice thank-you to the staff.”

King and co-owner Angela Koh annually close their Riverside Drive and Sweeten Creek Road locations for three weeks following New Year’s Eve. King knows hourly workers can’t survive without a paycheck for that long so he gives all hourly staff a seniority-based stipend and kicks in some extra money. “Everyone gets a bonus in addition to the paid time off, and it depends on performance, attendance and other factors,” he says. Managerial staff continues to draw salary during the winter break.

Mellow Mushroom also recently reopened after an extended closure this winter for the purpose of renovating the store’s interior. Gerry Mahon, owner of the Asheville franchise, says he publicly announced a three-week closure with hopes it would only be a two-week layoff. Salaried managers continued working, focusing on administrative issues, and Mahon says he devised a formula for paying hourly employees during the time off.

“I took an average of what their income was the past two months and then cut that in half, and that’s going to be in line with what they would have made in the wintertime,” he says. Mahon also offered employees in need of extra work the opportunity to help with demolition and renovation on top of the payout. “It’s not protocol for people to do this kind of thing,” he says. “I don’t even consider it to be standard business practice, but I care about my employees and I felt like I had do something. I didn’t want them to go completely without.”

Some restaurants use shorter breaks to knock out upkeep while giving staff some time away from work. Corner Kitchen plans maintenance around the winter months, such as this year’s five-day shuttering, which allowed for roof and HVAC repairs. Owner Joe Scully did not pay hourly workers, but he says they received plenty of advance notice.

“It’s about communication,” says Scully. “We can’t really afford to give 45 people paid time off. It just wouldn’t work for us, being the type of business that we are, because our profit margins are so tight. As long as we communicate and are thoughtful about it, we have literally no problem with it whatsoever. As a matter fact people say, ‘Thank God I don’t have to work this week, it’s so slow anyway.’”

Rachel Henry, a manager at Corner Kitchen, continues to draw salary during the closure but confirms the break is much-needed for all the staff. “Sometimes in this crazy business we need someone to say, ‘Hey, take a vacation,’” she says, adding that often during the closings hourly employees are offered a chance to paint, clean and make money doing other work. “Nobody has left the restaurant, not even any rumblings [of that],” says Henry.

Scully says most hourly workers use the time to take a vacation, while salaried managers have the option to work that week with a lighter schedule. “They’re fine with it,” he maintains. “It’s in the very slowest time of the year, so it works out well for everyone. We get no negative feedback on it.”

Nine Mile is another restaurant that uses the winter for a short, planned break to perform basic upkeep and cleaning. Owner and chef Aaron Thomas says he shuts down Nine Mile’s Montford and West Asheville locations for about five days annually. It’s something his staff knows is coming ahead of time, he says.

“We give as much notice as we can and we always tell them, ‘If you guys need to work, we can find work for you guys, but it’s maybe a time for you to take a vacation, see your friends, your family,'” he explains.

Thomas says he offers hourly staff options for things to do around the restaurant and even goes as far to offer yard work at his home if people need extra hours. “I’ve been in the position where you live paycheck to paycheck,” says Thomas. “It’s hard to make ends meet, and if you lose a week of pay, it really, really sets you back. So I feel very strongly that when we close down, we try to accommodate everybody financially.”

Nine Mile cook and hourly employee Tim Burkhardt says the short closure is helpful with the logistics of planning time away. “We all have to work out our vacations, our days off, with each other,” he notes. “There’s a set schedule every week, so being able to have a straight week off without having to ask someone to cover a shift was a relief to me and to a lot of the back of the house.”

While five-day closures are more feasible for unpaid time off, King says there’s no way he could retain his staff if his stores closed for three weeks without providing financial assistance. The paid time off also fosters loyalty. “I want people to want to work here,” says King. “We always say we want to have a place that’s inviting. If we can make it a desirable place, then we feel like we’ll get good people working here that care and are willing to work hard.”

Jessica Dean, a six-year employee of 12 Bones, says the time off is a great part of working there. “It’s a paid vacation,” she says. “That’s pretty rare in this industry.”

Mahon says he didn’t have any staff quit due to this winter’s closing, and he attributes that to the paid leave and the option to be employed helping with the renovations while the store was closed. “In my eyes, the idea of being a Mellow Mushroom is to fit into your community,” says Mahon. “In doing that, you have to be a good steward to your community.”

Scully says planned, unpaid time off isn’t the issue; it’s unplanned closings that are detrimental to his staff. “If [a closure] were to happen as a result of a natural disaster or snow days, that’s no fun because people aren’t planning for it,” he says. “But if people can plan, then they like the idea of it.”

Michael Pearce, an hourly employee at Corner Kitchen, has been with the restaurant for seven years and says the annual closing is not problematic for him. “Anytime you have a break, that’s money that’s not coming in, so it always has an effect,” he notes. “But we do very well here, so it’s never been an issue. It’s never been something I can’t come back from quickly.”

Thomas says it’s basically up to his employees to decide what to do with their five-day hiatus: “If you want to work, we’ll find it for you. If not, hey, go have some fun.”

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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7 thoughts on “The winter breaks: How do offseason restaurant closures affect employees?

  1. Yep

    I doubt that Corner Kitchen’s profit margin is ‘tight’… after all the world beats a path there after barack and moochelle wadded their guts there…

    • hauntedheadnc

      “Waddled their guts”…?

      Tell us, Mr. Caudle, what is your BMI? And considering that messeurs Trump and Cruz both look considerably chunkier than our current sitting President, would you feel the same urge to disparage them in regards to their heft?

      No? Well, why ever not?

      • Yep

        it’s a rural southern term ‘wadding your gut’ CRUZ is in good shape to me, but the Donald and moochelle are porkish …
        that’s ‘wadding’ not ‘waddling’ and neither of them have been to dine at CK that I know of … My BMI was down to 12 recently…yours ? are you a fattenin’ hog too like SO MANY around here ?

        • hauntedheadnc

          I don’t especially care what your BMI is, Mr. Caudle. I was only pointing out that you’re incapable of civility or maturity when it comes to a duly-elected, currently sitting President.

          I do appreciate how you are willing to employ selective blindness toward Mr. Cruz though, but it’s funny that as a person who was a rural Southerner for 23 years, then a small-town Southerner, then a small-city Southerner, I never once heard that turn of phrase you’re referring to.

          • Yep

            Oh so you must be embarrassed about your BMI…do you EVER workout ? what gym to you belong to?

            Selective blindness toward CRUZ ? No it’s ALL factually based as he is the ONLY qualified candidate running.
            Did you know he memorized the US Constitution as a teen, was a champion debater at Princeton and Harvard where he headed the Law Review like obongo, AND he’s the ONLY candidate to win NINE cases
            before the US Supreme Court ? No you didn’t know all that because YOU are a LOW information voter.

  2. Virginia Daffron

    Wading in to the BMI discussion to say: we’ve gotten a bit far from the topic, folks. Please confine future comments to the impact of restaurant closures on hourly workers.

  3. Taylor

    Wow, if only this state or country were run by Bernie Sanders, then Scully and the other Scrooges would have to actually reward their employees with paid vacation.

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