Winter is always a hurdle for Portland restaurants because the tourists are gone. This winter, though, the locals are gone too, kept away by a string of snowstorms and parking bans.
Many city restaurants depend on customers from the suburbs, said Harding Smith, owner of four restaurants, The Front Room Restaurant and Bar, Corner Room, Grill Room and Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room. But “when they hear the weather report on the news, they think doomsday. They don’t go into town,” Smith said.
Portland has received about 80 inches of snow this winter, nearly twice the amount that normally falls by Feb. 18. The city already has issued 13 parking bans, including the bans that target the yellow zones downtown.
Since mid-January, business has been down 15 percent to 20 percent in many restaurants citywide compared with what’s normal for this time of year, Smith said.
When streets are clogged with snow and tow trucks are circling the block, many people just feel safer staying home, said Greg Dugal, who heads the Maine Restaurant Association. Restaurants that suffer a poor weekend will then freeze as much food as they can and throw away the rest, he said.
“People aren’t going to come in on a Monday and Tuesday and make up for what you didn’t sell on Saturday,” Dugal said.
Most of all, downtown restaurant owners dread parking bans. The owners are particularly upset that the city declared a 36-hour parking ban last weekend for a storm that dropped 2.3 inches of snow. The ban began at 10 p.m. Saturday – Valentine’s Day – prompting some restaurant managers to ask city officials to keep the tow trucks away until closing time. The city honored the requests.
The city in practice doesn’t begin towing cars downtown until 1 a.m., but many people don’t know that, so business suffers.
At Hugo’s Restaurant on Middle Street, parking bans are a huge problem because the restaurant is isolated from Old Port parking garages and hotels. Customers at high-end restaurants don’t want to tramp through the snow in dress shoes and high heels, said co-owner Arlin Smith.
“These parking bans crush us in the neighborhood,” he said.
DECIDING WHETHER TO OPEN
Valentine’s Day is a critical day for restaurants this time of year because it’s a big money-maker. Harding Smith said his business was down 40 percent to 50 percent because customers were so alarmed by media reports that a blizzard was going to dump as much as 2 feet of snow.
“People started canceling and canceling in rapid fire,” he said.
When a big storm is in the forecast, restaurants must decide whether to stay open or close. They can save money and keep employees safe if they close, but they risk upsetting customers who don’t hear about it.
Arlin Smith says he makes the decision whether to close a day before the storm and gets the word out using social media. If he closes, he tells his customers to try the Back Bay Grill, a restaurant on Portland Street that also offers fine dining.
“To tell someone ‘no’ is not in our best interest,” he said. “We are still in the hospitality industry. Just because they are not dining with us doesn’t mean we can’t be hospitable.”
LESS IMPACT ON SOME RESTAURANTS
Steve Corry, co-owner of 555, said he never closes the restaurant early – no matter the weather – so customers will always know its open. He said his restaurant has a big staff, so there are plenty of workers living nearby who are willing to work a storm shift.
Corry said customers tend to stay away during the first few snowstorms of the winter, but eventually become accustomed to bad weather.
“By the third storm, people are like: ‘We live in Maine. We’ve got to deal with this,’ ” he said.
When the weather is terrible, restaurants that offer comfort food don’t lose as much business.
Allison Stevens, owner of the Thirsty Pig, a pub on Exchange Street that serves beer, chili and sausages, also provides board games so customers can hang out.
“People hunker down here like it’s their own living room,” she said.
BECKY’S A HAVEN FOR ‘PLOW GUYS’
At Becky’s Diner on the waterfront, the bad weather means the restaurant sees fewer older customers who don’t like driving in the snow. But the restaurant is a destination for people who work during storms, such as police officers and plow operators, said owner Becky Rand.
She said the workers like the availability of nearby parking, the 4 a.m. opening hours, and hefty portions of familiar menu items like shepherd pie.
When the restaurant opened Sunday, there was a line of “plow guys” going out the door, Rand said.
“It was crazy,” she said. “We had them snaking around the building.”
This story was updated at 8:02 a.m. on Thursday, February 19 to correct the number of parking bans in Portland and the timing of the Valentine’s Day parking ban.