Note: This article has been updated to include new information regarding supplies from Halpern's Steaks and Seafood.
Famously, perhaps a tad apocryphally, Ruth Fertel attributed a great deal of her success to a hurricane.
It was just a few months after she had purchased an existing steak house in New Orleans, in 1965, that Hurricane Betsy devastated the city and knocked out all the power (as hurricanes are wont to do). Faced with an inventory of high grade meat that she would eventually have to discard, Fertel, who had never owned a restaurant before, instead started cooking them up to serve to emergency response workers.
Her largesse earned her recognition and some new loyal customers for the restaurant, Chris Steak House, to which she would eventually attach her first name.
Major storms are problematic for everyone in their paths, but they present unique predicaments for restaurateurs. As we prepare ourselves by fueling our cars and propane tanks, stocking up on batteries and plywood, and, for some reason that escapes me, bottled water, restaurant owners are trying to do the same, for their own homes and their businesses.
And as Fertel discovered more than 50 years ago, they must try to have enough stock on hand to serve customers up to the time the storm forces a closure without having too much if faced with a power outage. And, they have to take into account their staff members, who also have homes to secure and loved ones to calm.
Needless to say, a major storm like Hurricane Irma can have a detrimental affect on a restaurant.
"Unfortunately, it looks like the hurricane is already having an impact on our business," said Greg Richie, chef/partner of Soco in Thornton Park. "The week has soft reservations throughout" -- despite Visit Orlando's Magical Dining Month, which generally brings full houses -- "and it looks like it might be at its worst during our usual best days, Saturday and Sunday."
"Business seems to be fairly normal," said Katie Walton, owner of The Whiskey on Restaurant Row. "We have ordered plenty of water through our vendors, but I have heard that there may be allocations for water or shortages soon. We will be getting our last food order Thursday due to the distribution companies, according to Chef," she said.
Both Walton and Richie said they planned to keep the restaurants open as long as possible and hoped there would not be a need to close at all.
"We plan to lean down inventories of refrigerated/frozen items," said Steve Gunter, owner of Tap Room at Dubsdread and Dubsdread Catering. "People are forgiving of out-of-stock items during a storm."
Tap Room stays open as long as it can -- "Guests LOVE it when you're open," he said -- and tells staff who are concerned that there is no safer place to be than the restaurant's building and that they are welcome to stay there during the storm if they don't feel safe at their homes. Gunter said he takes his cues only from noaa.gov. "We watch that website like a hawk so we can give our staff time to get home before it actually hits."
He also tells staff that the restaurant will open immediately after the storm passes and they'll be expected to stick to the schedule unless someone has a hardship at home. The facility has generators that will keep the place running.
Most of the restaurant owners and chefs contacted assumed that normal deliveries from food suppliers would be suspended early. Halpern's Steak and Seafood, formerly Gary's Seafood, would not deliver after Friday, according to a spokeswoman contacted by phone Thursday. Normally, deliveries are scheduled for Saturdays. As of Thursday afternoon, Halpern's said it would make deliveries through Saturday.
So restaurants are faced with the same dilemma as always: how much to order to be able to serve customers right up to the last minute and immediately after the storm, before the delivery trucks can return to schedule.
Said the Whiskey's Walton: "If we shut down and there is power outages, I will probably pack some things in coolers and cook off to any who want food."
Seems like a good plan.