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Combating Cabin Fever

Combating Cabin Fever

Getting Cold Weather Haters To Dine Out During Winter

In some regions of the country, there are two seasons in the restaurant biz: busy season and “dead” season. And while the dead season may be only two months out of the year during winter—January and February, excluding Valentine’s Day weekend—those months can be crucial to the restaurant’s bottom line if precautions aren’t considered.

Not every destination, after all, gets to boast star power in the manner of Alinea, Lolita’s Bistro or Momofuku, with reservations booked up to three months in advance. While eager diners might be willing to trot out in five to six layers to get a taste of a James Beard winner or Michelin-starred darling, they will wait until the weather is warmer to check out the average spot. That may just be the cold truth, especially in the northern parts of Reinhart country, including Wisconsin and Minnesota.

But all is not lost when restaurateurs go out of their way with effective marketing tactics and creative ways to combat the winter blues. We’ve uncovered a number of' methods that not only drives traffic to the establishment, but also keeps staffers happy during the chilliest days of the year.

The first instinct will be to close at least a couple of weeks during the cold snap. While some experts might not think this is a good idea, others feel like this would be the ideal time to re-invent a flailing and/or dated concept.

“My absolute favorite time to flip a concept is to close the first week in January and re-open in March,” advises Tim Borden, a managing partner of the Chicago-based A-List Marketing Solutions, who has consulted for more than 1,000 bars and restaurants in 25 major metropolitan areas since 2000. “The slow winter is also a great time to experiment, try new menus, promotions, themes, décor, entertainment and music. You have less to lose when it's not peak season, and everyone has more time to be creative and evaluate the new things you try.”

He also feels that giving an ample amount of time off for staffers can help boost their spirits, which in turn may translate into better service. “Staff morale can get ugly working when the place is dead, creating bad customer experiences,” Borden says. “Give everyone a real vacation—even the owners.”

There are many restaurants, of course, that remain busy throughout the year on weekends, but are completely dead during the week in the winter. Borden recommends closing shop on some days to cut costs. “Just imagine the savings in staffing (and utilities),” he says. “Closing one or two days a week can save an amazing amount of payroll.”

For those staying open, Borden suggests optimizing restaurants for cold weather appeal and comfort. For restaurants without fireplaces he recommends warm lighting, cozy décor, comfort fare and festive seasonal drinks. Here are a few of his additional tips operators may consider to drive traffic—without putting a strain on the budget:

  • Offer free coat check and valet parking.
  • Eliminate drafts by fixing gaskets around doors and windows; offer perfectly functioning heating system.
  • Clear sidewalks of snow and ice.
  • Offer full sports coverage with good television layout and screen quality—unless it's inappropriate for current concept.
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