The Effects of Winter Across the Boston Food Industry
The end may be in sight, but the repercussions from this winter’s blizzards and storms are still being battled every day across New England’s food service industry. As of Thursday morning, Boston has endured nearly nine feet of snow, less than two inches from breaking its previous record of 107.6 inches in 1996. It’s a dubious honor for the beleaguered farmers shielding their crops and herds from the elements, the delivery drivers navigating roads and boulevards still chocked with snow, and retailers weathering record-breaking losses due to a loss of foot traffic.
Back in February we talked to desperate chefs and restaurateurs who were drumming up business through special giveaways and half-price promotions. But those measures, and that demographic, merely scratch the surface when it comes to the multi-faceted system necessary to bring food and drink to the masses. As Boloco CEO Patrick Renna says, “This weather has affected businesses in more ways than people could ever imagine.”
Below, we talk to everyone from resilient publicans housing employees to service an underserved neighborhood to food truck owners now questioning their longterm place on the streets.
Nicholas Gardner, general manager of Lord Hobo
“It’s a dual issue where some people aren’t going out on the weekends at all because the weather sucks and there are some people who aren’t going out on the weekends because they had that snow day on a Monday or Tuesday and they decided to go have fun and relive their childhood memories of getting a day off from school. Fortunately, over the years, we have developed a reputation of being open no matter what. That goes back to 2012 when we had that other big storm and the streets shut down, except for us. We just don’t close, and now it’s starting to pay off big dividends for us because people just expect it. We’re getting big business on those days, which has kept us ballast.
It’s not that we’re up to our same numbers, because we’re definitely seeing that big dip on the weekends. I haven’t had to cut too many hours and the staff has been able to make enough tip money. I have my fair share of friends who work at other bars who are having concerns about paying rent. Kitchen friends of mine have started looking for second jobs, or mercenary jobs just to make a couple extra bucks. To deal with the storms, a lot of our staff who lives in JP or wherever, they show up with a change of clothes because they know there’s going to be a driving ban. Some of us were sleeping in the basement of Hobo. Some of us were crashing on the floor of other employees who live nearby. Everyone really pitched in and that really helped save the business.”
Kate Stillman, owner Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm
“This time of year, our business is farmer’s market and CSA-based. It has certainly impacted us, and like everyone else, we are trying to make the best of it. We’ve had to reschedule pick-ups for the CSA and we have had a few markets cancelled on account of state of emergency declarations. On the farm end, it’s been tough. Animals have to eat and be cared for no matter what and the travel bans have been tough on my crew that has to get to work. Our work days have certainly become much less productive because all we do is shovel.
Long term, I think businesses will bounce back, though lost sales are lost sales, especially in the food business. Folks don’t eat more pork chops later on because they missed out on them earlier. On the farm, I am sure we’ll see an impact. We’ll have a lot of repairs to make to fences and structures that have been snow covered for so many weeks. Plus, we normally are looking at lots of new births on the farm around this time. It’s hard, as the animals are just as sick of the weather as we are. I think it’s certainly going to mean a later start to the season for farms, but then you never know. Mother Nature has proven she can trick us!”
Patrick Renna, CEO of Boloco
“It’s not just a sales loss, the six-week period has affected everything. We have 20 locations and 12 are in the city of Boston. A lot of those locations require walking traffic or office workers working within a two-to-three block radius to serve our busiest part of the day: lunch. The snow, on top of the cold, on top of the crippled transportation system affects people’s ability to maneuver around the city, walk on the sidewalks, and get to work. There’s just less people in the city, which really had an adverse effect on our business for February.
A lot of our employees use the MBTA to get to work, and on the days they shut down, we couldn’t get people into work. We had to scramble to carpool people or pay for their cabs. It’s been a challenge for our employees who are trying to get the hours they’re normally used to getting. In some places like Northeastern, we were the only place opened, so that helped, but we’re still way down. I’ve never been part of a month like this where business has been affected so much by weather, and I’ve been in the business 20 years. Besides sales lost and employees not getting their shifts, delivery trucks can’t get in from the suburbs. We had major issue with trash pickups as well. In Back Bay, the trash trucks couldn’t get down the alleys, so we went days without our trash being picked up.”
J.J. Frosk, co-owner of The Bacon Truck
“It was the later weeks that have been really bad because the snow just keeps adding up. We almost reached our breaking point because you have to go through so much trouble just to get the truck out: you have to shovel out the truck at the kitchen, you have to shovel out each spot that you park, and when finally get set up, you don’t do any business. It’s been completely dead, and that wears on you. Just the food waste is a huge issue. All the food is prepped beforehand, so you need to know what kind of business you’re going to do. You go through enough days where nobody buys anything, you just end up throwing everything out. A couple times a day, Sam [Williams] or I would be muttering under our breath, ‘Not doing this again next year.’
One of the biggest things that set us back, was in the third storm we took the day off and shoveled out all of our spots for the week. All day we were shoveling snow. We take the truck out the next day and our generator dies, so we can’t take it out for the rest of the week because we had to go get the generator fixed. At that point, you just throw your hands up and laugh. These are the joys of owning a food truck.”
The Oyster Industry
Chris Sherman, president of Island Creek Oysters
“The cold temps on the production side have caused quite a lot of ice on Cape Cod. There are the days every year where a couple areas will get iced over, but not for this kind of long duration. Also, we’re seeing ice in areas we normally don’t, which is leading to mortality in the crops. The good news is that we move the oysters around quite a bit under the ice. The bad news is that we’re dealing with all these small businesses; there’s 350 small permit holders for aquaculture leases, and they’re suffering from a cash flow standpoint.
The production issues have only been compounded by issues with snow in our main market, which is Boston. So, on the wholesale end of it, delivering through these storms has been tough, when we do have the product to deliver. And restaurant sales have been super slow because people aren’t going out as much and going into the city to get dinner due to parking issues, problems with the MBTA, and things like that. It’s a two-pronged issue: it’s been a challenge to even get the product with the cold, and then it’s been a challenge to sell and deliver it with the snow in the city. All and all it’s the farming industry and we’re used to weathering ups and downs. You have to be an eternal optimist in this business.”
Valerie Gurdal, owner Formaggio Kitchen South End
“It’s been the worst winter ever. We’ve closed three solid days because of the blizzards and the lack of transportation. We’ve also had to close a number of half-days so people could get home early. With all the snow built up, it’s been really hard to get deliveries. People can’t park, sidewalks aren’t shoveled, and at this point in the game, people are trying to get out because they’re tired of being pent up. So I see a light at the end of the tunnel, but I still hear people say that they can’t walk on the sidewalks and icicles are falling from rooftops. Have you seen the South End? On Shawmut, everyone’s parking on a diagonal instead of parallel, which makes the street even tighter. UPS can barely deliver a package because they can’t get down the street. It took our driver seven hours to do Shawmut Ave. alone the other day—that usually takes him 20 minutes. You feel for these delivery people. These are big trucks and then they have to use dollies and the sidewalks aren’t plowed. It’s definitely the slowest it’s ever been, and I’ve been here for 16 years. We’re down at least 15 or 20 percent.”