Human Resources, Retail, and Small Business & Startups

Polar vortex eats into revenue

Winter Storm Jayden devours perishable inventory, employee paychecks and several days of sales.

February 8, 2019
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Polar Vortex
Staff from The Mitten Brewing Co. kept the business open every day but one during the storm. Courtesy The Mitten Brewing Co.

The extreme cold, snow and ice that swallowed the Midwest from Jan. 28-31 also took a bite out of local small businesses’ bottom lines.

The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce was flooded with feedback the last week of January from restaurants, breweries, coffee shops and retailers that had to close during Winter Storm Jayden for employee and customer safety. The region saw its coldest temperatures in 25 years, along with sheets of ice coating as much as a foot of snow.

Oscar Moreno is executive chef of MeXo, at 118 E. Fulton St. in downtown Grand Rapids. He said his restaurant closed Monday through Thursday the week of the storm because of the “messy” downtown streets and dangerous conditions.

Some employees went unpaid, while others who were eligible for paid time off used it to cover the missed days.

“It was for their own safety. We didn’t want anybody driving in those conditions,” Moreno said. “Safety for our employees is a lot more important than anything else.”

He said closing for days during his restaurant’s peak season — winter — was a setback. The storm forecast helped him plan for inventory reductions, including using supplies that were on hand instead of bringing new product in, but business didn’t pick up again until Saturday.

Paola Mendivil is catering coordinator at El Granjero Mexican Grill, 950 Bridge St. NW in Grand Rapids. She said in the restaurant’s 12 years in business, it has only ever closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter — until Winter Storm Jayden, when it closed for three days in a row.

The closure resulted in a 50 percent revenue loss for the week, and employees weren’t paid for the missed hours.

“As a business, we will take more seriously the warnings next time because we thought it was just going to be a regular snowstorm, and we didn’t think that we would be closing that long,” she said.

“We could have prepared more with our employees. … Knowing that that was coming, we could have had them put in more hours the week before or not take a day off to make sure they have at least a decent paycheck for this specific timeline. I don’t think we as a business paid attention to it as we should have. After this, we need to implement or come up with a strategy (for) future years.”

Mendivil said being caught unaware by the storm meant “a lot” of El Granjero’s food spoiled during the closure. Once the managers realized the severity of the storm, they started sending employees home with food such as milk and eggs, which meant less waste and the employees could “be home safe with some food, at least for a couple of days,” she said.

After the storm, the restaurant helped employees make up for their hours by letting them stay later or cover for other workers who live in Kalamazoo and Muskegon and still couldn’t get to Grand Rapids.

El Granjero was able to reschedule its catering events that were set to occur Wednesday during the vortex.

The Plant Parlor is a nursery and garden center at 1059 Wealthy St. SE in Grand Rapids. Owner Danny Parker and shopkeeper Quinn Burke closed it down early that Tuesday and remained closed Wednesday and Thursday — for a reason that people might not think about: It was too cold for plants to leave the facility. The business kept customers informed via a series of Facebook posts sprinkled with plant memes.

When The Plant Parlor finally reopened that Friday, temperatures still were dangerously low, but Parker and Burke told customers they would wrap the plants carefully and load them directly into vehicles curbside to prevent frostbite.

Popcorn Creations, at 4763 Wilson Ave. SW, Suite D, in Grandville, also closed during the polar vortex Tuesday through Thursday — and lost product as well as sales.

Owner Melissa Rincones said it was “just horrible” in Grandville, which is farther west than Grand Rapids and receives additional lake-effect snow.

“I don’t know anybody that would be looking to risk their lives to get popcorn,” she said, adding she didn’t want to endanger her employees’ lives or her own.

Rincones used social media to let customers know when the store reopened, and she also reached out to business customers one by one via email, letting them know they could come back and get popcorn for their events.

Despite the drop in business that week, Rincones said it could have been worse.

“It’s hard to complain about the business part of it when I know people had family members and loved ones in accidents and things like that,” she said.

Chris Andrus, co-owner of The Mitten Brewing Co., at 527 Leonard St. NW, said his business only closed one full day, Monday, and was open for short days Tuesday-Thursday after he and his co-owner Max Trierweiler decided to give employees the option to stay home or volunteer to come in for work.

“Most of the staff opted not to come in on Wednesday after we offered the option to stay home,” Andrus said. “We operated with a threadbare crew of nonscheduled volunteers and managers. We had a good day, and it was worthwhile.”

Still, sales fell 11 percent from the same week the previous year.

Andrus said it’s back to business as usual at the brewery, and he said he expects February to be a good month, as it is Beer Month from Feb. 15-March 15.

Moreno also expects to see a bump in February with themed events such as an Aztec dinner that was to be held Feb. 8, Salsa Night twice per month and the launch of new menus.

“Sales, we can make them back up,” Moreno said.

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