The time between New Year’s Day and Mother’s Day is the darkest season for restaurateurs. But there might be something we can do to help.
Welcome to the Dead Zone.
We’re in the middle of it now—the worst stretch of the year for chefs and restaurant owners. Suffering through the dull, dark, desolate stretch of the calendar that begins with the first hangover of the New Year and reaches all the way to that first mimosa with mom in May is something that all restaurant-industry people (and their accountants) share. Broken only by the small mercies of Easter and Valentine’s Day, the Dead Zone does not play favorites. No one gets through it easily. If there’s something—anything—beyond a love of knives and pork products that might be shared by Marc Vetri, Peter McAndrews, the cooks at the greasy-spoon diner where you go for Sunday-morning pancakes, and the guy who owns the little Chinese takeout joint on the corner by your house, it’s that sense of awful desperation that comes in mid-February when you look out over your dining room on a Thursday night and see … nobody.
Restaurants go under during this stretch. Some of them know the end is coming, but hang on through the holidays to get one last cash infusion before packing it in. A lot of them—those that didn’t bank enough green during the food orgies of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, those already on shaky financial ground or who didn’t properly anticipate just how bleak these months can be—simply can’t survive Tuesdays where the kitchen does 14 covers.
The Dead Zone issue is partly an economic problem (people spend too much during the holidays and need a few months of Spaghetti-O’s and bologna sandwiches to get back in the black) and partly a psychological one. No one wants to go out for foie gras and champagne (or even tacos and margaritas) when it’s 10 degrees outside and dark at four in the afternoon.
What can be done? Well, there was Center City Restaurant Week in January (which, despite how you feel about the whole Restaurant Week phenomenon in general, likely helped out a lot of houses on the edge), and plenty of restaurants out there trying to keep themselves energized (and their fans entertained) with beer dinners and collaboration dinners and every kind of special menu—all of which can be found at foobooz.com, of course. But all of these things are just stopgap measure, dumping blood into a body leaking it from a hundred holes. What’s really needed is business. Not great business. Not record business. Just steady business.
What’s needed is you.
It’s February. Odds are good that you’ll be heading out somewhere nice with your significant other on the 14th, right? Excellent. Totally do that. But what about the 13th? And the 15th? Isn’t there that little Vietnamese (or Thai, or Mexican) place a couple blocks over that you’ve always wondered about? Or what about that place you went to that one time that you keep meaning to get back to, but never do?
Go there. Now. Don’t spend a ton if you don’t have it, but spend a little. Have a drink and a snack. And then, on Friday, when you’re looking for someplace to go after work, try someplace new. Someplace small. Someplace you’ve never gone to but always meant to. Make a point of getting out and supporting those places that you love—that you want to still be up and running when the snow melts and the sun comes back. Jose Garces and Stephen Starr? They’ll weather the season regardless. But there are a lot of other restaurants out there that would be very happy to see you right now, even if you’re only coming in to drop the price of a martini and a cheeseburger at the Continental.
New customers and long-lost friends are how restaurants make it through the Dead Zone and come out the other side whole. How the Philly scene looks come spring is up to you.