Inside Al's Prime Steaks and Seafood the temperature hovers comfortably in the 70s. Wind and rain smack against the restaurant's walls, belying one of Marx's lesser maxims: "It is absolutely impossible to transcend the laws of nature." It's the same story downtown at Jeroboam, over at Brother's Pizza or at the Whisky Bar on lower Greenville, or any other Dallas area establishment.
Yet perhaps the commie bastard--well, the inspiration for modern communism--had a point. According to the National Restaurant Association, almost 90 percent of table service restaurants report that local weather conditions affect sales and customer traffic. Three out of four claim that a simple forecast alters their business. "Food orders have noticeable seasonal swings, and we plan on that," explains Brandt Wood, president of the Entertainment Collaborative, owner of Jeroboam and The Green Room. "Right now, people are looking for comfort foods," adds Al Biernat of Al's, "cherry cobbler, steaks, mashed potatoes--good comfortable foods." Like other restaurateurs, Wood and Biernat vary their menus by season, serving heavier foods in the winter, and this despite a Dallas lifestyle based on automatically controlled temperatures and the automobile. Joanne Bondy, chef at Ciudad, plans menus and food orders a month in advance of seasonal changes.
It's difficult to concede, but we are creatures of instinct, whether we recognize it or not. Restaurant patron Emily Jordan, for example, states that weather and season wield little influence over her. "I'll eat ice cream every day, coffee when it's cold or hot and pizza all year round," she says. "I guess I eat well-balanced meals." But restaurant owners and chefs note an obvious trend toward lighter foods in the summer. Steak, lamb, and pork make up only 45 percent of orders at Al's Prime Steaks and Seafood through June, July and August, but jump to more than 60 percent from October to May. "This is prime time for steak," Biernat says, clearly unconcerned about lame puns. "People aren't worried about their waistlines this time of year." Alcohol bends to seasonal demands as well. "Big reds drop off in the summer," says Jordan Lowery, manager of Whisky Bar and the neighboring restaurant Firehouse, "Sauvignon blancs and rieslings pick up, as well as the lighter reds." The popularity of heavier drinks, from scotch to port, also follow seasonal patterns.
"In cold weather there's just something comforting about a robust scotch," Lowery muses. "I think it's a psychological thing, because it's just as cold inside in the summer as in the winter."
Psychological or not, sudden changes in the local weather play a more important--and perplexing--role than seasonal habits. "Any time you have a drastic change of season, it takes people a few days to adjust and get back out to the restaurants," Biernat explains. Warmer than normal temperatures during winter months increase restaurant traffic. Colder than usual winter weather chokes the food service industry. Summer heat doesn't much matter; everybody's in the same boat. The biggest nemeses are rain and snow or ice. Up to a third of all reservations become no-shows during anything above a drizzle, and many of the remaining tables run 20 to 30 minutes late. "Dallas really reacts to weather events," Lowery says, "and I always have to deal with it." He cites occasions a storm ends early in the evening, forcing early patrons to run late but not delaying the second round of reservations. "I end up juggling tables and dealing with the heat from customers who don't understand how rain affects us," he says with some frustration.
"When it's raining our business falls off, that's just a basic fact," Wood agrees. "People aren't even willing to run 20 steps from the car to the restaurant."
When a few days of rain or a sudden ice storm hits the area, restaurants working with fresh ingredients must absorb losses. Last New Year's Eve, as snow and freezing rain pelted the city, Ciudad counted 40 cancellations. "That's 40 five-course portions wasted," Bondy says. In that particular instance, the restaurant treated staff members to dinner. On other occasions, Bondy donates unused ingredients to the Texas Food Bank. An unexpected spurt of rain or snow can cost restaurants thousands in canceled reservations and unused fresh ingredients.
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To avoid the costs of weather-related waste, restaurateurs scour the forecasts. "We monitor the weather everyday and adjust preparations accordingly," Bondy says. Still, she doesn't understand the fear of rain. "We even have a canopy," she exclaims with a laugh. "I think people don't want to get their hair messed up and their Cole-Haans wet. I think it has to do with hair and shoes."
A miserable time for sit down restaurants, however, means a surge of business for pizza delivery places. According to John Joiner, manager of the Domino's Pizza at Josey and Rosemeade in Carrollton, delivery orders increase by almost 40 percent during periods of rain. Snow or ice drive business up by 75 percent. "Rain or ice, we get hammered," confirms Brian Kennedy, manager of Domino's Pizza in Lewisville. Luan Vraniqi, owner of Brother's Pizza points out that delivery orders "go through the roof" on a rainy day, but dine in traffic slows to a trickle.
Delivery managers hesitate to explain this phenomenon, but suggest that canceled reservations at table-service restaurants directly benefit their business. "I'm guessing that they decide not to go out so they don't have anything planned for dinner and they call us," Vraniqi says. Of course, sociologists may scoff at these observations, lacking as they do any scientific evidence of causality--you know, the sort of study proving that even though ice cream sales and incidents of outdoor sex increase in the summer, the two are not causally related--but many pizza fans agree. "You'd order out if it rains, because you don't want to go anywhere," explains Colin McCall. "When it's cold or rainy, that's the perfect time to order pizza." Customers even tip drivers an average of $1.50 more per order on rainy days.
"Bad weather is great for us," Kennedy says. "A nice day is a slow day."