Restaurant News

What Happens at Restaurants When a Tropical Storm Is Heading Toward Houston?

In 2009, Hurricane Ike caused a fire to gut Houston landmark Brennan's.
In 2009, Hurricane Ike caused a fire to gut Houston landmark Brennan's. Photo by Daniel Kramer
Unless you've been living at the bottom of a well with a dog named Precious for the past few days, you've probably noticed that Tropical Storm Cindy is gearing up to potentially dump ten inches of rain on Houston by Thursday morning. For many, that will just mean dealing with the hassle of stocking up on ice, Doritos, cans of Dinty Moore and bottles of Bulleit, with the added bonus of working from home. For chefs and restaurateurs, who obviously can't make a living from a laptop on the couch, the threat of an impending tropical storm means existing in a special kind of limbo for days on end.

That's because it's not so easy to tell if a restaurant will be able to operate for certain during a storm that's not hurricane strength but still could bring a host of problems.

"If we can get here and get the kitchen going," chef Seth Siegel Gardner at Pass & Provisions says. "We want to create a place where people can find some comfort in even the most uncomfortable times."

Uncomfortable probably being the keyword here, as a tropical storm usually doesn't invoke the true state of terror (Tropical Storm Allison being the exception) that an actual hurricane does. In 2008, Hurricane Ike, a category 4, ripped through Houston, destroying Three Brothers Bakery and causing a fire to gut Brennan's, among more extensive damage around the city. Tropical Storm Cindy will likely just make it impossible to drive.

But that may not be the case. A tropical storm or its lesser evil, the tropical depression — which honestly sounds like the condition that affects me every time I'm forced to visit my home state of Florida — can be a major problem for a restaurant. These storms come with the potential for power outages (and, thus, no air conditioning), boil-water advisories and slow, if not totally dead, business. It's not easy to tell, from an operational standpoint, if a restaurant should stay open or not during a storm of that capacity, so mostly it comes down to the wire.

"Three hundred sixty-five days a year, safety is always our top priority," says Kirby Group's Steven Salazar, operator of cocktail and bar snack hubs Heights Bier Garten and Wooster's Garden. "Otherwise we are open for the neighborhood."

Over in the Heights, Agricole Hospitality — owners of Coltivare, Eight Row Flint and Revival Market — is busy purchasing a new generator today and getting electrical work done to keep the coolers up and running in case of a power outage.

"You have about a 24-hour window to figure it all out," Ricardo Molina, operator of Molina's and a two-time president of the Texas Restaurant Association, says. Molina has operated restaurants during previous tropical storms, "very minimal" ones anyway, wherein the power didn't go out and there wasn't as much rain as expected. It all comes down to weighing the risks, he says. "Different things can happen. If the power goes out, you can lose all your food and you've got to get rid of it, got to restock it. Have to find vendors who are able to operate with staff in place. That's a big issue." Another is asking staff to leave their families and risk damaging their vehicles just getting in to work.

The National Restaurant Association guidelines for preparing for storms include having a disaster-preparedness plan, along with emergency checklists — "we keep printed phone lists of staff and vendors," Molina notes — and store managers on duty during the storm and directly after to ensure food safety.
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Yes, we're now under a Tropical Storm watch.
Image courtesy of NOAA

So while you'll just have to play it by ear to see if restaurants will remain open on Thursday, and if you can even get there, there is always one trusty possibility for diehards: rainy day watering holes that pretty much never close.

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Gwendolyn Knapp is the food editor at the Houston Press. A sixth-generation Floridian, she is still torn as to whether she likes smoked fish dip or queso better.