Restaurant sales fall as snow piles up

The Rainbow Grill in Hudsonville. (Feb. 27, 2014)

HUDSONVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — Joan Miller made it to the Rainbow Grill Thursday night with friends, drawn out by deceiving sunshine. She usually eats there three times a week, but this brutal winter has forced her to cut back.

“At least half, I could say,” Miller said. “It really hurt this winter. I can tell the waitresses didn’t get the tips, you know. People can’t get out.”

A bitter winter that has beaten up roads and roofs also has taken a bite out of restaurants — a big bite for some.

At the Rainbow Grill in Hudsonville, sales were down 10% this January compared to January 2013.

“Sales have been down because people just can’t get out,” said owner John Zondervan. “You’ve had times when roads are closed. People can’t get out of their driveways. It’s just cold.”

On a normal Thursday night, the restaurant would be packed and there would be a line for a table, Zondervan said. But this Thursday night, there were empty tables.

The Hudsonville Rainbow Grill has been open 10 years; the one in Grandville since 1954, run by the same family for three generations.

As winters go, Zondervan said, this has been one of the worst for business.

“My father he says it’s been the roughest one since the 1977-78 storms, yeah,” Zondervan said. “Restaurants really depend on weekends. We’ve had a lot of storms, snow on the weekends. It’s been rough all around.”

The cold and snow have slowed retail sales across the country, but not nearly as much as it has hurt restaurants, according to national reports.

Restaurant sales were down 0.6% nationally in December and 0.7% in January after a record November, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures quoted by the National Restaurant Association.

Experts blame not only the cold, but also high heating bills leaving consumers with less to spend.

The Michigan Restaurant Association says it has heard from restaurants around most of the state that January was bad.

“We’ve definitely heard that restaurants were feeling that impact of people not wanting to leave their houses in January and not dining out as much,” said association spokeswoman Adriane DeCeuninck.

The only possible exception — northern Michigan restaurants where all that snow drew tourists, she said.

At the Rainbow Grill, it has forced the owner to cut back hours for his crew.

“You feel bad for your staff because you’re constantly cutting hours, so while sales are down here, they’re also working less and so they’re taking home less,” Zondervan said.

And that has been hurting waitresses like Martha Wierenga.

“We get the $2.65 an hour as all waitresses do, and so we really rely on our customers to come in,” Wierenga said. “Like everyone else, we have bills to pay.”

They expect a lot of pent-up demand once spring finally arrives.

“A lot of it’s just seeing the sun, and people are itching to come out,” Zondervan said. “They’re sick of being inside. They’ll come when the sun comes out and it warms up.”

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