This past May 30 was a monumental day for Terri Stark and her husband, Mark: the culmination of a 19-month journey the restaurant power couple in California’s Sonoma County never saw coming.
In the early morning hours of October 9, 2017, the Starks turned on the television to see flames engulfing Willi’s Wine Bar, their cherished 15-year-old restaurant located in a historic 1886 landmark building in Santa Rosa. Willi’s was the first eatery the couple opened in 2002, a labor of love that sparked a local restaurant empire that now includes six heralded eateries in the nation’s oenophilic epicenter.
“We poured our heart and soul into getting Willi’s open,” Terri Stark says. “Willi’s put us on the map and gave us the foundation to open other restaurants.”
And then, within moments that October morning, Willi’s vanished in chaotic flurry of flames. The most destructive wildfire in California history, the Tubbs Fire, caused an estimated $1.2 billion in damage in Santa Rosa alone.
“We didn’t have a clue the fire was coming toward us,” Stark says. “It just came over the hill without warning.”
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the Starks entered “survival mode.” The couple began reassigning some 50 Willi’s employees to other Stark-owned restaurants, initiated conversations with business partners and vendors, and started contemplating a path to rebuilding Willi’s.
When the pair reopened Willi’s this past May, opting for a new Santa Rosa location about four miles from Willi’s original home, a line of customers waited outside the door eager for the Starks to reintroduce Willi’s award-winning small plates and Sonoma County wines. On that spring afternoon, Willi’s officially rose from the ashes.
“We’ve tried to pick up right where we left off,” Stark says of Willi’s second act, which included the return of 75 percent of the restaurant’s previous staff.
Not all are so lucky, however.
According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, four in 10 small businesses never reopen following a weather-related disaster, a figure that underscores the power of nature’s force as much as the perils of entrepreneurship.
Even for restaurant operations surviving a catastrophic event, it can be a long, slow grind back to normalcy. There are often strained emotions that test leadership’s resolve; stressed staff members who simply move on; frustrating battles with insurance companies and vendors; and cautious consumer spending on even the bluest of blue-sky days.
Whether a concoction of Mother Nature or man, no restaurant is safe from unexpected catastrophes. Just this decade, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, oil spills, and other headline-grabbing events have challenged restaurants’ survival skills. These events underscore the need for advance preparation to minimize the damage and, specifically, the value of a formal Emergency Action Plan (eap) that restaurant teams practice, review, and evolve to help minimize the impact of a disastrous event.
“Having a formal EAP is key to having a roadmap to sustainability in the event of a catastrophic or crisis event,” says Justin Reese, vice president and senior risk consultant with global insurance brokerage Hub International, adding that an EAP is not only prudent, but also a requirement of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (osha).
A formal plan should include risk assessments, threat assessments, and site-specific protocols for operations and business exposures that cover elements such as evacuation routes, up-to-date emergency contacts, addressing power loss, and critical operations.
“Having formalized holding statements and standard language and protocols will greatly ease the immediate crisis,” Reese says.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group did not have a comprehensive EAP in place. Blessed with some good fortune and an enterprising spirit, however, Ralph Brennan’s Red Fish Grill and BACCO were the city’s first two restaurants granted the mandatory U.S. Food and Drug Administration license to reopen following Katrina.
The Ralph Brennan team worked round the clock preparing food, which they served on paper plates to lines of hungry citizens and rescue workers, including noted visitors like then-President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush. By opening two of its restaurants quickly, Ralph Brennan touted New Orleans’ resiliency and provided food and employment—two ever-critical needs in the post-Katrina whirlwind.
Looking back now, Ralph Brennan was fortunate its spirit and moxie carried the day in the absence of a formal emergency plan defining clear steps and protocols. The company largely survived on a mix of guile and resourcefulness.
“As New Orleans had never faced such a disaster, there was no real need for [an extensive plan prior to Hurricane Katrina],” says Meaghan Regan, a publicist for Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group.
Today, though, the heralded restaurant group with six New Orleans eateries takes no such chances. Ralph Brennan maintains a comprehensive 68-page hurricane plan that includes a detailed outline for pre-storm preparations, a communications plan, a technology plan, a loss of essential services plan, a return-to-work plan, and up-to-the-minute personnel, supplier, and emergency contact information.
If disaster strikes, Ralph Brennan eateries are prepared. So, too, now are all the Starks’ restaurants in northern California.
Following the Tubbs Fire, the Starks hired a company to assess their emergency protocols and help in the development of a disaster preparedness plan. A binder at Willi’s now includes protocols for the last man out as well as key details around issues such as the safe exit of guests and turning off gas at the source.
“We didn’t have anything quite like this in place before,” Stark says. “Now, we realize just how important it is.”
While crafting an EAP is an important first step, Hub International’s Reese says restaurants must continually review and revise their plan. He suggests drills that make all employees aware of the protocols and a regular review of the content to ensure current and accurate information.
“By planning ahead and practicing the plan, your business will be prepared to handle any event,” Reese says.
Beyond the Plan
To further prepare for a disaster and mitigate the damage, restaurants should:
Leverage available resources
For those restaurants without a risk-management team or the wherewithal to hire a consultant, OSHA provides a free checklist and online tool that walks businesses through the basic components of an EAP. In addition, restaurants can utilize their local emergency management office for added counsel.
“There are specific protocols and rules, especially in coastal areas, on evacuation and other events,” Reese says. “There is also community emergency-response training that can better help you and your staff prepare for natural disasters.”
Value constant communication
Though Minnesotans know frigid weather comes with the territory (the most recent winter season included several sub-zero days and numerous snowstorms), restaurateur Luke Shimp consistently monitors weather forecasts so he can plan staffing levels accordingly at his Red Cow and Red Rabbit locations in the Twin Cities. If a particularly brutal storm is on the horizon, Shimp communicates regularly with staff via the company’s Hot Schedules staffing platform, as well as a private Facebook page.
“Our store leadership team also divides and conquers by reaching out to all affected team members via text and phone,” he says.
To keep customers updated, Shimp utilizes the restaurants’ email marketing and social media channels. In some cases, Shimp reminds customers that Red Cow and Red Rabbit are open for business. In others, he informs them that the restaurants will be closed due to extreme weather conditions.
Invest in insurance coverage
Having proper insurance coverage for potential catastrophic events, including property, liability, workers compensation, auto, and other pertinent coverage based on the exposure risk, can help a restaurant withstand an unexpected event and curtail its losses.
The Starks invested thoughtfully in insurance with the idea they might someday need it. In October 2017, that day came and the company’s business interruption insurance, including safeguards for covering payroll, helped the Starks survive the tumultuous aftermath of the Tubbs Fire.
“Insurance can get outrageously expensive, but our policy definitely helped us out,” Stark says.
“It really does come down to what is best for the greater community of people around you.”
Adopt a safety-first philosophy
Though restaurant entrepreneurs loathe missing any potential sales, impending storms or other natural disasters can bring dangers and liabilities that might make the decision to close a prudent one. Guided by his company’s core values of putting his team first and caring for the community, Shimp has made the decision—more than once—to close his restaurants amid some of Minnesota’s most extreme winter weather.
“Safety of those around has to be the No. 1 priority,” he says, citing roadway conditions and exposure to the elements as particularly harmful realities. “The type of weather that forces us to close truly is not safe for our internal guests (team members) or external guests (customers) to wade through.”
Missed sales, though unfortunate, don’t factor into Shimp’s thinking. At the end of the day, going head to head with Mother Nature isn’t worth the risk.
“It really does come down to what is best for the greater community of people around you,” he says.