Mandatory evacuation. As a restaurant owner, I can’t think of two more anxiety-inducing words in the English language. Four years, four hurricanes — Matthew (2016), Irma (2017), Florence (2018) and this year, Hurricane Dorian. All leaving in their wake a trail of damage both physical and financial.
When it comes to the mandatory evacuation. I get it. Really. One of the basic functions of government is to ensure its citizens remain safe. Explaining the genesis of his family’s karate in the classic 1986 film "Karate Kid II," Mr. Miyagi told his protege Daniel-san: “Best way to avoid punch, no be there." It’s hard to argue the logic. Hurricanes are like a divorce: Messy and destructive. So why hang around?
I’m not cynical by nature but there just may be some political calculations involved. No governor wants to have a repeat of the Interstate 26 fiasco during the evacuation for Hurricane Floyd back in 1999 on their watch. It would be political suicide. Anyone heard from Jim Hodges lately?
For Hurricane Dorian, the mandatory evacuation order went into effect on Monday, Sept. 2, along with the I-26 lane reversal, a full three days before the first serious gust of wind approached. Grocery and home improvement store operators, if privately, pumped their fists. Generators, bottled water, SPAM and bread flew off store shelves.
Restaurant owners called their therapists. I know I did (and asked for deferred billing). Lord, why hast thou forsaken us? Four years in a row? Now, I know what folks say: You can’t put a price on safety. You have to be prepared for things like this. You’ve must have insurance, or some variation thereof. I hear it from my therapist every year.
Allow me, if you will, to give you a glimpse behind the curtain. With these storms, a restaurant will lose about a week of revenue. In the case of Dorian, for those who don’t evacuate, Monday through Wednesday, people divide their time between shopping for supplies and being glued to the non-stop storm coverage on TV.
Thursday the storm hits and then the weekend is pretty much devoted to clean-up and devouring all the goodies that were bought for the storm. A full week of revenue for a business with razor-thin margins is tough to overcome.
A 1 percent to 2 percent reduction in revenue for an industry where, in a good scenario, profit margins hover in the mid-single digits is a tough pill to swallow. At best, it can turn a good year into a mediocre one. Year over year, it makes a profitable operation almost impossible.
You’ve got to plan for these things, you say. Keep in mind that the restaurant business is all about cash flow. Like nearly half of American households, many restaurants (especially independently owned ones) are living week to week. When you run out of cash, you have problems.
Exacerbating the issue is the nature of the business. If I don’t get a haircut today, I’ll still need one tomorrow. As those of us who have been sent to our rooms without dinner know well: A missed meal is a meal missed.
Fixed costs (rent, utilities, insurance) are still due. Employees still need to be paid. The S.C. Department of Revenue still demands timely payment for monthly sales taxes.
While we genuinely rejoice that everyone is safe and that the damage from Dorian wasn’t more severe, there are mountains of bills without customer dollars to pay them.
Don’t you have business insurance for loss due to natural disasters? The governor declared a State of Emergency, so there must be some sort of relief available, right? Yes and no. We do carry business interruption insurance. Ah, but the devil is in the details.
Generally speaking, a business would have to be closed due to damage either directly to the business or in proximity to it, thereby depriving customers of access.
Also, the coverage does not begin for 72 hours after the covered event. I’ve argued that by turning I-26 into an express lane to Columbia, it effectively prevents traffic to my restaurant. I’ve made this argument for three, going on four, years and it continues to fall on deaf ears. You’re in good hands, indeed.
I’m sure to many, this all sounds like so much crying over spilled milk. My friends often tell me how cool it must be to be your own boss. Customers and even employees see dining rooms full of people and figure that we must be printing money by the truckload in the back.
I submit to you that there is much more to it than meets the eye. Rising rents. Soaring food costs. Labor costs? Fuhgeddaboutit. In the best of times, a restaurant is a dicey financial proposition. Throw a hurricane into the mix and you have a recipe for financial disaster.
Make no mistake: Along with the owner-operators I know, we do what we do because we love it and not for the money. I am in the people business, and I use food to bring people together. That’s my mission. I love my guests and count it as the honor of a lifetime to touch so many lives and be part of a community. However, the reality is that it’s also a business and you’ve got to generate enough income to make it viable.
On behalf of the folks out there working hard to serve you, we need your support. By visiting your favorite restaurant, you get to help out people and an industry dedicated to you. It’s also got to be more appetizing than the SPAM and sardines left from your hurricane stash.