Don't Believe the (Snow Frenzy) Hype
March 21, 2018
I woke up to slightly louder than usual kid hubbub coming from the living room. It was Saturday morning, January 23, 2016. Overnight the sky had dumped snow on New York. And it was still snowing. The city was suddenly ten sizes bigger, puffy, and white and had caused just about every kid to lose their minds as soon as they awoke. My kid included.
"Dad! Dad! Dad! C'mon! C'mon! Hurry and get dressed! Let's go out right now! Hurry! Hurry!" etc. etc.
He was super pumped for some sledding.
I own Bruno Pizza in the East Village. And since I am pretty much constantly there I don't get to spend enough time with him. So I jumped at the opportunity. As a kid in rural Western Pennsylvania my brothers and I would build snow jumps in the back yard, sled between trees in the woods and even sled on the steep hilly road near our house when cars weren't coming. Since living in the city (and global warming?) doesn't give my son as much opportunity to be adventurous with a sled on his own, I wanted to get him outside and find the biggest hill that we could. I didn't have to be in to the restaurant until three-ish so we got suited up and borrowed some sleds from a storage locker in the basement. The snow was easily a foot deep already and still coming down in buckets. We hit Riverside Park. The nearest big hill was littered with snow-crusted kids and parents trying to brush them off and keep them out of the way of other oncoming sledders. The snow pelted our faces so much it was tough to see. But we worked hard to sled as much as we could before the wetness had thoroughly soaked our socks and infiltrated the scarf/neck barrier. So much fun.
As soon as we got back the hot chocolate started flowing. But I noticed my phone was lighting up. Grabbing it I saw that I was getting lots of texts from Staffer#1 asking if we were going to close and why am I not responding?
Staffer#1: 'Getting a lot of texts [from other staff] about whether we are opening tonight.
I told them yes. But I figured I should just bring up...'
'apparently mayor has said we are in a state of emergency.'
Until that moment the thought of closing the restaurant due to snow hadn't even crossed my mind. To me dealing with winter weather while living in the city was waaayyyy easier than when growing up in the rolling country hills. No long driveway to shovel, no cars to thaw out and drive on hilly roads… In the city just put on vaguely fashionable boots and trudge to the subway. A comparative cake-walk!
I wrote back:
'I guess it depends on trains running and people getting in to work. There are enough locals that we would have diners. Let's see what the trains do while still working to be open.'
Staffer#1 agreed but then started texting me transportation updates.
Staffer#1: 'there are delays on all trains and they are suspending buses at noon so far.'
we still got a couple more hours till people have to start coming in.'
'apparently mayor whats his face is considering a mandatory travel ban.'
'above ground subway stops at 4pm'
'bridges and tunnels close at 2:30pm'
‘MAYOR IS SAYING TO SEND RESTAURANT EMPLOYEES HOME.'
'well restaurant employees and broadway theater workers'
Oh, great. Thanks, Mr. Mayor, for the encouragement for all of us small business owners just trying to make ends meet. The issue for me as a restaurant owner is that the pre-snow public frenzy that is crack to the weather media tends to dissuade people from then going out at night to restaurants, bars, theaters, etc. “Stay safe!” they say. Stay safe?? Why? What does that even mean? I know a person’s socks might be in danger of getting wet, but… it’s just snow right..? Or will it be snowing radioactive acid? Does the snow signal an invasion of the zombie hordes? Too bad the mayor didn’t ALSO say, “the city of New York will send a check to all affected restaurants and theaters for lost revenue.” But of course that is a bizarro-world pipe dream. What he could have said was, “go out to dinner early tonight so you and the restaurant workers can get home without too much hassle.” Or, “go and eat at one of the restaurants that is within two blocks of your home.” Now there’s an idea!
Staffer#1 called me to talk about the mayor on the news telling everyone to stay home if they can. I said 'well the mayor doesn't pay the restaurant's bills'. I mean… come on! It's just snow! Other cities -entire countries even- would scoff at how little snow New York City gets in comparison. We are tougher than that! I told Staffer that at this point if people are near subways that are running they should come in.
But the texts kept coming. Three other staffers got roped into the text chain. And the conversation devolved from there. I will spare the gory details but texts quickly went from ‘It’s not fair for hourly workers to have to come in’ to saying that my decision to be open was ‘mad ignorant’, put people’s lives in danger and was ‘selfish’, suggesting a class bias. Ugh. It was fluffy white snow for goodness sakes! Not a storm of frickin’ sharks with laser beams falling from the sky! Restaurant bills had to get paid. Rent and salaries don’t hit the ‘pause’ button when the snow falls. So the restaurant can’t either. What kind of HR monster had I created by allowing some of my staff to openly disparage me? Evidently the pesky detail about me signing the paychecks seemed to have slipped a mind or two. Well, the restaurant had to be open that evening one way or the other. So I headed in.
When I got to the restaurant some staffers had already split and the snow was still coming down. It snowed at least 18 inches that day. I shoveled the sidewalk three times before dinner service. But each time I was out there someone trudging by would yell, “are you open tonight?” I would yell back, “YES!” and they would reply, “that’s so great! We’ll come in later!”
By the time we opened I had only a bare-bones crew. Two cooks, me, and a dishwasher. That was it. But what happened was one of the most beautiful and memorable nights I have ever had at Bruno Pizza. People started coming in. And kept coming in. Neighbors from the block that saw the lights aglow, regulars, friends. Lots of smiling faces. ‘Thank you for being open!” “So great that you are here!” I heard again and again. They stamped off the snow, got comfortable with a glass of wine and ate lots of pizza. Since I was playing the role of the only server/busser that night, I ran my ass off, sweating in my wool sweater and boots. But I had a great time serving and connecting with everyone from the neighborhood that came for dinner. This type of thing is one of the main reasons I wanted to open a restaurant in the first place. I absolutely love that my little spot could be a place where the community can come together, relax, and build relationships. Neighborhoods are knit together by shared experiences, discovered commonalities, acts of kindness, food, gathering places, etc. So I am thrilled when it feels like Bruno Pizza can contribute to fostering a sense of community for the people of the East Village.
What is also so special about these kinds of nights is that my community is also helping to support Bruno Pizza. In the New York restaurant world every night counts. You’re paying rent every day so you need to be open and making money every day. Friday and Saturday especially since they are typically the busiest days. So to have neighbors come in that night when others might have been kept away, to enjoy and engage in what is a part of their community, was really very lovely and something I will always be thankful for.
It is bigger than just me and my Bruno Pizza, though. There are hundreds of independent restaurants in every borough of this city. They all contribute their own character and flavor to their neighborhood, adding to the vibrancy and diversity that make the culture of this city so amazing. But as the term implies, a ‘neighborhood restaurant’ owes a large part of it’s ‘restaurant-ness’ to the people in it’s neighborhood. And the converse of that is true as well; a neighborhood’s vibe and vitality has a lot to do with the restaurants and small businesses that serve it. They all work together to form the energetic, tumultuous, cacophony of life that New Yorkers seem to thrive on. And we all need to support each other to keep that amazingness humming.
So the next time your social media feed is overrun with forecasters using dramatic terms like ‘bomb cyclone’ that sound like they were just made up, pause and raise a New Yorker’s jaded eyebrow. Instead of scrambling to Whole Foods or Trader Joes to spend most of your night standing in ridiculous lines because Heaven forbid you just can’t get buried under giant drifts of snow without their free-range trail mix or organic taste-free snack nibblets (we need to be prepared for the worst!), maybe take it as inspiration to put on some boots and go have a nice dinner with the roommates you rarely see at one of your local restaurants. A warm room full of neighbors, some nice food, a drink or two. Sometimes those snowy nights are just the thing to make New York magic happen.