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shirley leung

Restaurants are open, but where are the customers?

Bartender Harrison Fish mixed a drink for the one patron at the bar at Boston Chops restaurant on Friday.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

At Boston Chops, the steaks are in, the tables are set, and the bar is fully stocked. What’s missing: the customers.

It’s a scene played out all over the region during three weeks of record snow as restaurateurs, against all odds, keep their doors open. As the snow piles up, so does our misery, and many of us want to do nothing but hunker down at home.

It would probably be easier for Chris Coombs, the chef-owner of Boston Chops, Deuxave, and Dbar, to stay home, too. Would anyone blame him? It’s frigid and gross outside, and street parking is hard to come by with more than four feet of snow on the ground.


But that’s not what Coombs is all about, and that’s not how you run a business. This winter, he has closed his restaurants just twice, when the governor asked everyone to stay off the roads. Coombs keeps the lights on for hungry customers, but also for the 120 employees who depend on a weekly paycheck.

Even with business in February down by 35 percent, Coombs has kept paying his workers under the belief that a steady stipend is more important to them than squeezing another penny of profit is for him and co-owner Brian Piccini.

“Our employees, they stand by us during our busiest times,” said Coombs, sitting at the bar of Boston Chops, a neighborhood steakhouse in the South End, earlier this week. “It’s our responsibility to stand by them when we’re slow.”

Coombs feels fortunate he can stomach the lost revenue and continue to pay employees; not every place can.

He’s hoping he can make up ground on Saturday with all three restaurants fully booked for Valentine’s Day, typically the second busiest day after New Year’s Eve.

But with the threat of another weekend snowstorm, the cancellations are starting to flow in. He can’t seem to win.


What would certainly kill the mood is if the city of Boston puts in a parking ban Saturday night.

That would mean his restaurants, Boston Chops and Deuxave, couldn’t offer valet parking, and more than half of his customers depend on that service.

“The anxiety level is pretty high,” said Coombs. “The reality is that throwing in the parking ban on Saturday night would be anti-small-business.”

Sometimes when you listen to Marty Walsh, you’d think the city of Boston is closed until March, because that’s when he can clear all the snow.

As of Friday, the mayor hadn’t made a decision on a parking ban, which is put in place so plows can clear the streets. Walsh said in a statement that he recognizes the impact on businesses, and if a ban is necessary, it would be done “as late as possible” on Saturday. (Update: Boston’s parking ban takes effect at 10 p.m. but enforcement will not begin until midnight. Cupid must have gotten to the mayor.)

Nothing has been easy for restaurateurs this winter, even something as mundane as trash pickup.

Coombs pays for daily collection, but the trucks have had a hard time getting through Back Bay alleys. Recently, the trash for Deuxave on Massachusetts Avenue piled up for five days.

Other times, when public transit shut down, Coombs added “T general manager” to his title, coordinating rides to get employees to and from work. He also became one of the designated drivers — so add “chauffeur” to his title, too.


Workers who drive brave difficult commutes. Ryan Marcoux, the chef de cuisine at Boston Chops, comes in from Worcester, a commute that is normally 45 minutes. These days, it can take between two and three hours, including time to find street parking. Marcoux now leaves his home at 7:30 a.m. and doesn’t return until after midnight. Yet he hasn’t missed a day of work during this stretch of bad weather.

“We’ve got to do what we’ve got do to feed the people,” Marcoux said.

But walk into Boston Chops this week, and you have to ask, “Where are all the diners?”

The snowbanks may be frightening, but the sidewalks are clear. On Wednesday, a rare snowless evening, the 165-seat restaurant had 30 patrons; typically there would be 150. By Thursday, business improved with 90 dinners served, but still far below the norm of about 200.

Up until this year, Coombs had only one other snow day that forced him to close, and that was back in 2013. But our endless winter has given customers three weeks of reasons to be home in their PJs and ordering in.

Yet the next time you feel like hibernating, think about Coombs and his crew, and what they do to keep their business afloat.

I’m not asking you to venture out in a blizzard, but you can do your part to help our local economy. Go out to eat, and when you do, spend a little more, tip a little extra, to help these restaurants make it through winter.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.