Slips, Storms and Shrapnel: Restaurateurs formulate ways to protect their customers and themselves

On any given day or night, a restaurant weathers a barrage of mini-crises. Yet sometimes an eatery has to deal with more than just wrinkles in the service or mishaps in the kitchen. The windstorms of last July, for example, pitched a tricky bundle of troubles onto restaurateurs’ plates – both on the nights-of and in the aftermath.

Many establishments were in the middle of a dinner shift when the first storm hit and had to look after patrons while the wind blustered outside. Afterwards, prolonged power outages caused food spoilages and interrupted profits. Thankfully, natural disasters aren’t commonplace in this region (which isn’t true in, say, Florida, where hurricanes are an annual menace). But restaurants still have to keep these and other unpleasant eventualities on their radar.

Unlikely stories

Some St. Louis-area restaurants have experienced the occasional apocalyptic event. The Great Flood of 1993 forced Annie Gunn’s, which is located on the Chesterfield Valley floodplain, to rebuild from the ground up – a feat it performed within seven months. In 2005, Lafayette Square eateries in proximity to the now-relocated Praxair Distribution industrial gas facility got a too-close-for-comfort view of burning shrapnel and 100-foot flames. Other restaurants like Faust’s in the Adam’s Mark hotel are fortunate only to have encountered some false alarms.

As Al Cain of O’Fallon, Ill., dined at Faust’s in downtown St. Louis a few years ago, something unexpected happened. “The waiter came around to each table and said that there was a [tornado] warning and we had to evacuate,” said Cain. Instead of going downstairs, diners were ushered upstairs into the ballroom. “I had never gone upstairs to get away from a tornado warning, but they said their architects had determined that that was the best place [to go],” said Cain. “It wasn’t rushed, it was really calm.”

Cain’s report didn’t surprise Faust’s manager John McGuire. “We practice [the evacuation procedure], so the staff knows the drill – no pun intended,” he said.

Overall, the tornado warning Cain experienced was uneventful. He and the other diners – who were allowed to evacuate with a drink in hand – waited in the ballroom for about an hour and then went back downstairs to finish their meals.

Things at Frazer’s Restaurant and Lounge in Benton Park were likewise tame when last summer’s windstorms caused its power to fail. “People kind of hung out for a while. [The staff was] talking about sending people to the basement. But it passed fairly quickly,” said owner Frazer Cameron.
Working the plan

Corporate restaurants like Faust’s typically have detailed emergency procedures, especially if they are located in multistory buildings. McGuire explained, “In a large organization like this, in a large building, you have [different] types of disaster drills, if you will. Fire would be the big one.”

The St. Louis Fire Department, part of the city’s Department of Public Safety, requires all public buildings to have an evacuation plan. Prominent exit signs are likewise mandatory.
Another entity within Public Safety, the Building Division, determines whether or not a restaurant needs other safety accoutrement such as sprinklers and/or a dry chemical fire-suppression system; the Fire Department subsequently verifies the adequacy of these. Beyond that, emergency procedures are not governmentally regulated.

Program specialist Rose M. Perkins works for the St. Louis City Emergency Management Agency. In the past, she has coordinated emergency exercises performed at A.G. Edwards and Busch Stadium. She assists small businesses less frequently. “Normally, they wouldn’t come to us,” she said. “If they did, we’d be glad to help them.”

The fact that restaurants are largely left to their own devices when it comes to devising emergency plans might explain in part why nine restaurants – some corporate, some independent – declined to be interviewed for this article.

Or perhaps they felt there’s not much to discuss. Evacuation plans, for example, can be fairly simple in many cases. As Vito Racanelli said, summing up the one for Big V’s Burger Joint in The Loop, “[pointing] There’s an exit, [pointing again] there’s an exit. Get out.”

A catalog of possible perils

Racanelli, who co-owns Big V’s and V Catering and Events with his wife, Michele, also relies on common sense when it comes to contingencies like choking. Both Racanellis know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver, though it’s Michele Racanelli who has completed a ServSafe Food Safety course. (Like most municipalities including the city of St. Louis, University City sets ServSafe certification requirements for restaurant managers.)

“Choking’s not really high on my list of worries,” said Nicholas Brockmeyer, who opened The Vine Wine Bar and Bistro in St. Charles in May. His business partner, Chad McDermott, agreed, explaining that fire, employee injuries and especially food poisoning ranked much higher. “[Food poisoning] worries me on a number of levels. Because then I have the health department on me,” McDermott said. In order to avoid this unwelcome scenario, Brockmeyer and McDermott have been careful to choose reputable food distributors.
Some restaurants take other additional safety precautions. Steve DeMaster, an insurance broker who specializes in restaurant policies for clients in Missouri and Illinois, knew of several local establishments with a predominantly senior clientele that keep oxygen tanks on premises.

As business owners, restaurateurs also take measures to cover their bases financially, which is where insurance comes in. Although DeMaster has seen restaurants in a cash-flow bind let their insurance lapse, doing this is unimaginable for Brockmeyer, McDermott and the Racanellis.

The insurance biz

“I’m covered – right, Roy?” Restaurant insurance broker Roy Reichold, vice president of Welsch, Flatness and Lutz, said he gets this question a lot.

Fact is, restaurateurs don’t have much time for navigating the nitty-gritty of their insurance policies. More typically, they consult their brokers. First-time restaurant owners Brockmeyer and McDermott said they have certainly utilized the expertise of theirs. “There are so many things to think about when you’re opening a restaurant,” said McDermott.

“[Our broker] was able to bring to the table what other restaurants similar to our size and what we’re doing – what coverage they have,” added Brockmeyer.

In Missouri, workers’ compensation insurance is mandatory for businesses with five or more employees; Illinois restaurants must carry it even if they only employ one person. General liability, property insurance, alcohol liability and business interruption insurance are also standard, though no government agency requires them. Often a lease agreement will outline certain insurance requirements. Jake Hafner, proprietor of 33 Wine Bar in Lafayette Square, carries everything his lease specifies plus earthquake insurance to safeguard his bottled inventory. Other optional policies can cover anything from the explosion of steam pipes or hazardous substances to the drying out of electrical equipment after a flood.

Even conservative coverage comes at a cost. “[Restaurant] insurance premiums tend to be a little higher than, say, a dress store or a bookstore. It’s a lot more labor-intensive. And you have a lot more overhead,” said DeMaster.

Like homeowners, many restaurateurs try not to file claims in order to avoid premium hikes. When an arson fire across the street from 33 Wine Bar shattered its front window last June, Hafner paid out of pocket to replace it. “Insurance is obviously a great protection for businesses, but I think most companies prefer to have as few claims as possible as too many can hurt renewal and rate changes,” he said.

Pricey premiums notwithstanding, Brockmeyer and McDermott decided to go the safe route and took out several policies, including a reassuring umbrella policy; such policies provide excess liability limits over general liability, liquor liability, automobile liability and employers’ liability (part of workers’ compensation). They can drop the latter anytime, it just depends on what their needs turn out to be.

The lessons of experience

Something Brockmeyer and McDermott do not carry is flood insurance. Their St. Charles restaurant isn’t located on a floodplain, nor is it overly threatened by the nearby Missouri River – even in the Great Flood of 1993, floodwaters never reached the Main Street spot where The Vine stands.

According to Reichold, it is very common for restaurants to choose and adjust their coverage based on what has (or has not) befallen them and/or their peers. Both he and DeMaster received a number of requests last summer from restaurants wanting to take out coverage for power failure resulting from damage to overhead transmission lines. Some establishments, like 33 Wine Bar, now keep generators on-site as well.

After last July’s storms, the Racanellis changed their food spoilage coverage so that reimbursements would kick in after one day instead of three. “In the beginning, I was skeptical about the whole 24-hour thing because of the premiums. I thought, ‘Well, what are the chances of us losing power for five days?’” said Vito Racanelli.

Frazer’s also went without power – plus it lost more profits when our storm-struck region took a hiatus from dining out. The business interruption policy Frazer’s and other restaurants typically carry, however, only covers forced closures, not circumstantially slow nights.

And although a restaurant near Frazer’s suffered storm-related structural damage that resulted in a serious injury, Cameron has not made drastic changes to his insurance coverage in the last year. “It didn’t get that serious right where we were,” he said. “I suppose if you want to get extra insurance on the off chance that once every 15 years you’re going to have an issue like that, [you could]. I’ve seen [something like this] one other time – about 20 years ago. It’s just so rare that you get something like [the windstorms and power outages last year].”

Nevertheless, it’s good to know restaurants can handle an emergency as ably as a fly in the soup.