Storms offer chance to build goodwill

A winter storm like last month’s can make or break a business. Just ask George McKerrow.

When the original Atlanta Snowjam hit in 1982, McKerrow’s restaurant, LongHorn Steaks Restaurant & Saloon, was one of the few in his corner of Buckhead with electric power. The restaurant had been in danger of closing when the storm hit, and McKerrow posted a sign outside that read “Drinks $1 while it snows.”

McKerrow and his buddies served more than $700 in drinks that night and kept serving customers in the snowbound neighborhood for four days.

“It became folklore,” said McKerrow, whose business not only survived but later became the chain now owned by Darden Restaurants.

Some Atlanta businesses took a page from McKerrow’s playbook to build stronger bonds with customers last week — though without $1 drinks involved.

Major hotels across the region and retailers such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, Publix and CVS were lauded for sheltering stranded motorists. Smaller businesses also stepped up to serve customers during and after the storm.

Nick Hardin and other employees of Farm Burger on Piedmont Road in Buckhead served burgers until after 10 p.m. and and beer until almost midnight the day of the storm, and Hardin and three others ended up camping in the office and dining room overnight because of iced-over roads.

Hardin, a restaurant manager, said he “actually had no idea any of this was supposed to happen” when he opened the burger joint the morning before it snowed.

“I didn’t even bring a jacket,” he said.

Jan. 28 started out like a typical Tuesday, with a heavy lunch rush from the nearby office towers and the restaurant’s regulars, Hardin said.

Around 12:30 p.m. snow started falling and the roads clogged with cars. Hardin said the restaurant gets heavy pedestrian traffic on a normal day. With the roads in gridlock, Hardin said the ones accessible by foot and that could stay open were slammed. But many places closed early.

Hardin’s relief manager, Mishma Slaughter, had to abandon his car and walk to the restaurant. When they closed, the team was going to stay at Hardin’s nearby apartment, but his car was on the top floor of a parking deck and it was too dangerous to move it down to the street, he said.

Farm Burger didn’t run specials, but what mattered was that they were open.

“I forget what number in sales we did exactly,” Hardin said, “but it was three or four times the amount of a usual Tuesday night.”

The crew opened the restaurant Wednesday morning as the kitchen staff made their way in on foot. Hardin said the restaurant was packed until close on Jan. 29.

Dozens of other restaurants and retailers stayed open or managed to do business the day after the storm with just skeleton crews because of the icy streets.

McKerrow, now chief executive of Ted’s Montana Grill, was in Chicago during this latest Snowjam, but he said the Luckie Street flagship store in downtown had $100,000 in sales the day of the storm. Hungry conventioneers flooded hotel restaurants and other downtown spots that managed to stay open.

McKerrow, who co-founded the restaurant with billionaire Ted Turner, said staffers slept in the Ted’s corporate offices above the Luckie Street restaurant. McKerrow he said all of their local stores were open the day of the storm and most reopened the next day.

“I think the community came together again like they always do,” he said.