A snow horror hit Mrs. K's Toll House restaurant in Silver Spring last weekend: There were the panicked bride and the 15 pounds of unused prime rib. One broken plow, another stuck in a ditch. The head chef and the general manager snowbound at their homes miles away. And there were the dozens of employees out of work for several days, worrying how they would pay their bills without those wages.
When Washington area residents awoke last Sunday to a thick blanket of snow and a storm that showed no sign of backing off, many people looked out the window and settled in with a rented movie and a warm pair of socks. Only later, when it came time to shovel, did they feel the might of the 2003 snowstorm.
But for Mrs. K's, the storm packed an immediate wallop. The 70-year-old restaurant had its usual plans for Sunday brunch, plus two banquets and a wedding. And given the heaps of snow everywhere, it faced a financial catastrophe that set quick-thinking employees into emergency action and some heavy lifting.
Small, family-owned businesses such as Mrs. K's suffer sharper setbacks than most others in severe conditions like a huge snowstorm because they operate on thin margins. Money coming in from one large party can make or break an entire month's profit. Unlike large corporations that can write off one-time losses, many small businesses must tap their extensive personal and business networks for assistance and rely on dedicated employees who take on tasks far beyond their job descriptions.
With high-spending couples booking the restaurant full for Valentine's Day and out-of-town travelers expected to fill tables for Presidents' Day, Mrs. K's expected a blowout weekend.
Mrs. K's Toll House is an institution in the Washington area, known as a quiet, romantic restaurant nestled along Route 29 serving up heavy four-course meals such as lobster tails, filet mignon and crab-stuffed chicken.
Theo and Konstantina Margas bought the restaurant in 1996 from the original owners, Blanche and Harvey Kreuzburg, who started it in 1930. The new owners, who are not at the restaurant daily, kept the Mrs. K's name.
The historic part of the restaurant used was the last operating tollhouse in Montgomery County, charging 4 cents a horse in its early days. It was the restaurant's romantic quality -- including a homey fireplace and a collection of early-American pressed-glass plates -- and great food that made Jewell Woodruff plan her wedding reception there for Feb. 16.
But when the restaurant's general manager, Steve Schleibler, woke up early Sunday morning, he quickly realized the wedding reception -- and the restaurant's popular brunch buffet -- could not take place that day. The roads were not clear, and it was too dangerous for the dining room and kitchen staff to try to get to work.
Closing the restaurant was hardly a light decision: Sunday's business was worth $8,000.
"There's no way I want to endanger our employees," Schleibler said. "It was a difficult call."
By 8 a.m., Schleibler had phoned banquet manager Jennifer Czaplicki, who then phoned the Woodruffs and delivered the news that tore the bride to pieces.
Jewell broke down and cried. The groom, Kenneth, said he "got emotional." The couple had been planning the wedding for six months, and by midmorning, the limo driver and several guests had already called their cell phones to say they couldn't make it because the roads were too messy. The biggest day of their lives was falling apart.
"You go through all this planning. You already paid money here and there," said Kenneth Woodruff. "The wedding gown is purchased, the tuxedos are rented and the limousine is paid for. Jewell sat there and said, 'I'm so sad. I'm not getting married today.' "
But by 11 a.m., the couple had a change of heart. They would get married that day, no matter what it took. The church in Annandale agreed to open if the bridal party could make it there. They called around to find another limo driver.
Czaplicki offered to have the couple's wedding cake ready, if they could brave the roads to pick it up. When the couple arrived later that afternoon, Czaplicki rounded up several dozen red roses left over from Valentine's Day and presented the bouquet to them.
"If nothing else," Czaplicki said, the bride would have "a couple roses to carry."
The problem of the wedding party was resolved, but Mrs. K's still needed to dig out. It helped that Czaplicki and bar manager Spiro Gioldasis live next door and were able to shovel a path from their front doorsteps to the restaurant. Immediately, they divvied up the tasks.
Czaplicki called all the diners who had made reservations for that day and the employees.
Gioldasis inspected the rain gutters on the roof, where thick icicles had started to form, and began to figure a way to clear the roads.
County plows had already started to work on Route 29 and in doing so had shoved a wall of snow five feet tall in front of the restaurant's entrance. To make matters worse, the plows had not reached residential streets, so the restaurant's general manager and executive chef could not leave their homes even though they lived just a few miles away.
Gioldasis then hit on what he thought was a solution: He called St. Luke's church next door. The church had a snowplow, and the people there had agreed that when it snowed, the church would plow the restaurant's parking lot. In exchange, churchgoers were allowed to park in the restaurant's parking lot on Sundays.
But the church already had problems of its own. The snow plow had broken before the church lot could be cleared.
Inside, Czaplicki began moving large quantities of wedding and banquet food from the walk-in refrigerator in the basement to a freezer so it wouldn't spoil. Three dozen eggs intended for the Sunday brunch had to be thrown out.
On Tuesday, Gioldasis called Thomas Morton, a nephew of one of the original owners of Mrs. K's, who lives in Silver Spring. He had a plow. But Morton was stuck in a ditch. When he called a tow truck, the truck got stuck in the snow, too.
When Morton finally cleared the parking lot Wednesday, Mrs. K's was just preparing to open. But the five-foot snow wall still blocked the entrance, and Morton could not begin to move it with his truck.
After several tries, Gioldasis flagged a snow plow driving by on Route 29. With a few big pushes, Mrs. K's was finally freed from its snowy prison.
A Slow Thaw
By Wednesday evening, the snow had stopped, and the roads had cleared enough for the kitchen and wait staffs to trickle in, eager to work again. The customers, however, have come only in handfuls.
Mrs. K's lost about $12,000 in revenue during the three days it was closed. The loss, during a month already typically slow, means the restaurant will have to cut back in other places. Czaplicki will not be able to attend a convention in Boston next month as planned. Staff hours will be cut back until business returns to normal.
"On a server's wages, we live day to day," said server Sean Wise. "Most of us are students."
But the restaurant is going to be fine, the staff says.
"I've never experienced anything like this before," said Gioldasis, complaining of sore hands from shoveling snow. But he added that restaurant workers are used to dealing with mini-crises as part of the daily routine.
"It's the business," he said. "If there's a problem, it's fine. You attack it and you solve it and you move on."
"Actually," said Czaplicki, "it's kind of fun."