Art, dining feel sting of winter in degrees

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Snowy food truck

Gina Spiteri operates the Doughnut Vault food truck five days a week but was told by her boss to take the day off because of the snow and cold temperatures. (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune / January 2, 2014)

At the movies, January's North American box-office total of $893 million, according to Rentrak, was the highest since 2010, though it's hard to distinguish between the weather's impact and films' popularity.

If you don't mind the elements, it's been a relatively good time to grab a gourmet dog at Hot Doug's, where lines otherwise often stretch down the sidewalk. Owner Doug Sohn said the Monday and Tuesday business last week turned out to be "way better than I thought," though the ever-present line "was never out the door." But when freezing rain joined the mix for a couple of Fridays, Sohn said, that usually robust day took more of a hit. "I wouldn't have left my house either," he said.

January and February tend to be the toughest months for restaurants anyway — there's a reason Restaurant Week and its discounted menus arrive in the dead of winter — and Hot Doug's is far from the only popular destination feeling particular pain this season.

"Most of the people I talk to in the business, especially in fine dining, business has been down," said Michael Kornick, chef/owner of mk restaurant and County Barbeque. "You have to account in your budget for some snow days, but there's been probably twice as many bad snow and cold days than usual. At mk, we have a lot of affluent customers, and a lot of them have chosen Palm Springs (Calif.) or Florida for a good portion of the winter."

On Jan. 21, Frontera/Topolobampo Grill chef Rick Bayless tweeted: "What happened to my fellow Chicagoans? Half our resos cancelled for tonight ... Because it's cold outside?!?! Um, we live in Chicago, folks."

Frontera/Topolobampo managing partner Carlos Alferez said business has been down slightly, though the second brutally cold spell deterred fewer customers than the first. "People are getting used to this weather, and now they're braving it no matter what," he said.

Iliana Regan, chef/owner of Elizabeth restaurant in Lincoln Square, recently took to her email database to offer a cold-weather deal to plug some holes on her calendar: $65 for a weeknight seating that would usually cost $100 or more. Twelve hours after she offered the deal, Regan said 90 percent of those seats were sold.

"I'd rather fill the seats even if we're probably breaking even at that price," she said. "There's just a better energy with a full room."

The Shedd Aquarium and many other Chicago museums and institutions closed during January's two Monday-Tuesday bitter cold snaps, but Brookfield Zoo, which has outdoor and indoor display areas, decided to stay open during the second subzero spell.

Joe Couceiro, the zoo's vice president of marketing and communications, said snow added to that first cold stretch's hazard factor, but the Jan. 27-28 temperature plunge came under sunnier, less treacherous conditions. Plus, many employees had to care for the animals anyway, such as the folks hand-rearing a 3-month-old dolphin who required 24/7 attention.

So the zoo drew 50 visitors that Monday and 48 Tuesday, compared with 353 and 389 employees on duty, respectively.

"If 48 folks showed up, we made a difference in 48 lives that day," Couceiro said. "We'd rather stay open and provide an opportunity for guests to get out of the house and do other things than stare at four walls."

The bigger picture shows that Brookfield Zoo drew 10,218 guests during January's first 29 days, compared with 26,610 last year.

But, hey, spring gets closer day by day, with Thursday's temperatures predicted to reach … um … 7 degrees, with a low of minus 6 … and more snow expected Saturday.

Never mind.

Tribune reporters Kevin Pang, Steve Johnson and Luis Gomez contributed.

Twitter @MarkCaro, @pang, @StevenKJohnson

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