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Makin' it on love 

Valentine's Day is the busiest day in North America's food calendar. Why restaurants need to feed on our hearts.

Every January, veterans spill the same phlegmatic phrases about that roulette wheel called the restaurant business. Winter is the ultimate cooler. A good November and December can carry you through a January slump. Winter weekends stay good, but weekdays crap out. You do your best and cut your losses. And if that fickle customer, lady luck, abandons you, hang in there: Couples go out on Valentine's Day.

Love might end a losing streak, but until Valentine's Day, everything freezes. Career staff take vacations and transients get laid off. Gary MacDonald, general manager of the Five Fishermen, has 40-odd staff, down from summer numbers of 50 or 60. Likewise, The Carleton and The Press Gang close Sundays and cut hours Monday to Wednesday.

Mike Rhodes co-owns The Carleton and is experiencing winter for the first time. "It was like a switch went off right after Christmas. Where did everybody go?" he jokes. So far, live entertainment and bars sales have been his pocket aces.

"I understand that Valentine's Day isn't that great for business," he says. "We'll be full, but we won't be 'full' full. We'll be half full because we only have [two people at] tables of four." This is another truth: deuces are wild. Everyone complains about tables of two. They fill up your place but leave lots of holes in your hand.

Gary MacDonald says, "January has been a typical January,"---slow---but balanced by an expectation that Valentine's Day lasts all week. The best scenario, Victoria Gaspar agrees, would be if it landed on a Thursday, because then business "can carry right on through the weekend." But Gaspar, manager of The Press Gang, shrugs. "Saturday, it's already a big day."

Either way, the thaw begins today, followed next week by Dine Out---Savour Food and Wine festival. By March, Gaspar says, what worries restauranteurs more than the word "recession," are weather forecasts. "Every night there's gonna be snow they scare you to stay home. Ten years ago, this kind of snow, it'd be pfft. There would be no snow days."

Shut-ins ruin the service industry, but they create business for Jeff Tucker, owner of the Rock and Roll Express. He's got 14 drivers who run deliveries for more than 35 restaurants in Halifax. He says home deliveries are up 10 to 15 percent, regardless of weather. He believes people are pinching pennies.

Exception: Ray Bear. He went all in and won big. His new restaurant, Bear, doesn't do lunch or high volumes and his mains are more than $30. Opening mid-November looked kamikaze, but proved lucky. Bear bet on public curiosity and it worked. He claims he's only had four slow nights all winter and he sold out V-day a month ago.

"People are still spending money. On the east coast, we're not getting hit as hard as other places," Bear told me confidently. "Things have to go on. It's not like it comes to a standstill."

Gordon Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia expects a five percent drop in business this quarter from last year and calls the restaurant market in Halifax "saturated." Despite Stewart's predictions business continues to expand. Never tell a restauranteur the odds.

Lil MacPherson, co-owner of The Wooden Monkey has taken a big chance. She's moving The Monkey around the block, more than doubling her existing 52 seats. A steady full house told her they were readyto go big.

"All restaurant people talk about having a good gut," she continues, "because you have to be able to withstand so many upset stomachs. So much money is on the line."

The art of running a restaurant is like gambling or falling in love; it's about conquering risk as much as enjoying the pleasure and the profit of the game. "It's the fear and the excitement," says Mike Rhodes. "We could fail---which isn't an option, by the way. There is no plan B."

My palms get sweaty just thinkingabout it.

Need a table, give a table. Check out our Valentine's night reservations list at thecoast.ca/shoptalk.

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