Natural Disaster Restaurant

Photo of woman from shoulders up with wind blowing holding a pink scarf over her head and covering her cheeks and mouth. She is wearing a black wool coat.
Photo courtesy of Denniz Rymarz

A new restaurant, designed to treat diners to the effect of eating while in the midst of a natural disaster, opened on the campus of Henry Ford Community College last week to mixed reviews. The biggest knock against the concept, it seems, is the downtime for cleanup the restaurant requires between each seating.

General Manager Marley Biggs, a Dearborn resident and HFCC graduate, estimates the staff spends approximately four hours cleaning up the various dining rooms, in contrast to the roughly 45 minutes it takes for diners to consume their meals.

“We either need to hire more people,” said an out of breath Biggs, “or figure out a way to streamline the cleanup process. I realize this is relatively new to most of us, and my employees are truly busting their tails to make it work, but we have to put a better system in place if we are going to eventually expand the way we would like…and anything over two, two-and-a-half hours for cleanup is simply unacceptable.

“We saw this work to perfection in St. Louis,” she continued. “I was there for a food and beverage trade show, and the proprietor of a local restaurant with a similar theme invited us over to check it out. It was one of the most unique dining experiences I’d ever had, and we all agreed it was something we thought we could make work.

“The Tornado Room waiter was awesome, and from what I understand, the Earthquake Room was equally impressive. The thing is, we saw how they were able to pull this off, and light bulbs went on in our heads. We figured if they could do it there with a small, five-disaster restaurant, why couldn’t we bring the idea to our area and expand to 10, 15— I don’t know…how many disasters are there?”

According to Biggs, when customers make a reservation—the campus facility can accommodate parties of up to 50 people—they have the option to choose a specific room based on availability. In addition to the Tornado and Earthquake Rooms, the restaurant boasts a Hurricane Room, Flash Flood Room, the extremely popular Avalanche and Mudslide Rooms, and several variations of Tsunami and Typhoon Rooms, which are used primarily for mid- to large-size banquets and parties. Biggs said plans are in the works for a Forest Fire Room, but construction has been delayed due to insurance requirements.

Back in the Tornado Room, tables are set with water glasses, polished silverware, a breadbasket and butter, and various condiments. The tablecloths are simple and elegant, but appropriately made of heavy vinyl for repelling spilled liquid and easy cleanup. There is no indication of impending doom.

After diners are seated, and drink and appetizer orders are taken, the lighting in the room dims and the overhead sprinkler system goes on. The “rain” comes down—a very light mist at first that gradually increases to a steady shower. At this point the wait staff hurries in with scaled-down umbrellas for the guests in their respective sections.

The patter of rain on the umbrellas seems to increase in tempo and a brisk wind rises from behind. Lights designed to simulate lightning flash menacingly, and the sound of thunder rolling in interrupts any conversation. Nothing can be heard over the gusts of wind, thunder, and warning sirens blaring from speakers hidden somewhere in the corners of the room.

The guests are in the middle of a torrential downpour, with water flowing freely over the edges of extended umbrellas and BB-size “hail” bouncing off the table and floor. The hail feels cold and seems to increase in size as it begins to inflict at least minor damage to the exposed glassware and table settings.

After an appropriate amount of time, the warning sirens grow even louder, and their duration longer, as they drown out virtually every sound other than the spitting hail and water. A look around finds other diners increasingly poised to take cover—some already half under their tables—while the room glows an eerie green. Soon everyone ditches their umbrellas for the relative safety of the table bases, which are slightly elevated on individual islands. Guests watch as the rainwater gathers in puddles, and then separates in all directions as it gains momentum down random paths toward the drainage areas at the sides of the room.

The fierce wind that blew debris across place settings and displaced anything of insufficient weight just seconds ago dies almost completely, and time is suspended during—quite literally—the calm before the storm. From seemingly nowhere, the Tornado Waiter “touches down” with a leap from an unseen perch. He truly resembles a human funnel cloud as he proceeds to cause havoc in isolated spots of the dining room, running and spinning at what seems like an impossible speed of rotation, bumping and upsetting the various coffee and water stations set up throughout the dining room, flailing his arms and legs, crashing and breaking objects with aggressive swipes across random tabletops, devastating virtually everything that dares cross his haphazard path until—well protected under the tables and chairs, and amid the broken glass and plates, diners hear…nothing.

The initial storm has passed, and the sounds of light rain and distant thunder are interrupted by the pierce of the “all clear” siren. On cue, the servers and busboys come out from wherever it is they take cover, and again greet their respective tables, helping guests off the floor when necessary.

Diners stand and brush off their clothing—wringing out shirtsleeves & jackets and closing umbrellas—all the while scanning the interior to assess the damage. Conversation, in the form of hesitant probes, begins again: “Is everyone okay?” “Does anyone else need a drink?” “Is that my shoe?” One lady searches frantically for her young son, and is visibly relieved when informed that he simply wandered into the Tsunami Room during the tornado.

Some guests meander on the sidelines, then, after the staff returns the dining room to some semblance of order, re-seat themselves, looking forward to the meal and conversation still ahead. At the same time, the unspoken question lingers in the damp, musty air: when does this ordeal happen again?

Afterward, a group of diners gathered at the door to get ready to leave. One man paused to pull out a fork stuck awkwardly in his leg. “I have to give that wait staff credit,” he said, wincing. “They are very good but, for obvious reasons, the service here is somewhat slow.”

When asked his opinion of the food, he looked puzzled.

“They serve food here?”