Steps from the New York Stock Exchange, only a handful of tables are occupied at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse. Across the street, Reserve Cut has scores of empty seats. A few blocks away at Delmonico’s, one of the few diners is the restaurant’s own hostess, seated at the end of a half-empty bar.
It’s lunchtime on Wall Street, but it’d be hard to tell by peeking inside some of its most famed establishments. The TVs are silently tuned to the business news, documenting another topsy-turvy day in the U.S. stock market — and one that’s, yet again, kept traders and bankers chained to their desks.
“This is very, very quiet for us,” Carin Sarafian, a sales and marketing director at Delmonico’s, said one recent afternoon as she sat in an empty dining room. The upscale restaurant, which has been serving up porterhouse and ribeye steaks to finance types since opening in downtown Manhattan in 1837, gets as much as 75% of its weekday sales from business diners.
Head up to midtown, where many hedge funds and banks are based today, and the high-end steakhouses look much the same, with tables aplenty at Smith & Wollensky, Sparks Steak House and Wolfgang’s Steakhouse.
It’s a scene playing out with uncommon frequency as financial markets all around the world have been jolted by bouts of turbulence day after day. In the U.S., daily moves of 1% or more in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index have been piling up at a rate not seen during the bull market.
Whether it’s because of indigestion or market-induced exhaustion, fewer and fewer have any appetite for that midday filet mignon and scotch.
“The market was definitely a factor, there’s no two ways about it,” said Malcolm Knapp, a New York-based consultant who has been monitoring the restaurant industry since 1970. “You’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty in the market, which means behavior is inconsistent.”
Although a “lousy” day on Wall Street could bring more after-work drinkers, it’s usually at the expense of lunch, he said.
His monthly index of high-end steakhouse sales shows results weakened through February from a year ago, though weather and calendar shifts also played a part. January was particularly bad as sales rose just 2.6%, versus 4.6% a year earlier.
That slowdown coincided with the S&P 500’s worst-ever start to a year. Volatility was also up as gains or losses exceeded 1% in about 60% of trading days this year — almost double 2015’s full-year average.
“There’s nothing like a little bit of a sharp correction to improve our work ethic,” said John Manley, the New York-based chief equity strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management, which oversees about $233 billion. “You don’t want to be the guy who was out to lunch when the boss went through trying to figure out who he didn’t really need.”