Running on empty
Businesses struggle with remaining open in the winter
Published: Thursday, January 10th, 2013
For Cherish Baker, running Baker’s Bakery during the winter months doesn’t make a lot of sense. Mostly because if she is lucky, it only makes a few cents.
Baker is one of many Custer business owners who close up their store in the winter, opting for a few months of vacation rather than scraping by, usually in the red, during months when she says there aren’t enough people in town to make keeping her restaurant open viable.
Whether it’s a restaurant, a grocery store or a mechanic, business owners struggle to keep their heads above water when tourism season winds down.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people in this town to sustain (staying open),”âï¿½ï¿½Baker said.âï¿½ï¿½“It’s just not worth it.”
Now in her seventh year of owning the bakery, Baker said she stayed open over the winter for the first three years, but quickly figured out there was little, and usually no, money to be made in the winter.
“It’s gotten worse and worse as the years have gone on,”âï¿½ï¿½she said. “It would be great and Iâï¿½ï¿½would love to stay open, even it if it was just to break even.”
Baker said on the average day, 30 people would come into the bakery in the winter, compared to 300 in the summer. Expenses also rise in the winter, such as the cost of propane and electricity.
“Iâï¿½ï¿½just opened my electric bill, and it was over $1,000, and that was with the place shut down,”âï¿½ï¿½she said.
Steve Sallee, now in his third year as owner of Rushmore Automotive, can relate.
“The utilities go sky high. The propane and electricity go way up and your business goes down, so it’s tough to keep it running,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.
Sallee said he loses two-thirds of his business in the winter, as he goes from the booming business of working for tourists to the slower time of fixing only local vehicles.
“Iâï¿½ï¿½manage,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“It seems when I start sweating it and get in trouble, I get some business in and manage to make it.”
Sallee also cuts back his hours of operation, opting not to open on Saturdays in the winter.
“There is no point in even opening the door on Saturday in the winter,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.
Brian Boyer, one of the owners of the Buglin’ Bull Restaurant and Sports Bar, considers keeping his restaurant open during the winter—he has all four years of its existence—a public service of sorts.
“It’s to make sure there is a place on main street for the locals to go and a place for people to go who come to town,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.
Boyer said staying open in the winter also allows him to keep full-time employees with a job during the winter months.
That doesn’t make things easy, however.
Boyer said the Buglin’ Bull does 80 percent of its business six months of the year, and only 20 percent during those down winter months.
“Right now, we are gauging it every year,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“We want to stay open in the winter time, but it’s tough to stay open in Custer in the winter.”
Buglin’ Bull consistently rolls out new specials to try to entice the locals in, such as its cheap date night on Wednesdays and its new breakfast buffet on Sundays. While the specials are starting to see some success, Boyer said as more competition comes about—particulary from all the new restaurants in Rapid City—it gets harder and harder to stay viable in the winter.
“Our business was down 25 percent for December,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“We took a real hit this fall.”
Although there is little in the way of lodging to be found in the winter, one property that does remain open is the Super 8, owned by MPS Hospitality, of which Mike Tennyson is the managing member. Tennyson’s four other hotels close in the winter, but the Super 8 is kept open to ensure there is some lodging in Custer in the winter, allowing him to keep some full-time employees who would find work elsewhere if they were laid off in the winter.
“Occupancy is 20 to 25 percent, at best, during the winter months,”âï¿½ï¿½He said. “It doesn’t make financial sense.”
Tennyson said the Super 8 is kept open because it has the lowest overhead of his properties, along with meeting the broadest market sector. He said only 3 percent of the hotel’s revenue is garnered during the winter months.
Aâï¿½ï¿½Walk in the Woods is another Custer business that is open in the winter, although the hours have been scaled back, with the store now open Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the winter. Koko Ward, operations partner at the store since it opened in 2001, said the store has experienced decent success in the winter, with 46 percent of its business done in the off months.
Ward credits some of that business to advertising and promotions done at the store, as weekly emails are sent out about new weekend features at the store. She said the store’s other partner, Phil Lampert, is a staunch supporter of being open in the winter.
“We stay open because he is committed to having a business open year-around,”âï¿½ï¿½she said.
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