Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Weather or not — Rain dries up some business, leaves others awash in customers

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

The sunbeams warming swaths of black and white checkered floor tile in the 1950s-era The Robin’s Nest diner in Sterling on Saturday narrowed to a spaghetti strip, then disappeared altogether as fat plops of rain started splattering against the window. The drops also washed away hope that the wooden ice cream cone sign perched outside on a hill above the Sterling Highway would entice anyone up the driveway for a frosty treat.

“When it’s sunshiney and nice out, then it’s ice cream. If not, it’s more of a food day,” said co-owner Barb Pennington.

A cool, damp summer, like this one in Southcentral Alaska, can mean many things — few forest fires, disgruntled outdoors enthusiasts and decreased sales of warm-weather items and activities, like ice cream.

Pennington estimates business is down about a third this summer in the ice cream parlor and diner she owns with Susan Gilbertson.

“A lot has to do with the weather and gas prices. I’ve noticed there’s not a lot of traffic around,” she said.

Soup and sandwich sales are more the norm when the sun takes up residence behind the clouds, as it has for much of this summer. But since the majority of their summer clientele is tourists, even food sales suffer when people don’t get outside.

“We’d hope for maybe an Indian summer. You know, that would be really nice,” Pennington said.

At the Go Kart Race Track in Soldotna, traffic on the track diminishes with traffic on the road — in this case the Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road, which intersect just beyond the track’s fence.

“When it’s raining, we have a few, not that many (customers),” said Felix Martinez. “We probably would get more if the weather would be more nice.”

Tourist season in general affects his business. As fishing season goes, so goes his traffic.

“It’s not bad (this year),” he said. “Not as bad as I thought it would be with gas and fishing and all that. Down a little bit from last year.”

Some die-hard drivers still take a tour around the track, no matter what the weather brings.

“I’m open rain or shine,” Martinez said. “We get a few. Some people like it when it’s wet.”

Rainy days don’t equal slow days at all businesses. Some are awash in customers. Movie theaters are more than happy to offer refuge from the rain.

“It’s kind of known in the movie industry that you get more business when it’s crappy out, and you’re less busy when it’s sunny,” said Robin Grimm, a manager at Orca Theaters on K-Beach.

Grimm said she thinks it has been a good summer for the Orca, especially with the blockbusters that drew in crowds, like “Wall-E,” “Hancock” and “Dark Knight.”

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a big-name flick to draw in moviegoers. Sometimes all it takes is a lack of interest in being outdoors.

“You can see some of the fishermen come in here with their rain boots on, and they smell like fish,” Grimm said. “And I worked in a fish processor before, so that’s a smell I don’t care if I ever smell again.”

At the Burger Bus in Kenai, the Hurst family is happy to cater to fishermen.
Diane Hurst said she and her husband, Vic Sr., and son, Vic Jr., have seen a 16 to 17 percent increase in their business this year. Being near the Kenai beach is a boon for the bus, as business increased during dipnetting season. Foot traffic in Old Town Kenai has been normal this year, as well, Hurst said.

In the summer their clientele is mostly new faces, either tourists or people visiting friends and family in the area.

Hurst attributes some of their success this summer to being able to maintain competitive prices. With food and other costs going up, restaurants have had to increase their prices. The Burger Bus has, too, but more gradually.

“We don’t have much overhead,” she said. “It’s just the three of us. It’s a family business so we have been able to keep up price increases low.”

Dipnetting, walking tours and the other attractions of Old Town and the beach bring people by the Bus rain or shine. If it were up to Hurst, she’d opt for the former.

“Even if we only have four or five days of sunshine, that’s OK with me. I don’t mind when its cool. It gets pretty hot in there,” she said.

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