Snow — the silent business killer.
An exaggeration, probably, but many retail and visitor-related businesses in Rappahannock County — where business is never anywhere as good in January and February as it is in spring and fall — can’t wait to see the winter of 2014’s record snowfall get into the record books — and off the streets.
“It’s been the worst winter for us since we opened 15 years ago,” said Stefanie Shaw, owner of Burgers N Things, the county’s only (and family-owned) fast-food carryout. She was speaking on the phone from home — where she was this past Tuesday (March 25), in part because Burgers N Things was closed, as another 3 to 4 inches of snow fell in Rappahannock.
“It’s always been our intention to really be loyal and stay open for our local customers,” said Shaw, who noted that the shop has closed not only for snow this winter but for “those arctic blasts,” since it’s hard to keep the place’s waiting area out front comfortably warm. “This winter we’ve even been telling people to go back to their warm cars and we’ll bring the food to them.
“I know nobody can help it, it’s just Mother Nature . . . And when the weather is nice,” she said, “I can’t complain. This too shall pass.”
County Administrator John McCarthy, coincidentally collecting tourism data this week for an informal presentation on the impact of Shenandoah National Park’s budget-related shutdown in the middle of leaf season last October, said the park’s many extended closings this winter due to snow and ice — which is often significantly worse at 3,000 feet than here in the foothills — surely impacted B&B, restaurant and retail business in the county this January and February.
While meals and lodging tax revenue declined 5 percent last fall compared to the same period last year, McCarthy said (compared to steady 15-percent increases for the past three years), winter closings of the park probably had less impact overall on local businesses. “When your bookings are not that high December through February,” he said, “closures don’t have as much impact as they might in, for example, October, when your bookings are packed.”
On the other hand, as one local B&B owner put it: “Every bit of business we can get in winter is sorely needed. In October, there’s usually somebody waiting in line to fill that bed or buy that gift. That’s not really true in February.”
This winter’s weather has been the worst for business since at least 1994, said Paul Baldwin, noting that that was the year he and Cukie opened the Quicke Mart convenience store on U.S. 211. “We’ve had some deep snows, back in the late ’80s, but even then we were able to open. I don’t think we’ve ever had to close so often. I will say this, we’re very lucky, we have some really loyal employees, and everybody struggled this winter to get in and open up.
“One of the reasons I have a backhoe is to keep our parking lots open,” says Baldwin, who plows the Quicke Mart lot and the smaller one at his Baldwin’s Grocery on Main Street in Washington. “Plus I have a snowblower. You gotta be self-sufficient out here.”
“We’ve had to close a few times,” said Robert Ballard, whose R.H. Ballard Art, Rug & Home shop and gallery is usually open daily on Main Street in Washington. “It’s not the end of the world, but . . . I have to say, our local support has been very good — our local clientele. That always helps us a lot, and it has definitely this winter. We had a great weekend the last two weekends.”
Ken Thompson, speaking of his family’s businesses at Sperryville’s village crossroads (including the Thornton River Grille, the Sperryville Corner Store and Rudy’s Pizza), said business in January and February was actually up over the same period last year.
“The reason I ran the numbers is because we’ve had a bunch of whining at the shop,” Thompson said, chuckling. “About how bad businesses has been this winter. And it turns out it’s up.”
The Inn at Little Washington, one of the county’s biggest tourism draws, has also been holding steady despite the weather.
“Ironically, it was more difficult for our staff and vendors to get here during the snow storms than it was for our guests driving from Washington, D.C.,” said chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell. “Apparently a blizzard can be very appetite provoking. Anyone contemplating a last meal certainly wants it be memorable.”
Though they’ve opened late during the heaviest snowfalls this winter, Thompson says, he and his son Andy have managed not to close the store or restaurant once this winter (although the restaurant, it should be said, is not generally open on Mondays, the day after two of the worst storms of 2014).
“We didn’t lose any days, and three or four years ago we had a terrible February, when we lost two weekends in a row. We’re a little better equipped now.
“We’re as tired of the snow as anyone else,” Thompson said. “But it’s not a reason for us to go around whining about it.”