Severe winter chills businesses

Posted: March 8, 2014

The Winchester Star

La Niçoise Cafe owner Frederic Boukaïa says the winter’s extreme weather has hit his Winchester restaurant hard. Forty percent of small businesses in Virginia have felt the effects of the extreme weather, according to a poll by Small Business Majority. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — This winter has been almost enough to make Frederic Boukaïa throw in the linen napkin.

The owner of La Niçoise Cafe, a French restaurant at 12 S. Braddock St., said this winter’s extreme cold and seemingly ever-present snow have put a significant dent in the business he has operated for more than seven years.

“I lost about two-thirds of my business in January,” Boukaïa said this week. “I almost closed at the end of January. I was ready to close the door. The cold, the snow, people didn’t want to come.

“And the opening of Joe’s Steakhouse [at 25 W. Piccadilly St.] also hurt me a lot. My Saturdays and my weekends were dead. I was ready to fold it. It was very, very bad.”

While La Niçoise had a good Valentine’s Day crowd, the rest of February was not as good as he had hoped.

“This week is fine because we’re having [the promotion Old Town] Winchester Restaurant Week,” he said.

But in January, Boukaïa had to let his cook go and take over meal preparation himself. He has one waitress.

“The snow, the cold, the ice, I had to close many days during January,” he said.

What the restaurant owner has experienced aligns with the results of a poll released this week by the Small Business Majority.

The national organization representing the nation’s small businesses used Public Policy Polling to survey 505 small-business owners in Virginia regarding climate change and extreme weather. The survey was conducted on Feb. 7-10.

Small Business Majority Chief Executive Officer and founder John Arensmeyer held a telephone press conference about the results on Tuesday.

The poll found that 40 percent of small businesses in Virginia have felt the effects of extreme weather.

Nearly 20 percent of the state’s small-business owners reported having to lay off workers because of the weather, Arensmeyer said.

“A staggering 87 percent of small businesses said that they experienced a significant financial impact to their business in the aftermath of an extreme weather event,” he said.

Forty percent of those reported damages of $5,000 to $25,000, with some businesses having to close from 14 to 30 days.

Of those surveyed, 58 percent of Virginia small-business owners think climate change and the resultant extreme weather are a critical issue that affects them, and support clean-energy policies to help offset the change, according to Arensmeyer.

“Climate change and extreme weather have been touching an increasing number of small employers, and with nearly one in five owners saying they’ve had to lay off employees, it’s time to sit up and take notice,” Arensmeyer said in a news release this week.

“Policymakers should embrace smart clean energy policies that can help mitigate climate change and prompt innovation — which would create opportunities for small businesses, boost the economy and help address some of the economic uncertainty we’re experiencing today — all while addressing this growing problem of extreme weather wreaking havoc on our primary job creators,” he added.

“Virginia is in the top nine states that have been affected by weather disasters since 1980,” Arensmeyer said.

The state experienced 35 of the nation’s 144 weather events during that span, he said, citing a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Those taking the poll were asked their political party affiliation, Arensmeyer said. Thirty-five percent were Republicans, 26 percent were Democrats and about 40 percent said they were independents.

“It really was across the board,” he said.

Mike Brey, who owns Hobby Works in Fairfax, said during the teleconference that the frequent storms have had an impact on him and his 40 employees.

“This past year has been pretty rough in terms of extreme weather,” he said. “We’ve had to close our business several times throughout the year due to weather events. We feel like we’ve taken a bit of a financial hit.”

Even when he has not been foreced to close his store, the cold weather has cut down on walk-in traffic and accompanying impulse sales, Brey said. “The threat of extreme weather also has an effect on consumer sentiment.”

The buildup and aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 resulted in the worst October his store has ever had, he said.

Small Business Majority’s findings did not surprise Bill Sirbaugh, director of the Small Business Development Center on the campus of Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown.

“One of the hardest-hit ones, I think, are restaurants, especially this time of year because the slowest period for restaurants are January, February and early March,” he said. “Then, when you combine the fact that we’ve got snow, it really takes a crunch.”

However, some small businesses thrive in bad weather, such as those whose owners bought a snowplow several years ago and are now able to recoup the costs, Sirbaugh said.

“This year with bad weather, those folks are thriving pretty well,” Sirbaugh said.

Smaller retailers who depend on municipalities for snow removal are also feeling the effect of the storms, he said.

“The thing that they’ve got to watch is to make sure that they don’t have inventory piled up, don’t be too aggressive when they’re buying that inventory from those vendors who are trying to push their supplies down for the end-of- the-year tax season,” Sirbaugh said.

“Having agreements where they can lay people off — make sure their work staff understands that we’re going to remain open, but it’s just going to be me here,” he added.

While the snow squalls may have temporarily stalled patronage at Village Square Restaurant on the Loudoun Street Mall in Winchester, a rebound effect often follows, general manager Dy Sourisak said this week.

“People have cabin fever, it kind of makes up for it,” he said. “People were inside, but now our books are looking good. We lose a day here and there, but we always gain it back.”

Murphy Beverage Co.’s Charlie Fish also said the weather has not dampened her customers’ spirits too much.

“It’s been a little bit, but it’s not too terribly discouraging,” she said of her Loudoun Street Mall business. “There has been a little bit of a drop. It’s not tremendous.

“You can’t even really say it’s weather-related, I don’t believe. January was the third-best January in the history of the store, but February, we did take a hit.”

— Contact Sally Voth atsvoth@winchesterstar.com