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Local businesses try harder when village economy slows

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In the midst of a continuing national recession, business at most downtown merchants remained steady or slightly down in 2010 as fewer tourists and local customers patronized the town’s shops and restaurants. But with plans to specialize in unique products, provide services that, while not profitable, meet community needs, advertise more, and collaborate, many businesses expressed hope for a better 2011.

After a strong spring and summer, business at the Sunrise Cafe has been “abysmal” over this cold and snowy winter, said owner Brian Rainey. Whereas sales at the restaurant typically drop by 25 to 30 percent during the winter, so far this season sales are down by nearly 40 percent. As a result, the restaurant will not shut down for two weeks, as it usually does this time of year, in an effort to generate more revenue.

Even though Sunrise pays about a 10 percent premium for the local and organic ingredients it uses, the restaurant plans to continue offering the local food that draws customers.

“It’s what I believe in and it’s what our customers come for,” Rainey said. “I’m not going to do it any other way.”

In the coming year the restaurant plans to re-vamp the back patio and to begin catering. Though having more live music at the martini lounge bar on Friday and Saturday evenings has made them more successful, Rainey said the martini bar contributes to the town’s night life more than it brings in revenue for the restaurant.

“The martini lounge is great because we need more night spots in town,” Rainey said.

Tom Gray, owner of Tom’s Market, saw business fall by 10 percent during the holiday season compared to the year before. Overall, revenue is down for the second straight year, while payroll, insurance and utility expenses keep rising.

The deli and produce sections at Tom’s are the most profitable, and specializing in gourmet meats and local, organic produce has helped the store attract customers.

Whereas the occasional tourist wanders into Tom’s, the market is mainly supported by locals, who sometimes shop instead at Kroger’s because of its perceived lower prices and variety. But many Yellow Springers might not know that Gray’s supplier pays him to keep prices competitive with chain stores and that he is very responsive to customer needs when they want him to carry a product.

“We definitely listen to our customers and try to have what they want,” Gray said. “We keep as much organics and natural items, but we also have to serve the whole community.”

The Emporium Wines/Underdog Café is another local business supported mainly by locals, whose purchases of wine, coffee and prepared foods keep the store going. This year business was slightly down at the Emporium, in part due to fewer patrons at their Friday night wine tastings, according to owner Kurt Miyazaki. But with sales of breakfast rising, and plans to offer more expensive wines during tastings, Miyazaki said he hopes the Emporium continues to be a community gathering place.

“The town’s been really supportive,” Miyazaki said. “That’s what I wanted to do, create a place where people can interact and meet other people.”

Meanwhile, the Corner Cone had its best year ever, according to owner Bob Swaney, adding about 20 percent more revenue over 2009. Favorable spring weather and a sunny fall Street Fair brought tourists and locals out to snack on their favorite frozen treats. Corner Cone is another restaurant where mostly locals dine.

“The bulk of our business is people living in town so that provides a good steady base,” Swaney said. “The people that come to visit town are just the gravy.”

For 2011, Swaney said he hopes to find a way for winter tenant Indian Food Corner to continue operating inside the Corner Cone and to keep working with other businesses on Dayton Street as part of the Dayton Street Alliance he formed in 2010. Swaney also said he will continue to offer bicycle rentals as a service, despite not making any money on the venture due to the high insurance costs.

Pass It On Kids is another local store that provides a community service, as revenues are just enough to pay for rent, utilities and an employee, without earning a profit, according to owner Ava Miri Nasoff.

Though business at the children’s second-hand store improved last year, major changes are in the works for the shop, as Nasoff hopes to re-organize as a collective with eight to 10 owner-investors and become a second-hand store with clothes and goods for adults as well.

“It’s more of a service than a place for people to spend money,” said Nasoff, who accepts used items in exchange for store credit. “It is about creating a container for second-hand stuff so we meet more of the village’s needs locally rather than at the mall.”

Growing in size is Tibet Bazaar, which recently moved its wares into a larger location in Kings Yard in the space formerly occupied by Art Happens, which went out of business last fall. More goods and a greater variety of products will fill the store, which now has a dedicated room to showcase products used for meditation, said employee Kelly McKee.

Toxic Beauty Records enjoyed a record year for both total sales and holiday sales, which owner Josh Castleberry attributes to growth in the vinyl record industry, having daily store hours and more of an effort on the part of local residents to shop locally.

“I really felt the love around from Yellow Springs and the Dayton area,” Castleberry said. “I had a lot of people saying that they wanted to support the local economy and not the big box store.”

The closing of Gem City Records in Dayton, the availability of many new albums on vinyl and growing consumer interest in analog recordings has also helped spur Toxic Beauty’s success, Castleberry said, with his biggest sales in April on National Record Store Day and during the summer and fall street fairs.

Also having strong holiday sales were gift store Pangaea and clothing retailer Kismet, according to employee Lin Wood. But at Super Fly Comics, revenues from the holiday season were less than expected, with overall disappointing sales in 2010.

“It’s been a weak year all around,” said Tony Barry, now the business’ sole owner. “The holidays were what I expected our regular summer days to be.”

But Super Fly remains a destination for area comic enthusiasts, the kind of people who “want to read every issue of Spiderman,” Barry said. In addition to continuing his subscription service, he plans to attend more conventions, increase stock and engage a “street team” to distribute advertising flyers around town in exchange for store credit.

Current Cuisine also hopes to increase awareness of its offerings, especially its frequent international tasting menus, this year. Business remained steady in 2010 even though catering sales, which shrunk when the recession began, have yet to recover, according to owner Karyn Stillwell-Current. Catering has been especially slow during the holidays, when businesses now struggling used to throw fancy parties. Yet they continue to cater in a 50-mile radius and provide specially-prepared dinners popular with locals, like chicken pot pies and lasagna.

“We keep trying to do new things and trying to keep it interesting,” Stillwell-Current said. “Luckily, people have to eat.”

Also benefiting from people’s need to eat is The Winds Cafe, which saw about as much business in 2010 as the previous year, according to owner Mary Kay Smith. However, the holiday season was slower than usual and revenues are not what they once were in the “old days” before the recession.

But The Winds continues to adjust to the new economic climate by offering less expensive small plates and fixed-price early-bird specials, which were especially popular last year.

“People still want to go out to eat,” Smith said. “Eating out is a way of life, for some people it is their only entertainment — it gives them the sense of living large.”

The Winds is also benefiting from the growing interest in local food. Though the restaurant has been using local ingredients for more than 30 years, much more can now be used since more local products are available from area growers. At The Winds Wine Cellar, business is continuing to rise as the wines it sells from small, independent wineries are hard to find elsewhere.

Specializing in unique products, as The Winds does, is a strategy many local businesses are using to survive in tough economic times, when consumers are spending less. They are also providing services that might not make them money for a community whose support they appreciate, and collaborating with one another on advertising and events to bring more people to town.

“In this economy, our businesses have to work harder and the Chamber wants to be here to support that effort,” said Chamber of Commerce director Karen Wintrow, adding that she hopes downtown merchants will form their own alliance in 2011 to better help each other succeed.

“Our local businesses are really going the extra step,” Wintrow said.

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