Small businesses brace for ‘snowquester’

March 6, 2013

Hours before “snowquester” was expected to descend on the Washington area, business was heating up for Fairfax-resident Craig Smith.

Smith, who co-owns Fairfax-based Twins Ace Hardware with his brother, says sales jumped 200 percent leading up to the storm. He had bought $20,000 worth of winter-related inventory in late November, and without the promise of a large snowstorm, he was expecting to finish the year without selling much of the winter equipment he’d noticed gathering cobwebs in his store.

But on Monday and Tuesday afternoon, amidst the 50-degree weather, Smith noticed hundreds of extra visitors in his store, stocking up on salt, shovels, snowblowers and sleds in preparation for the storm. The promise of Snowquester netted his business several thousand dollars more than he would normally have made this time of the year, he said.

The Grid: The latest updates from Snowquester

The boost in business is “not amazing, but it’s better than it’s been,” Smith said. “A lot of the items haven’t sold for a long time — there’s been no potential for any kind of major storm, nothing for people to prepare for. It’s so close to the end of the season, and that’s the time when people would say, ‘I’ll look next year.’”

Winter storm warnings are posted for at least six states with Virginia and Washington, D.C. expected to get hit especially hard.

After the unexpected success of Monday and Tuesday, Smith said he’s more optimistic about selling out his inventory — and said he will definitely keep his store open during the storm in case customers are looking for snow equipment.

The threat of the snowstorm has forced other small businesses to rearrange their business operations.

Local soup shop Soupergirl front-loaded its deliveries so it wouldn’t be stymied by traffic conditions. The 15-person business based in Northwest Washington normally delivers soup orders to the district and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but this week made all its deliveries on Tuesday.

The shift required about 15 extra hours of labor to prepare the soup early, and a few extra staff members — including the founder, and owner Sara Polon — were out delivering hundreds of soup orders on Tuesday, according to manager Stacey Crossett.

The storefront will open on Wednesday at 10 am instead of 8 am, Crossett said — most of the staff takes public transportation to get to work. Aside from shifting deliveries, she said, “we prepare soup every day if able.”

A number of local bars made preparations earlier this week to stay open despite the storm, some even planning to open their doors early on Wednesday and Thursday if enough people are home from work. Ben Fiske, general manager of Bedrock Billiards in Adams Morgan, stocked up on extra alcohol in anticipation of a potential flood of patrons and said the bar may start its usual happy hour two hours early if the government and local businesses send their employees home early.

“Half of the city may be off of work and they could be looking to have some fun with the day or a half-day off,” Fiske said, noting that the billiard hall was “absolutely jammed” when it remained open during Snowmaggedeon in February 2010. “We try to take full advantage when other businesses around us aren’t open.”

The vast majority of Bedrock Billiards’ employees live within walking distance of the bar, a convenience shared by several other bars in the city that are therefore planning to remain open regardless of the severity of the storm, including Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights and Nanny O’Briens in Cleveland Park. Still, some workers who live farther away must go to greater lengths, like one of Fiske’s bartenders, who he said plans to sleep over at another employee’s home on Wednesday night to trim his walk to work on Thursday.

Most bars will broadcast their unusual hours and specials on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, hoping to attract local clientele who can walk rather than those who would need to hop in their cars. Brian Leonard, general manager at Nanny O’Briens, said previous snow storms have brought a spike in business of as much as 50 percent.

A small number of suburban residents concerned about commuting to work downtown during the storm booked hotel rooms for Tuesday and Wednesday nights, according to State Plaza Hotel Director of Sales David Manalang, but managers are more concerned about potential cancellations than the possible boost in business,

“We anticipate getting a lot of calls tomorrow,” he said, noting that a handful of patrons from the midwest had to cancel reservations because of delayed or canceled flights.

Most of the hotel’s staff takes public transportation, Manalang said, though the hotel’s harsh weather policy provides rooms for staff concerned about the commute. “Surprisingly, we haven’t had any yet,” he said.

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