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In Washington area, seizing snowstorm's opportunity for cash

By Theresa Vargas and Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; A11

Barely a couple of hours after Robert Smith had posted a Craigslist ad Tuesday morning promoting his brand-new rooftop snow removal service, he received about a dozen calls and booked seven jobs. Not bad for a full-time probation officer who saw an opportunity and grabbed it.

Armed with harnesses, ropes and shovels, Smith, who has a side business as a home improvement contractor, spent the day traveling across Northern Virginia doing jobs that raked in from $250 to $700 each, depending on the size and height of the roof. Smith said the idea came to him as he cleared snow from his roof Monday night. "I said, 'There have to be other places that need this, too.' "

Alone and in impromptu bands, entrepreneurs are finding profit in the conditions that leave others paralyzed. Getting the word out through door-knocking, fliers left on car windshields and notices on online bulletin boards, they are digging out buried cars, providing rides where taxis won't venture and luring cooped-up residents out of their snow caves with offers of cheap food.

Back in December, at the dawn of the Ice Age, Shawn Cao, 27, and his cousin Dean Cao, 20, were still using shovels to make some extra bucks clearing driveways. They had the foresight to buy a snowblower. Now, they're golden: For the past several days, they could be found walking -- not driving -- through Dale City, to see whether any of their neighbors needed driveways and sidewalks cleared.

"Just casual labor, that's all it is," said Shawn Cao. The cousins are letting customers name their price. "We're not out here trying to get rich. Just trying to make the time pass until the weather passes."

Robert Faille, a student paying his way through Northern Virginia Community College, also advertised his services online saying he and a fellow classmate would do just about anything: "shovel your driveways . . . give you a lift anywhere. . . . If your car needs to be dug out, think of me. If you've gone off the road, I have tow ropes at the ready to pull you out."

The 22-year-old spent Tuesday nursing a sore back from digging out about dozen cars but eagerly anticipated the next round Wednesday. He had a morning appointment to dig out a car he had excavated only days earlier.

"We're just lining our bank accounts," said Faille, who is studying international relations. Normally, he and his shoveling partner, James Connolly, 22, work as movers, so snow-related manual labor seemed like a logical way to fill time when they'd otherwise be out of work. Faille said he has been averaging about $250 a day in snow-moving revenue and expects to put away about $1,500 before the weather improves.

"I love it," he said of the snow. "I think it's beautiful."

At Meiwah, a Chinese restaurant near Dupont Circle, general manager Larry La staffed up as the weather worsened. Although he suspended deliveries over the weekend, on Tuesday night, eight drivers responded to his text message seeking help, a big bonus over his usual five drivers. "We'll be busy tonight because people tend to tip good if our drivers come out in this weather," La said.

Raja Shaukat, who runs a small limo service in Springfield, was ready when he got a desperate call at 4 a.m. A woman in Bethesda had no lights, no heat and no way to get to a hotel. She was crying.

With snow stranding motorists and Metro riders, Shaukat, 26, had rented four SUVs on top of the one he owns and recruited a few relatives and friends to sell rides. Rides to grocery stores. Rides to the airport. Rides home from a stalled vehicle on the side of the road. "We're making good money," said Shaukat, whose company, American Top Limo, is charging $55 an hour for rides, not including a 20 percent tip. By Tuesday afternoon, he alone had given about 30 rides. "We're doing good, but we don't have enough sleep right now. . . . I've never seen so many cars stuck in my life before. People are having a really hard time."

At Union Station, where some drivers were reluctant to take passengers into unplowed neighborhoods, rogue operators sat in big SUVs or stood on the median, quietly offering their services. "Do you need a ride?" asked one man, who gave his name only as Ali and said he usually works as a driver for a limo company. His red Ford SUV was not among the city-approved taxis crawling along the main lanes, but the man said that in the past few days, he has made $200 offering rides on the side.

"Independent drivers don't get any business usually, but this time, people don't have any choice," he said.

Even established businesses are finding ways to squeeze extra business from the extraordinary conditions. When Peter Tabibian first heard the big snow forecast, his entrepreneurial mind began churning: Instead of shutting down his two Z-Burger restaurants in Northwest Washington, he dared Mother Nature to bring it on by offering $1 burgers if the region got more than a foot of snow.

The snow did not disappoint, and neither did the crowds. As the winds blew Saturday, customers began lining up. The queue at times stretched out the door; when the last customers left about 10 p.m., Tabibian had record sales of $11,000.

"There was nobody else open," Tabibian said. "It was unbelievable. We just wanted to give people a reason to get out of the house."

The momentum continued through the next few days: Tabibian said he typically orders 60 percent more food before a storm to continue serving customers. Employees stayed in hotel rooms and received extra pay for working during the storm. Although each burger costs him about $3 in ingredients, he said the $1 burgers help win new customers.

For the next snowstorm, Tabibian said he has a new proposition: $1 burgers for eight inches of snow.

Staff writer Ylan Mui contributed to this report.

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