Daring downvalley businesses defy tough times
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado -It’s no secret that small business has been hit hard by the current national recession.According to CNN.com, during the past two years, 2.7 million jobs have been lost in the small business sector of the economy. That figure represents a third of the country’s total job losses over the past 24 months.Last month finally marked some better news on the small business front. While another 12,000 small business workers lost their jobs in January 2010, that number represented a significant slowdown in the pace of job losses.For the purpose of national reports, small businesses are defined as operations with fewer than 50 employees. By that definition, most of the operations in Eagle and Gypsum easily qualify and most would actually be defined more actually as very small businesses – with 10 or fewer employees.However, as the economy continues to sputter after taking a dive, some local entrepreneurs are breaking with the pack and launching new businesses. They report that a down economy represents a window of opportunity for small business operators. Here’s some of their stories.
Jai Rivers coffee shop celebrated its grand opening last weekend and co-owner Richard Vowell said a depressed economy is the perfect time to start such a business.”There are more workers available, prices are reduced and you can negotiate more with wholesalers,” he said.His partner, Dawn Ayotte, chimed in.”It’s our opinion that when the economy is down is the best time to start a business,” she said. “You get cheaper leases and equipment, for example.”The shop, located at 1140 Capitol St., next to the Capitol Theater, has been open for almost three weeks. Vowell and Ayotte feel they are off to a good start and rapidly finding a niche. Vowell said on Monday that he’s been tracking business by having each customer sign in.”It’s insane. We had half a page [of signatures] the first day, two weeks ago, and now we’re at three pages,” he said.The movie theater next door has helped.”The landlord [who owns the theater] has been great about allowing people to take our stuff in the theater,” said Ayotte. “He has really helped us out and the boys over there have been sending people over here for hot meals.”The partners have been commuting from Basalt every day to open Jai Rivers from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and to 9 p.m. Saturdays. Vowell is hoping to host live music Saturday nights, like they did for their open house. He has other visions, too.”He’s always wanted to own a coffee shop,” Ayotte said.Vowell said it was a dream come true when he found the location for rent about six months ago.”I was driving around, lost, and I saw a ‘For Rent’ sign. I asked some questions and then we signed a lease, cleaned, bought equipment and went all in,” he said.The partners, who also own a plumbing and heating business in Aspen, were able to open Jai Rivers out-of-pocket, without any loans. If all goes as they plan, they will soon move to the area. However, there are many things to attend to right away. First, Vowell wants to hire some help.”We’ve been just a little bit taxed,” he said of his seven-day work weeks.For product, he’s polling customers to hear what they would like to see, sometimes giving food or drink to random people walking by outside.”Now we’ve got soy, chai, decaf … I never would’ve thought of decaf, I don’t drink decaf coffee,” he said. “We’re getting into goat cheese, now, too.”His main angle is items produced in Colorado, from sodas to fruit.”I thought, let’s go to local farmers markets and use those as our base,” he said.Come summer, Vowell plans to offer discounts on ice cream and smoothies to kids with movie ticket stubs from next door.Another item on the near-future to-do list is to get a phone. The business has wireless Internet and a phone line but not an “actual, ringing phone.” For now, they’re using Ayotte’s cell phone: 970-456-2281. The two say it’s been a good thing not having a phone for now, though.”We couldn’t answer it anyhow, we’ve been so busy” Vowell said.
Andrew Daigle has been in the Eagle valley restaurant business 21 years. He was a chef at quite a few places around the area, even helping to open a couple new eateries. He set off on his own about five years ago. That’s when he started a Chester’s Fried Chicken chain on 0131 Chambers Avenue in Eagle.The fried foods menu didn’t work out, partly because City Market sells Chester’s Fried Chicken. So Daigle started changing the venue into “Baboune’s” two years ago. Baboune’s is a breakfast and lunch business that is entirely Daigle’s creation (“Baboune” is his nickname, meaning “happy-go-lucky/prankster”). He started it as a split restaurant – half Baboune’s breakfast burritos and omelets, half Chester’s. Eventually he phased out the chicken and came out with a lunch menu.”I’m more consistent, now,” Daigle said, referring to business numbers. “Fried food is kind of passe, especially in Colorado, which is something like third in the nation for being lean.”Still, Daigle is having to work very hard to break even during his shop’s operating hours of 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday.”It takes a lot of burritos to make rent,” he said. “I have two kids and my wife is working two jobs and paying all the bills.”He said it takes about 40 “packs” per week to break even. A “pack” is slang for 12 – so that’s about 480 burritos per week to fill his costs.For example, last week he had a buy-one-get-one-free sale. He worked an 18-hour day then. “I couldn’t have help because I was giving away so much. I made about 25 cents on the dollar,” he said.One of the challenges Daigle faces is a shift in the area’s construction industry. He said construction workers have accounted for a lot of his business through the years, which he describes as more of a local’s place.”Construction went to hell and now the workers take off around 5 a.m. to commute to jobs farther away,” he said. “Instead of three to four times a week, now I’m seeing them once. A lot of good customers have moved.”With that steady source of clientele taking a hit, Daigle lost his full-time cook because he couldn’t give him the hours he wanted. Now, Daigle has two part-time cooks who work other jobs full-time.”If I don’t have the numbers by 11 o’clock I gotta send somebody home,” he said. “Then I get a rush and people are like, ‘Why are you alone?’ I tell them they should’ve been here an hour ago when I was talking to the cockroaches,” he said with a laugh. “People tend to eat right at the same time and the rest of the time it’s slow, there’s no consistent rush like at McDonald’s.”Regarding the current economic climate, Daigle doesn’t seem to think he’d be better off if he was working for somebody else at a restaurant.”You might chef at a restaurant four or five years if you’re lucky and then they decide to sell or close,” he said.He said one of the tricky things in general about the restaurant business in the valley is that it is so seasonal. Daigle opened his own place in hope of gaining more security in the long run.”At least if I fail it’s my own fault, right? That’s the American dream.”
At 22 years old, Buka’s Deli and Coffee House owner/operator Dani Walker knows she is pretty young to be running her own business.What’s more, she didn’t really have any experience in the food industry when she took on operation of the Gypsum eatery at 925 Greenway and Dakota Square. But the down economy presented her both with the opportunity and the motivation to become a small-business operator.”I was tired of working for other people and I wanted to work for myself,” Dani said.Dani also drew inspiration from her mother Mandy, who, after working for a law firm for many years, was laid off last year. Dani noted she wanted to take control over her own employment history.Now, mom and daughter and another employee to man the counters and make the sandwiches, soups and other edibles that populate the Buka’s menu. It’s a big commitment for the trio – Buka’s is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.”We have definitely tried to market to locals. We have kept the price down, being how money is hard for everyone right now,” said Dani.As part of that strategy, Buka’s offers a $6.95 lunch special that includes a custom sandwich, side of salad or chips, a pickle and a home-baked cookie. A daily soup special, burritos, pizza and chicken wings also are featured.On the coffee house side, Buka’s sells Vail Mountain Roasters coffee and H&H bagels.When she talks about reaching out to locals, Dani knows what she is talking about. Her grandparents, Dean and Lois Walker, are long-time residents and former county ranchers. Dani grew up in the valley, graduating as the Red Canyon High School valedictorian four years ago. Many locals know her from her days competing in Little Britches rodeos and she still rides, today as a member of the Colorado Pro Rodeo Association.Ultimately, Dani’s ties to the community and her desire to chart her own economic path are steering the Buka’s operation. She notes she is going with her gut and hoping to find success.”We know nothing about the bins, but we know what, as a family, we like,” said Mandy. “People have told us they come in and they feel like they are in their own living room here.”
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