By Jennifer Gallus
HOWARD LAKE, MN - Despite the economy, several Howard Lake businesses are surprisingly satisfied with the foot traffic of today.
The Herald Journal spoke with 10 Howard Lake businesses from agricultural-based, to food-related, and pharmaceutical to entertainment, and more. Most of those businesses had positive remarks about current trends.
Howard Lake’s ag businesses doing well
Agricultural businesses such as The Country Store, Munson Lakes Nutrition, and Midwest Machinery provide necessities key to farming and feeding livestock, which is part of the reason that the three businesses say they haven’t felt much of the impact of today’s economy.
“We’re still affected by the price of corn and grain,” said Wade Serfling, manager of The Country Store in Howard Lake. “We’re still driven by the agricultural world. We’re pretty basic, if you have pets or livestock, you still need to feed them.”
All three ag based businesses echoed the same distinction that there exists a delay between the mainstream economy and the ag world.
“As a John Deere dealership,” Midwest Machinery General Sales Manager Ben Swenson said, “we haven’t felt the effects of the mainstream economy yet. We’re more uncertain for 2010.”
Swenson explained that the business is entering the lawn and garden season, which is unsure for this year because garden tractors and related equipment tie in more with the mainstream economy.
“Overall, we’re doing well,” Swenson added.
Munson Lakes Nutrition General Manager John Zander said that things are going well, and that business is only slightly down, but still very busy.
Zander has heard that many farmers are currently holding on to their corn until prices rebound to around the $4 mark, but the business’s corn supply is still in good shape.
Serfling said that grain prices are low, but stable, which is something that doesn’t happen very often.
“This $10 milk is a little tough to take. Here, we have no control over that, but we’re holding the line,” Serfling said.
Serfling added that another advantage The Country Store has in today’s economy is that it carries the essentials.
“We’re still a farm store, with other stuff,” Serfling said. “We carry Carhartt, which is practical clothing people will get years of use out of it’s not ‘fashion wear.’”
Restaurants, food-based businesses doing well
Sunni’s Grille, Sixth Street BBQ, and Grandpa Ittel’s Meats have all noticed a trend of people staying closer to home while dining out.
Kelly Smith, co-owner of Sunni’s Grille, said that she’s finding that a lot of people are staying in town, and not driving as far to go out to eat.
“We’ve also been focusing on marketing to customers through discount coupons to help ease their financial situation,” Smith said.
November and December were tough months for the restaurant, but since the promotions were implemented, business has seen a boost.
“It seems a little better now,” Smith explained, “current sales are comparable to last year at this time.”
Sixth Street BBQ in Howard Lake has observed that more people are going out to eat as a family instead of just as couples.
“Going out to eat now seems to be the family entertainment budget for the week,” Sixth Street BBQ Owner Kade Klahsen said.
“We’re seeing a lot more people conscious about what they’re ordering,” Klahsen explained. “They only order what they know they’ll eat. They’re more bargain conscience, and the cheaper items are selling more than the higher-priced ones.”
Klahsen has also noticed that more people are coming out on the weekends now, which he sees as a good sign.
Grandpa Ittel’s Meats is also satisfied with today’s business.
Valentine’s Day weekend brought big business to Ittel’s compared with last year’s Valentine’s business.
“I think fewer people went to restaurants in the cities, and instead ate good steak at home,” Grandpa Ittel’s Meats Owner Don Schwartz said.
Schwartz added that for the most part, his business hasn’t seen a lot of change yet, except that sometimes people are looking for cheaper alternatives than their usual meat selections.
“For Christmas, we sold less prime rib and more smoked hams, which are cheaper,” Schwartz said. “That’s fine with me. Whatever they want, we’ll provide. People still want good value for their money.”
“People are still ordering one-half and whole hogs, and quarters of beef, even though it takes a considerable amount of money to order a quarter of beef,” Schwartz said.
He hopes that gas prices don’t go up for the summer months because his business gets a lot of foot traffic from summer travelers along Highway 12.
Howard Lake Drug is also doing well
Both John and Marilyn Ringold, owners of Howard Lake Drug said that the people they encounter are staying close to home whenever possible.
“We’ve found that if people have a choice, they will shop local,” John said. “Our business hasn’t been affected. Prescription costs are always the same no matter where you purchase them, and 90 percent of people have third-party insurance so they just pay a co-pay.”
“We still have our loyal customers who, for example, go to the doctor in Waconia, and pass three or four pharmacies on the way home, yet still come here,” Marilyn said.
John explained that he knows all of his customers by name, “and they know us,” he said. “If any business can establish that, that is valuable.”
“The pharmacy-patient relationship is a huge priority here,” Marilyn explained. “We go through the meds with them,” to insure the customer knows how the medication is to be administered.
Marilyn also explained that gift and card sales are in a little bit of a slump because those items are not a priority right now.
“We’re seeing little signs in the thread of the fabric of the economy that are positive,” Marilyn added.
Dura Supreme is watching sales closely
Dura Supreme Cabinetry in Howard Lake experienced a dip in sales last year, especially in the fourth quarter, according to Dura Supreme Manager Steve Michel, and said sales are further down so far this year.
“So, we’re watching that pretty closely,” Michel said. “In terms of what we see and how we’re positioned in the cabinet market, we feel our business performs stronger than others,” Michel explained.
Reasons for that, according to Michel, include the fact that Dura Supreme isn’t a huge company and reacts quickly to changes in the business.
Additionally, Michel said that Dura Supreme has an experienced workforce, and it is managed tightly so it can react to slowdowns, and better prepare for increased workloads when they arise.
The business hasn’t had to implement any more layoffs since November when it reluctantly laid off 100 staff.
“We never eliminated a shift,” Michel said. “We’ve worked some shorter work weeks based on orders, but we’re really doing our best to avoid layoffs.”
“On the macro level, we’re seeing some encouraging signs,” he added.
Howard Lake liquor sales are going well
The Howard Lake Legion reported that business hasn’t been adversely affected by the economy.
“People still want to have a good time,” Manager and Legion Commander Darrin Blanchette said.
The Howard Lake Municipal Liquor Store has noticed some effect, but not “terrible,” according to manager Aaron DeMarais.
“I’ve noticed lately that things do seem to be picking up both in the bar side and the off-sale,” DeMarais said.
DeMarais credits part of the increase in sales to a “punch-card” promotion the store offers that entitles customers to get a free product after they have acquired 10 stamps on the back of a card.
“I think the punch-card system is drawing people in,” DeMarais said. “Hopefully numbers are going the right direction now.”