Watt Childress calls it “the yo-yo business environment.”
“We are either immersed in heavy traffic or isolated,” said the owner of Jupiter’s Rare & Used Books in Cannon Beach.
Between the two extremes are “shoulder seasons that I have come to love, where it’s more of a balance,” Childress said.
The feast-or-famine nature of the market in North Coast towns affects entire communities but provides specific challenges and opportunities for people working in tourism-heavy industries such as restaurants, souvenir shops and hospitality.
Through focused customer service, crafty budgeting, smart staffing and other tricks of the trade, many merchants and business owners in Seaside and Cannon Beach have learned how to cope with the storm of visitors in the summer and the doldrums in the winter.
Even in the throes of a busy day, it pays as a business operator to think ahead to the next day and beyond.
Brian Taylor, production manager at Bruce’s Candy Kitchen, for instance, sets a daily candy-making quota to ensure there’s never a shortage of his product line.
“Our candy has a shelf life, so we build up our stock, and when it gets low, we replenish it,” Taylor said.
This summer, that quota includes: 10 batches of taffy per day, six batches of caramel corn per day and three to four batches of caramel apples a week with 175 apples per batch.
“As long as you’re consistent, I think it definitely helps out,” he said.
George Vetter, owner of George Vetter FotoArt in Cannon Beach, said that rearranging the interior of one’s business can be crucial to dealing with the influx of customers. After all, the customers must be able to move around.
“If it’s too crowded, people won’t come in,” Vetter said. “If they can’t come in, they won’t buy.”
It’s also useful to have two or more people working as a team behind the counter to ring up customers and answer their questions. Having two cash registers on hand allows the check-out lines to move faster.
One thing retail stores have to watch out for, especially during summer, is shoplifting, which tends to increase when there’s more customer activity, Vetter said. He remembers losing merchandise almost every day when he and his wife, Paula Vetter, owned a high-volume retail shop in Cannon Beach.
When a store creates a welcoming atmosphere, it can helps to reduce thievery, he said. Increasing staff to greet visitors at the door and to keep a watchful eye on them can go a long way — as does relocating all of the small, pocketable items away from the entrance.
A common summer survival strategy among business owners, both in Seaside and Cannon Beach, is to increase staff and schedule employees for longer shifts.
At Bruce’s Candy Kitchen, Taylor doubles his staff during the summer from about 15 employees to 30. Having so many people working for him makes it easier for employees to find someone to fill in for them if they want or need to take a day off.
Like many North Coast businesses that thrive during beach season, the candy store hires many young seasonal employees — often high school and college students — who return to town and work for Taylor summer after summer.
Dena Draxton, owner of Dena’s Shop on the Corner in Cannon Beach, and Karen Emmerling, owner of Beach Books in Seaside, both said their employees work fairly late in the summer, when shop hours are extended.
Greg Boat, owner of Del Sol in Seaside, said that he is always honest and up front with his seasonal employees about the fact that he will only be keeping them on for the summer.
But it’s the year-round staff that makes the biggest difference in helping business confront the sheer business of summer, according to Randy Frank, owner of Norma’s Seafood and Steakhouse in Seaside. His solid, “core group” that works for him all year is the key to doing well from June through September.
Frank knows that, by the end of summer, he will have put away enough money so he can offer more people year-round employment, which is essential to retaining the best employees.
“If you want good, quality people ... you have to have that,” he said.
Michelle Wunderlich, owner of Seaside Coffee House, makes a similar investment in her staff.
“I try really hard for my girls to give them a job all year,” she said.
Kathy Kleczek, owner of La Luna Loca in Cannon Beach and Astoria, will sometimes bring her employees treats, like smoothies or coffee.
“Extra caffeine is always helpful,” she said.
It’s important to her — and to her business — that she maintain a lighthearted workplace.
“If it’s fun for everybody and people are laughing, the customers feel that as well,” she said. “It helps keep the employees and the customers happy.”
Keeping it positive
Inevitably, employees are going to face the dreaded rude customer, the person who needs something but doesn’t have the time or patience to request it politely.
At Bruce’s Candy Kitchen, which has experienced steady activity all summer, customers can sometimes wait longer than they would prefer — and cop an attitude about it, Taylor said.
How does he train his staff to power through the sudden hostile flare-ups? He asks them to focus on the content of the customer’s comments, not the delivery.
“You have to look for what they’re saying, not how they’re saying it,” Taylor said.
Patrick Nofield, president of Escape Lodging, reminds his staff that their lodgers have often driven into town after sitting for hours in rush-hour traffic. The lodgers are coming to Cannon Beach for a respite, and the best way to respond to them is in a positive, purposeful way.
When the staff treats a customer with respect and goes above and beyond the expected service level, they can have a worthwhile impact in that person’s life, he said.
Wendy Higgins, general manager at The Ocean Lodge, refers to this as “second-mile service” — going that extra mile to make the customer’s experience a memorable one.
After reaching its Labor Day crescendo, the summer excitement dies down as gradually as it rose only three months prior.
By winter, many business owners must toil extra hard to keep the embers of their establishment glowing bright.
Beach Books will hold more events, like author luncheons and readings. The staff doesn’t always have time to put on those events during the heart of the tourist season, because they’re doing all they can just to serve customers and keep the shelves stocked, Emmerling said.
She added that a strong local following helps sustain the shop during the winter.
Wunderlich relies heavily on the local base as well. She said it’s important for them to “let people know we’re here all year.”
“We’re the same all summer and winter in terms of menu and hours,” she said.
For Julie Jesse, owner of Caffe Latte in the Seaside Carousel Mall, and Greg Boat, it’s all about budgeting well.
“I save my money in the summer to carry us through the winter,” Jesse said.
At Del Sol, any growth and investment is scheduled for the summer, when the store will have the money to do it, Boat said. Even maintenance is concentrated during the summer. Then, Boat tries to spend as little as possible during the winter.
At Norma’s, Frank said he looks for different ways to promote in the off-season. The restaurant hosts a half-price senior night promotion from November to February and offers daily specials, such as homemade soups, every weekday.
A ‘booming’ summer
This year is going to be “a record year for tourism” in Seaside, said Russ Vandenberg, general manager of the Seaside Civic and Convention Center. He projects a 5 to 10 percent increase over last year in event attendees for the 2014 calendar year.
A similar story is unfolding eight miles south in Cannon Beach.
“It’s been a booming year,” said Jim Paino, administrative assistant at the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Every week, Paino hears a business owner say, “It’s been our best day ever!”
The chamber has been noticeably busy, with a recorded 6,833 walk-in visitors in June and 9,725 in July. Both numbers reflect an increase from those reported for the same months last year.
So what exactly is driving so many families to the coast?
Lou Torres, a public information officer with the Oregon Department of Transportation, suggests that as the economy continues to improve, more people are looking to do a little traveling, and day trips are an easy, affordable option.
Paino attributes the increase in Cannon Beach visitors to the chamber’s effective marketing of events, such as the annual Sandcastle Contest, which attracted between 15,000 and 20,000 people to the coast in June — roughly double last year’s draw.
Meanwhile, “the weather has just been a real blessing,” Kleczek said. “Regardless of the traffic and road conditions and ODOT construction projects, people are still coming.”