Businesses feeling money crunch

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

The seats aren’t quite as full as they used to be at Cattle Baron.

“I’m seeing it’s going to stay the same,” general manager Nick Bara said. “Kind of mediocre.”

The steakhouse, a staple of Portales, averaged about $7,500 on a good Friday night a year ago. Now it pulls about $1,000 less — a drop of about 72 patrons, assuming the average $14 tab Bara esimated.

It’s a situation felt by similar businesses across the country, as a credit crunch and higher fuel prices have Americans finding ways to survive.
A CNNMoney survey released March 20 says Americans are surviving by cutting discretionary spending. Of the more than 1,000 American adults surveyed in the poll, conducted March 14-16, 59 percent said they have cut back on clothing purchases and 75 percent have spent less on leisure activities.

Ronnie Jones has been general manager at High Desert Honda in Clovis since it opened in 2000. He said business is great, but “we’ve definitely seen an impact,” and he’s heard similar concerns from others in recreational equipment sales.

Jones said he typically sees presidential elections pull down business, and candidates announcing 2008 runs in summer 2007 gave consumers extra time to be wary with disposable income.

“They’re not sure,” Jones said. “(There are) too many questions up in the air. They don’t know if a new administration is going to be the cause of a problem or the solution to a problem.”

Car dealerships surveyed said business was good, but spending changes are evident. With gasoline at $3.25 per gallon at many Clovis and Portales locations, and fears of $4, low mileage means low interest.

“To be honest, as far as the buying goes, it’s stayed pretty consistent,” said Seth Hamiton, sales manager at Hamilton Big Country in Clovis. “There has been a trend that they’ve been buying the gas-savers more lately.”

Hamilton said the one obvious dropoff is military personnel because of a mission transition at Cannon Air Force Base.

In many cases, simpler reasons exist for slow periods.

For K-Bob’s Steakhouse in Clovis, it’s spring break.

“We have a few slow days, but it’s normally that (way at this) time every year,” manager Connie Brumbelow said of the restaurant her family has owned since 2000. “Every year, we know about when the down times are.

“We haven’t noticed any difference,” she said.

For High Plains Harley Davidson, another business bouyed by discretionary spending, recent sales were rough because the winter is never a popular time to buy a motorcycle.

“Really, we haven’t noticed that much impact. Our sales are tracking with last year,” said service parts manager Dennis Mills, who noted that Harley Davidson clothing sales always help during slow months. “We’re seasonal, but we usually come through the winter OK.”
And at Cattle Baron, Bara gave plenty of reasons. Among them:

• The state’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants caused a customer drop-off;

• The restaurant ended an offer to give one free drink to students with a college ID, and the student customer base dropped; and

• A raise to the minimum wage meant menu changes.

“Our prices went up,” Bara said, “and I think it kind of put a hurt on our business.”