Shutdown thins crowds at some local restaurants
by Eddie Burkhalter
Oct 07, 2013 | 5384 views |  0 comments | 62 62 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Owner Marc Spaulding has patches from public safety departments from across the nation on the walls of Heroes, his restaurant and bar in Weaver. The patches were left or sent by customers who'd trained at Anniston's Center for Domestic Preparedness. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
Owner Marc Spaulding has patches from public safety departments from across the nation on the walls of Heroes, his restaurant and bar in Weaver. The patches were left or sent by customers who'd trained at Anniston's Center for Domestic Preparedness. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
Empty tables are all the evidence Tim Johnson needs that the government shutdown is hurting his Jacksonville restaurant.

Those tables at Cooter Brown’s Rib Shack are filled almost any weeknight with groups as large as 50, all instructors and students at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Johnson said. With seating for 52, the restaurant can reach capacity with those groups.

The government shutdown furloughed the CDP’s 800-or-so federal employees and canceled the training classes that regularly draw hundreds of first responders to Anniston.

Those classes bring in firefighters, emergency medical workers and other first responders from across the country to train them to deal with disasters and terrorist attacks.

“It will definitely affect our bottom line,” Johnson said.

Those patrons make up about 30 percent of his business, Johnson estimated, which he’s owned since 2000. Removing those meals from his restaurant’s tables may mean he’ll soon have to consider sending waiters and waitresses home during dinner hours.

“One, maybe two at the most,” he said, speaking of the numbers of staff he may have to send home early. “If there aren’t any classes, we definitely feel the effects of it. We get a lot of people from up there.”

Tony Derusha, 24, waits tables at Cooter Brown’s, where uniform patches from fire departments around the nation help decorate the walls. The Jacksonville State University student said his tips are down significantly from before the shutdown.

“I would say that I’m making half of what I usually make,” Derusha said.

If the shutdown continues for many more weeks, Derusha said he’ll have to cut back on personal expenses a great deal, but “personally, There’s nothing I can do about it right now. I’m just having to take it a day at a time.”

Closer to the center the news is not much better, said Marc Spaulding, owner of Heroes American Bar and Grille in Weaver, which also has a collection of first-responder patches left by customers from around the country. His business regularly caters to large groups of students and instructors from the CDP.

“We didn’t have any at all last week,” Spaulding said. “And it did hurt our sales.”

The center shuttles students the 11 miles to Heroes and back. Occasionally, students aren’t ready to leave when the center’s bus makes the return trip at 9:30 p.m., so Spaulding has them driven back in a restaurant van.

Spaulding estimates the CDP crowd makes up about 15 percent of his business, but he doesn’t expect the shutdown to change the way he staffs.

As bad as it is, it’s something they’re used to dealing with, Spaulding said. He compared the loss of business caused by shutdown to the holidays, when there are no classes at the center.

“It’s not going to kill us, but we do feel a little pinch when they’re not in town,” he said.

Closer still to the center, things have slowed to a crawl, explained Jennifer Rochester. Along with her manager, Jeff Ellis, Rochester works at Café McClellan, inside the McClellan Park Medical Mall.

It was obvious on the first day of the shutdown, Rochester said, just how much an impact it would have on the small café.

“I’d say we’re down probably about 40 percent,” she said.

Workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security make up a large portion of the café’s business, Rochester said.

“It’s been slack out here the last few days. And last week,” Ellis said, speaking by phone Monday. “And it’s starting off a little rough today.”

With just himself and Rochester, Ellis said he likely won’t cut hours, but the shutdown is clearly hurting the cafe’s business.

While some area restaurants are hurting as a result, statewide the shutdown is having less of an effect, said Larry Fidel, president of the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Alliance.

“We have not heard much from our members so far,” Fidel said.

Fidel said in areas where there are concentrations of furloughed government employees “it will definitely have an effect.”

Nancy King Dennis, spokeswoman for the Alabama Retail Association, echoed Fidel’s statements, saying she’s not heard from restaurant owners worried over the shutdown.

Dennis also said she would expect a drop in restaurant business in areas with large numbers of furloughed federal workers such as Anniston, Montgomery and Huntsville.

“Dining out is one of those luxuries that’s the first to see any kind of change in spending patterns,” Dennis said.

The National Restaurant Association’s chief economist Bruce Grindy expressed pessimism over the shutdown in an Oct. 4 article on the association’s website.

Grindy wrote that “the shutdown will likely dampen restaurant spending among the roughly 800,000 federal workers who are on unpaid leave.

“Whether or not these furloughed workers eventually receive back pay as they did after past shutdowns, they are likely curtailing their discretionary spending until the situation gets worked out, which directly impacts restaurants in those areas,” Grindy wrote.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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