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Businesses feel the heat – Blackouts dim stores, restaurants

By   /   Friday, July 11th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Businesses feel the heat – Blackouts dim stores, restaurants

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Smoke, ash and recurring power outages caused by the Gap Fire have hurt commerce on the South Coast, cutting into sales, forcing early closures and leaving business owners weary of white flakes and flickering lights.

In Goleta, the area hardest hit by the fire, Kristen Amyx, president and chief executive officer of the area’s chamber of commerce, said the impact of the fire was “significant.”

“I just don’t have a way to put a dollar figure or a lost-time figure on it yet,” Amyx said. “The repeated power outages and the inability to plan for them are taking a toll.”

Beginning July 2 as many as 81,000 Southern California Edison Co. customers – mostly in Goleta but stretching to downtown Santa Barbara and even Carpinteria – lost power repeatedly. Three of the largest outages lasted more than an hour and affected Goleta and parts of Santa Barbara, said Jane Brown, a spokeswoman for the utility.

“As long as the fire continues to burn in or around our main transmission lines, the threat is there,” Brown added. Although the fire, which burned roughly 10,000 acres, was more than 75 percent contained by July 11, thousands of small businesses were forced to put up with lost electricity and intermittent phone service.

Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner William D. Gillette said the fire has caused an estimated $9.5 million in crop damage. He said as of July 8 more than 200 acres of avocado orchards have been destroyed along with irrigation systems and other equipment.

Shannon Brooks, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau, said hotels in the area took a slight hit over the Fourth of July weekend but filled canceled rooms with evacuees and emergency personnel working the fire. The bureau created a Web page to let visitors know that businesses in Santa Barbara and Goleta are still open, mirroring steps being taken throughout the state.

“There’s kind of this perception that California is on fire,” Brooks said.
Across Goleta, the power losses forced many businesses to curtail operations.

Large retailers such as Home Depot, Kmart and Linens N’ Things evacuated their stores during the outages. Customers abandoned full shopping carts and were directed toward exits.

On July 2, when the lights went out for nearly four hours, Beachside Bar Café in Goleta closed several hours early, resulting in a sales drop of about 10 percent from the same date last year. On July 6, when there were two outages, sales dipped 40 percent, a Beachside manager said.

“The fact that we have fires and everyone was spooked over the weekend hurt our business,” said Ryan Ramirez, the restaurant’s manager. “People want to stay inside and be safe, not go out and dine.”

The restaurant turned away customers who showed up after the power losses and used manual carbon-copy credit card machines for those who were finishing meals. When the lights went out, restaurant staff put up battery-powered lanterns to help customers walk through the building.

The Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club closed during each outage and was forced to evacuate July 3 under a mandatory order from fire officials. On July 6, the club’s staff cleaned the coat of ash from its pool and tennis courts and tried to reopen.

“We were open for only two-and-a-half hours and there was a power outage,” said Charlotte Valentine, the club’s general manager. “Our members had been waiting at the gate. It was sort of disheartening.”

“All of our stores in Santa Barbara and Goleta have been affected,” said Keric Brown, co-founder of the Goleta-based smoothie chain Blenders in the Grass. “We have been closing and reopening throughout the day and have ended up just closing most of the stores early for the past week.”

After losing some frozen food in its Isla Vista store during nightlong power loss July 2, Blenders’ staff moved most frozen foods into walk-in freezers, where they’re more likely to weather an outage. “Other than that, it’s really impossible for us to stay open while the power is off,” Keric Brown said.

The Java Jones Isla Vista coffee house has had similar problems. Its core clientele consists of students looking to study. No lights or Internet access made that difficult.

“When the power goes out, there is not much we can do,” said Pal Benjami, the coffee house general manager.
Zookers Restaurant in Carpinteria lost power July 2, just a few days after it suffered a 22-hour outage that spoiled much of its food and forced it to close for a day. That earlier outage was unrelated to the Gap Fire but made the July 2 power loss the second blow in a one-two punch.

“It’s just a real pain,” said Jeanne Sykes, the restaurant’s owner. “You can’t serve people and you lose customers.”
Some businesses have managed to keep running literally in the face of fire. Flames lapped a mere 1,200 feet from the orchards of Calimoya, a 40-acre cherimoya and avocado producer on the Condor Ridge Ranch above Goleta.

Jay Ruske, owner and manager of the Calimoya ranch, has split his time between handing out maps and information to the rotating crews of firefighters using his land as a staging area and keeping his ranch running.

By July 9, he had crews out harvesting avocados and washing the ash off the fruit.
“[The ash] makes quite a mess,” Ruske said. “I’m sure that well beyond this fire, I’ll be dealing with it when the wind kicks up.”

So far, back-up generators have kept Ruske’s irrigation and packing operations on track. “It’s kind of like camping at home,” he said. “After seven days of this, it’s just a way of life.”

Although he’s kept his ranch running, Ruske said he won’t go to the farmers market as usual this week. He wants to be near home in case of emergency and doesn’t think he can give his customers his full attention while his mind is back up in the hills, among the smoke and ash.

• Business Times interns Samantha Booth and Jennifer Lauer contributed to this report.

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