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Fire singes sales for Santa Barbara businesses

By   /   Thursday, May 7th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Fire singes sales for Santa Barbara businesses

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Sales dropped sharply for dozens of Santa Barbara’s small businesses as smoke and ash from the Jesusita Fire swirled through the city for a third day May 7.

A few shops located near the blaze soldiered on as city officials pondered how small businesses already coping with a weak economy would survive the latest natural disaster.

Power outages also weighed on employers across the city. Blackouts on May 5 and May 6 of 18 minutes and 36 minutes, respectively, forced some owners to move staff to offsite locations or shut down early.

“Most of the restaurants nearby are closed, but we decided to stay open so we could offer people some comfort,” said Henrietta Forystek, who owns Max’s Restaurant near the evacuation warning zone on upper State Street. “Nobody wants to be outside right now. You could almost suffocate out there.”

Max’s Restaurant has only indoor seating, but Foreystek said she plans to purchase particle masks for employees as a precaution. Customers are heading away from ash-filled parts of town, she said.

“People cleared out [May 6] when the winds changed direction and the smoke headed our way,” she said. “Even after the evacuation area was downgraded, business has been slow. We were supposed to host a dinner party tonight, but that’s not going to happen.”

“I’m not expecting any business today,” said Gary Panoyan, owner of Panoyan Custom Tailoring & Men’s Wear, also on upper State Street. “I’m just getting some work done.”

At Jedlicka’s Saddlery on upper De La Vina Street, Manager George Aigner said some of his staff live in the evacuation area and are watching the fire’s progress from the storefront’s window.

“The air is pretty bad outside, but we’re not in the evacuation zone, so we’re going to stick to our usual business hours,” said Aigner. “We’re a little short-staffed due to closures and evacuations, but we’ll manage.”

Hundreds of out-of-town police and firefighters staying in Santa Barbara’s hotels could counterbalance the Jesusita Fire’s hit to business and tourism, said Jim Armstrong, Santa Barbara’s city administrator. He said he’s “more concerned about the economy than any one specific event.”

In the city’s downtown shopping district, farther from the flames, some small businesses in the evacuation warning zone are closed. Crushcakes Cupcakery on Anacapa Street and Art Essentials and The Massage Place on Victoria Street were shut tight because of fire conditions, according to signs posted on their doors.

Slow business at Carlitos, an upscale Mexican restaurant at Arlington and State streets, persuaded General Manager Jose Luis to close at about 6 p.m. May 6. A good weeknight at the eatery brings 200 to 300 customers, but only two tables’ worth had trekked through smoke, traffic and police checkpoints, Luis said.

In his 10 years managing Carlitos, Luis has never had to close because of a fire. A server and hostess had to leave work to evacuate their homes, Luis said. “This was a very surprising fire because it’s so early in the year,” Luis said.

Rene Cosio, a UPS deliveryman whose route runs downtown, said three businesses he’d tried to make deliveries to were closed early in the day.

“Even at the businesses that are open, you’re not seeing many customers,” Cosio said. “Foot traffic is definitely slow.”

By noontime, The Good Feet Store on State Street normally would have seen ten customers.

“We haven’t had a single one,” said owner Achilles De Guzman. De Guzman ran the store himself May 7 and told his four employees to stay home because they live in the evacuation warning area.

Professional services firms in the evacuation warning area carried on as usual May 7, though some employees had left the day before to evacuate their homes.

Steven Hicks of accounting firm Nasif, Hicks, Harris & Co. on Garden Street said one of his partners had to leave May 6 to evacuate. The firm, which employs 36, closed down its file servers around 4 p.m. that day and sent employees home because of smoke.

“I watched a client’s former house burn down on television,” Hicks said. “We had been up there for parties several times. It was sobering to watch that thing burn.”

Though it sat in an evacuation warning area the morning of May 7, the Santa Barbara County courthouse continued running. Nearby law firm Seed Mackall kept its doors open, though two employees had left the day before to evacuate along with another employee whose home was on the border of the mandatory evacuation area.

“The rest of us are just on guard,” said receptionist Judy Bouchet.

John Britton of Southern California Edison said thick smoke near power lines caused the power outages May 5 and 6. The smoke’s heavy carbon content can cause shorts on the lines and spur an automatic shutdown. Power restarts when crews confirm the lines are intact, he said.

“When the wind blows, nobody is really safe,” said Hicks, the account at Nasif, Hicks, Harris & Co.

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