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Some say customers are spending less

By NICOLE CLARK

Staff writer

Restaurant owner Cher Wilson isn’t a federal employee. But she said, “I can feel the furlough.”

Tables at Charlie’s Deli and Ice Cream Shoppe in Lexington Park were always filled at lunchtime, Wilson said at the restaurant this week. But these days, “it’s real scarce. Especially on Fridays.”

Congress allowed sequestration to go into effect this spring. This summer, federal workers are seeing their paychecks reduced by 20 percent, through the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. It’s not clear if salary reductions will continue beyond that. And Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said recently that layoffs of some federal workers are possible over the long term.

Meanwhile, Fridays are furlough days for the majority of civilian workers at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. If Wilson’s restaurant feels empty at the end of the week, it’s largely because Pax River does, too.

Where aircraft normally taxi runways, base taxis once shuttled workers to meetings, and cars would jam parking lots and spill over onto the shoulders of roads, some 22,000 workers are anywhere but on base on furlough days. Defense contractors are feeling the pain, too, as many are forbidden to come to work at Pax River on Fridays, and federal workers are looking to cut costs that could, at times, include contract labor.

These same budget reductions have led Pax River to drastically limit the hours at its southern entrance, Gate 3, which is open weekday mornings from 5:30 until 8:30 a.m. That gate, leading to the intersection of Hermanville Road and Route 235, had been the path customers used to travel from the base to Charlie’s Deli. Now, potential customers have to drive several minutes in the opposite direction to leave Pax River. Once they exit, many aren’t circling back south on Route 235 to order from Wilson’s menu.

Wilson recently took over the business side of the restaurant after her father, Charlie Pulliam, died. She had been queen of the kitchen. Now, Wilson is a businesswoman in one of the most uncertain economies Pax River has seen in the 70 years since the Navy located here.

“It’s kind of freaking me out,” Wilson said. “I’m like a baby learning to walk all over again.

“It’s been quieter. There have been less people. The parking lot is empty and it’s been slower in the kitchen,” Wilson said. Her crew still dishes out the generous portions her restaurant is proud of. But she’s had to compensate somehow, so Wilson offers employees a chance to head home early when business is slow.

And although some restaurant managers near Pax River said this week that their customer base remains strong, Wilson’s isn’t the only business seeing a change.

Brandon Gronert, a manager at a paint store outside Gate 2, at the intersection of Great Mills Road and Route 235, said he’s seeing fewer homeowners looking to tackle honey-do projects. Summer is usually time for refreshing decks, and stroking coats of color on doors and fences. But his average of about 50 customers a day, is now between 30 and 35. And, he’s not sure when the trend will improve.

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Gronert said. “If the base is hurting, everybody else is hurting.”

Jason Clark, owner of Retriever’s Grille in St. Inigoes, took a break from preparing for “wing night” and said his customers are still coming in, but they’ve made some changes.

Retriever’s patrons mostly come from the Navy’s Webster Field annex during lunch. Instead of each person ordering an entree, they’re sharing, Clark said. Or, they’re eating sandwiches instead of big meals. And, they’re dining there around payday, as opposed to throughout a two-week period.

“You see people still wanting to go out. But the check average is going down,” Clark said.

“As things start to drag on, I think people are really going to start to feel the crunch,” Clark said. “I don’t think that any of us have seen the worst yet.”

“I’ve got tons on my mind right now,” said Wilson, from Charlie’s Deli. But, she’s figured out how she will deal with it: “Open up, make good food and feed everybody. That’s all I can do.”

nclark@somdnews.com