For Local Small Businesses, A Lost Four Years

Owning a small business has never been easy. But local restaurateurs and and shop owners said they've seen little growth in business since 2007, and have given up predicting when things will turn around.

There have been days when Julie Upchurch has stood in the middle of her Gambrills flower shop and asked, “Why am I doing this?”

Five years ago, she never would have dreamed of posing such a question. She left her stable job as a corporate recruiter for a major transportation company and bought the Little House of Flowers, determined to make it as a small-business owner.

Business started fine, as she delighted in putting together fresh bouquets of locally-grown flowers and delivering them to moms, grandparents and lucky spouses.

Then the Great Recession hit, and business withered like an unwatered daisy. It has yet to rebound.

“The phones just stopped ringing,” she said of the fall of 2008, shortly after the collapse of the banking sector that triggered an economic freefall. “We went from somewhat busy to nothing.”

Upchurch, who is a blogger for Odenton Patch, is just one of many small-business owners in the area who said they are entering their fourth year of little to no growth. Many have streamlined their businesses by cutting hours and services. They’ve laid off workers. They’ve put personal finances at risk. And most have given up trying to predict when things will turn around.

“I don’t have a projection,” said Dan Lewis, owner of in Odenton. “I’ve given up on that. This is kind of the norm. We’re going to stay flat or see very small percentages of increase from now on.”

Tough Choices

James King, the owner of in Gambrills, remembers when there was good money to be made in the restaurant business. But he says he’s seen little growth in the business since 2007, while expenses have skyrocketed.

The cost of commodities such as milk, eggs and butter—essentials for any restaurant—have risen by 30 percent. His rent has gone up, along with gas prices.

King, who also runs a catering company and is a partner with the Rockfish Restaurant in Annapolis, employed 175 people four years ago. He now has 95.

Unemployment insurance now costs him $188 per year, per employee, up from $47 in 2007.

He said that while the restaurant business has benefitted a bit from busy families who have less time to cook, most people are eating out less due to the economy. He now no longer counts on business during the early part of the week and instead focuses on getting as much revenue as possible from Thursday to Saturday.

“You don’t need to go out to eat every night,” he said. “You don’t need to go out to a bar. So you cut those out.”

At the Little House of Flowers, Upchurch negotiated a helpful break on her rent and has re-tooled her business to focus on the basics: weddings and funerals. It’s a strategy that has kept the business afloat—people still get married and people still die, after all—but even local funeral parlors report less money being spent on services.

Unlike many fellow business owners, Upchurch carries no debt on the shop.

But she has yet to make a cent in personal income, and that wasn't part of the plan.

"There have been a few times where we’ve said ‘let’s just forget it. Let’s put it out of its misery,’” she said.

Lewis, meanwhile, said he is now ultra-careful in how he manages his inventory, constantly evaluating each product and whether it’s worth having on his shelves.

Already facing stiff competition from big-box home improvement stores, Lewis has heavily emphasized customer service and convenience. This year, he’s seen a modest increase in business, and he’s content with it.

“If it’s a one percent increase, we’re saying ‘yay!’” he said. “I talk with other business owners and we say that at the end of the day, if you made a dollar, you’re doing good.”

Taking a Chance

Anyone who has stopped into the Country Feed and Garden store in Gambrills also knows about the Covenant Cottage Gift Shop. For six years, Janet Garman ran the business with a partner, renting space from the feed store on Annapolis Road. But in recent years, the business struggled to turn a profit and Garman found herself spending more and more of her own money to keep it afloat.

Recently, however, Garman decided to make a change. She broke off from her former partner and teamed up formally with Chuck and Wendy Kinsey, the owners of Country Feed.

“I love this,” Garman said. “I love being in this community and getting to know your customers. That’s what feeds me.”

In October, the store will officially re-open as the Gambrills General Store. There will be new product offerings and the store will be redesigned with community space for book readings, lectures and clubs. There will also be a small area with items for sale to benefit Cheryl’s Rescue Ranch, a livestock rescue in Gambrills.

“If people aren’t coming in, you have to think about what you don’t have that might bring them in. You have to be willing to try,” she said.

Wendy Kinsey said she hopes the new partnership will benefit both stores. She, too, has seen business remain essentially flat over the last four years.

“The customers can’t afford to feed themselves, so they can’t afford to feed animals,” she said.

Getting Harder

James King still has faith in the restaurant business. He’s opening three Greene Turtle franchises over the next few years, including one at the Village South at Waugh Chapel shopping center.

But he’s putting in 16-hour days, six days a week, and isn’t having nearly as much fun as he used to.

“There was a really good time when business thrived and it was a lot of money to be made, but it’s not like that anymore," he said. "There’s a new crop of business owner who’s coming in and saying, ‘wow, this ain’t easy.’”

A former state delegate, he remains an advocate for small-business owners, fighting for less regulation, lower taxes and bigger representation of small businesses in Annapolis. The honored him with its Small Business Advocate award last spring.

Recently, King worked with Upchurch, Garman and others to form Gambrills Crossroads, to help build a sense of partnership among businesses and to encourage local residents to shop locally. The group also organized the second annual Gambrills Fall Festival on Sept. 10, bringing hundreds of local residents to Kaufmann’s for a community event.

It has add added up to a lot of hard work for modest gain, and as the general economy continues to be a drag on business, there appears to be no positive news in sight.

“It’s been a lot more work and a lot less rewarding,” King said. “And that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Bob Gemmer September 27, 2011 at 03:18 PM
My wife and I can really commiserate with Julie Upchurch. In 2007 we opened a small antiques and gift shop in Crownsville, across from the Crownsville hospital, called Antiques and Such. After about six months, we realized that the antiques market was not working, and we were selling mostly "Such." In 2008, we reopened as the Purple Poppy, featuring locally made jewelry, art and gifts. That year, we did pretty well, and actually had some time for ourselves, leaving the store in the care of trusted employees. However, after Christmas 2008 everything changed! We had to release our employees, and my wife and I began spending full time at the store. We are still in business, but only because I have a full time job, and my wife has gone back to nursing one day a week. While sales might be picking up, the latest news has rocked our confidence. But we are sticking with it. The economy will turn around, and we will again have some time for ourselves!
charisse September 27, 2011 at 05:04 PM
wow this article speaks so much Truth!!!. i have been in business for almost six months. and already I have seen and made all the above Tough choices, Taking chances and Getting harder. I also live in Odenton and enjoy this community, As I said in the Washington Post interview this area is growing, but we local businesses are not seeing the growth at present. Everybody is struggling in some way. From what i see people just dont care..... we all have gotten so self centered and refuse to shop and support "Our" small businesses, and this makes the community suffer mostly for small businesses. We all need to support our community this is where we live, shop, entertain in Odenton. you can have a beautiful looking plaza, but if the people dont support the beauty will fade. Talk to the businesses tell Us what you want and need . 'Bend the tree at the Root", so it can grow in the right direction. This area is accessible to many other communities that have larger and most definite bigger shopping choices. "you have to support each other'. I live here and yes I can drive to Laurel, Bowie, DC.... etc to shop. but what about Odenton? I tried 3 years to open this Caribbean Shop in this area. the same stores that would not rent to me are still vacant. now we see a whole plaza vacant. As a new business owner in Odenton. "The Changing American Dream" is harder to achieve in this economy. We can make it happen. We need help from you!. This is a great place to live and own a business.
Bob Tonucci September 29, 2011 at 02:32 PM
I don't know how business owners do it -- the government wants taxes, employees want higher wages, criminals want to rob.... Business owners are the unsung heroes of our society, but rarely get the credit they deserve.
John September 29, 2011 at 03:13 PM
I'm a small business owner and when I do the math, expanding actually costs me money unless my revenues skyrocket. What many people don't know is small business owners are absolutely taxed into obliteration.
John October 04, 2011 at 03:42 PM
It's too long of a message but I'll try to make it short. This not only applies to Odenton but many small local businesses: Make me feel welcome. All too often to shop at a local spot and the "face" of the business is an employee - usually at the register - with a sour attitude and absolutely no smile. Unfortunately for small biz owners, your lowest paid employees generally represent your business. I won't name names but I've gone into many a local business where the attitude behind the counter is very poor. I will mention one small business that gets it right. At least in my experience. Mamma Roma's. That same lady is at the register it seems like 80 hours a week. Seriously. Yet every time I go in she has a smile for me.


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