Recession hits Aspen service sector
December 25, 2008
ASPEN ” It’s been said that waiting tables at night is the best job to have in a ski town.
Ronnie Factor, a full-time waiter for the past 21 years at one of Aspen’s longest-surviving restaurants, the Steak Pit, can testify to that.
“I came here to learn to ski,” said Factor, once a California surf rat who traded waves for powder days when he landed in Aspen 36 years ago.
Ah, and with all that new snow, what a winter it has been thus far for a full-blooded ski bum. For waiters, though, like Factor, and others who work in the service industry and depend on tips to make a living, this early season has been anything but ordinary in Aspen.
“People aren’t eating out as much, especially the tourists,” Factor said before his Tuesday night shift while stocking the Steak Pit’s popular salad bar. “Hypothetically, if they usually go out five times to eat when they’re visiting town, now they’re maybe going out four or three times.”
It’s not that restaurant patrons are tipping less or opting for a cheaper cut of meat or a less expensive bottle of wine with dinner, Factor said. His tips, percentage-wise, have been about the same as recent years, but the difference is that there just aren’t as many tables to serve.
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“It’s not that tips are down, it’s just down,” Factor said. “It’s gonna be a down year. There’s no question about it … It’s just the economy and that certain people who used to be able to come are not coming. They’re doing something else. Or, instead of coming twice or three times to Aspen during a season, they’re only doing it once.”
It was recently reported that lodging bookings this week for Snowmass and Aspen are down 25 percent from what they were last year, and are expected to be down more than 10 percent next week ” typically the busiest week of the winter season.
The lack of visitors in town over the last month has certainly translated to fewer people walking in the door looking for dinner, said Steak Pit owner Bob Glowacki.
“I’d say December is probably down 10, 15 percent overall,” Glowacki said.
The last couple of days, the restaurant has been full and Glowacki and Factor are optimistic that business will remain strong through the holidays.
“I don’t think that this next 10 days are going to be as bad as the first two weeks of the month,” the owner said. “The bookings are looking a lot better than they really have. I think it’s going to be a good Christmas season.”
Still, Factor has said he has noticed signs around town which indicate that, even in opulent Aspen, people are changing their routines to save money in the midst of an ongoing recession.
“I’m going through the market and it’s crowded,” he said. “People who used to eat out are eating in more.”
Personally, Factor said he’s had to cut back on his own expenses to make ends meet. That means watching what he buys at the grocery store and not going out as much.
“The grocery store is a big deal,” he said. “Being single is nice. You’re not buying as much stuff. I also haven’t been to the movies in a while, and I like going. I’ve just been cutting back on the little things.”
Another observation from the waiter about the how the slumping economy is affecting the restaurant industry is that lunch crowds in town are “booming,” Factor said.
Glowacki said the Double Dog Pub, his adjoining restaurant which offers lower-priced pub grub on its menu and is a favorite watering hole among locals, is also full every night.
Translation: Some locals and tourists still want to eat out, but are looking for cheaper menus.
Factor said the most marked change, in regard to his nightly income, is that he isn’t seeing as many returning customers ” people he has come to know over the years.
“I don’t see some of the same people coming back,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because of the economy or they sold their condos or they’re not skiing or they’re getting older, but it’s changed a lot.”
In spite of all that, Glowacki said the decrease in customers hasn’t been considerable enough to merit any significant changes, namely cutting down on staff. Instead, when business is slow at the Steak Pit on certain nights, as is the practice at restaurants everywhere, waiters are simply cut early from their shifts.
Anyone who has ever waited tables knows that getting cut on a slow night can be a blessing. Better to wait for the nights with the biggest number of tips.
Factor just hopes that there’s more of the latter, not the former, in the months ahead.
“It’s simple,” he said. “What you need is the volume of people. The people who are here, they’re not slacking on their tips, but you need a few more people than what we’ve been having.”