Danielle Evans recently wrote a plea on Instagram: This is the worst summer her business, a Tampa boutique called Don Me Now, has endured in 10 years of operating.
She’s not the only one. Sans Market, a St. Petersburg zero-waste store, posted a similar warning to customers on its Facebook page.
Small-business owners in Florida typically expect slow summers. Tampa Bay tourism boosters acknowledge a lull, as more travelers pick locales without blistering heat and daily downpours.
Yet 2023 has come as a shock for some businesses, from dance studios to grocery stores and boutiques.
After “shop local” fervor during the pandemic and a burst of consumer shopping activity last year, small-business owners say they’ve met a perfect storm this summer. July heat set records this year, crushing foot traffic. Revived international travel draws residents and tourists away from Florida. And while the inflation rate has waned, prices certainly aren’t decreasing, owners said.
But the pain small businesses have been feeling isn’t setting off the same flurry of community support that it did in 2020.
Ester Venouziou, who runs Localshops1, a St. Petersburg small-business organization, said she’s heard from about 70% of her members that this summer has been tough. The other 30% are treading water. It all depends on the business, she said — some have reaped the benefits of new locations and savvy marketing. The majority are struggling.
Kelly Flannery, CEO of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said she’s hearing the same from her members. The post-pandemic surge of consumer activity has died down, she said. Cue the first regular Florida summer since 2019.
For some businesses, the summer lag was the final blow. Celine Beltgens, owner of three vegan concepts in St. Petersburg, had to close her restaurant, Freya’s, for good earlier this month. It first opened in 2021.
“We are so seriously f----d right now,” Beltgens said. “And holy s--t, it’s not just us.”
Freya’s hadn’t been profitable for a year, Beltgens said. She’d held on until this summer, when her other businesses, Valkyrie Donuts and Valhalla Bakery, saw a dip in sales, too. Those shops along St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue are making about half of what’s needed to keep up with overhead.
It became a matter of whether Beltgens would pay interest on her COVID-19 relief loans, for which she’d offered up her house as collateral, or keep Freya’s open.
“No one told us that instead of this boom after the pandemic ended, we would end up with a recession,” Beltgens said.
An ignored issue
At Valkyrie Donuts on Friday morning, about 20 customers walked through the door from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Last year, Friday was the first day of the shop’s weekend rush, store manager Magie Sebesta said. No longer — they’ve gone from making and selling 300 or 400 doughnuts to 200 on an average Friday, she said.
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“I don’t think the public realizes how bad it is. I think they have no clue,” said Miranda Heitz, owner of MZ Dance Company, a Clearwater studio that teaches kids how to dance. Summers are always slow for her. But this year she had to cancel two scheduled day camps because so many people are out of town.
That’s why Evans at Don Me Now took to Instagram with her troubles. Her Channelside boutique has struggled after the Tampa Bay Lightning season fell off early this year. Fewer customers come in, she said — the shop will often sit empty for an hour or more — and they’re buying less, a sign of strained pocketbooks.
“There have been a lot of tears over the last couple months,” she said. “You don’t see that real, raw, honest side from small businesses on Instagram. We wanted to be that voice.”
Retail stores suffer most
Flannery, the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce CEO, said retail shops and eateries, which depend on a steady inflow of new customers, have been especially hard-hit this summer. Seven restaurant and retail shop owners interviewed for this story agreed with that sentiment.
The National Retail Federation predicted that 2023 would bring 4% to 6% growth in retail sales. Multiple owners said the early part of the year was just fine, but that they’ve slowed down more than normal in the last two months.
Even businesses that offer essential goods, like Black Radish Grocer, a vegan grocery store in Tampa, report an unusually tough summer.
Tina Sanchez, one of the owners, said she saw her first “$400 Saturday” in July. That’s one-third of what she needs to break even. Twenty-three customers walked through her door that day.
“There is a special stress when you’re sitting inside and nobody comes in for two hours,” she said.
Each small-business owner has a slightly different answer for why it’s so slow. Common culprits are the high cost of doing business — $15 per hour has become the norm for starting wages, owners said, and key products, like packaging, have tripled in cost since 2020 — and the fact that living in Tampa Bay is more expensive than ever. Rent, groceries and gas take precedence for consumers.
Michael Maurino, executive director of the Westshore Alliance, a business group, said fewer people are in town during this historically hot summer. Tampa tourism numbers released by CoStar for May and June show a slight dip in key metrics like hotel occupancy and revenue compared to last summer. International travel, meanwhile, is up for the first time since summer 2019.
Maurino chalked the struggles up to a “more natural slowdown” after the pandemic and its immediate aftermath. But, he added, he hasn’t heard much from the primary retail tenants in Westshore: the malls, filled with chain stores.
Audrey Dingeman, owner of Golden Dinosaurs, a St. Petersburg vegan restaurant, said the struggle is unique for small businesses, which can’t survive downturns as easily as big outlets. She’s down 30% from last summer, and bringing in $4,000 less than her minimum to match pace with overhead costs.
She’s raised prices and cut employee hours. Dingeman feels like there’s not much more she can do.
“It feels like I’m at the top of a mountain, and I’m looking down, and it’s not a good thing,” she said. “I just feel lost.”
Even some retail sellers with minimal overhead notice a difference. May Turner, owner of PhoenixFire Designs, an online and mobile jewelry shop, said she barely made enough to afford rent in July. She pays a few hundred dollars a month to appear at markets around Tampa.
Her sales have shrunk 50% from last July. “More than I thought, actually,” she said.
Lenore Holz, owner of Salty Sisters Gourmet Popcorn, feels “survivor’s guilt.” She’s faring slightly better than her usual summertime lull after opening a third location on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. It’s been hard — 2020 was brutal for her two beachside locations. But at least she fended off another downturn.
Two business owners in the events industry said they’ve been busy this summer as corporate events pick up again. Melody Maria, owner of Wine on Wheels, a mobile bar company, said she’s doing double what she did last summer. But traffic seems especially random, said Maria and Kalys Richardson, owner of Venue on 6th in Ybor City.
“I’ll have four events in the middle of the week, then it’s crickets,” Maria said.
One business that’s thriving? Jamie Anderson’s St. Petersburg self-defense and firearms training studio, Weapon Brand. Whereas some business owners cited the state’s political reputation as a deterrent for shoppers, Anderson has gained from developments like the new state law allowing concealed carry of firearms without a license.
“The crazier the world gets, the more calls we get,” she said.
Weathering the storm
Venouziou has one piece of advice for business owners waiting for rosier times: Never underestimate the value of a pivot.
That might be a change in social media marketing, she said. Or an embrace of an entirely new business concept.
Richardson, for example, transformed her failing selfie studio into an event space in December 2022. She’s nearly doubled her earnings.
And, of course, Venouziou said, there’s the age-old strategy of riding out the lull. Tampa Bay’s busy season usually starts in October.
“I kind of think things will pick up in the fall,” she said. “It’s just a matter of how much you can afford to lose before the fall.”
Meanwhile, loyal employees of these small businesses brace for the storm, too. Sebesta, of Valhalla Bakery and Valkyrie Donuts, said she’s terrified about what comes next. “This is the one employer out of my whole 40 years of life,” she said, “who’s actually taking care of me.”
She’ll ride it out until the end.