Mud season malaise: How local businesses and workers cope with spring’s down time
Wedged between the powder days of winter and the warm mountain summers is a relatively brief period often derisively referred to as “mud season.” For some who live in Grand County, it’s a time of hardship, and not just because of the lack of recreational activities.
Seasonal workers often find themselves without employment during mud season while many Grand County businesses struggle with the abrupt and sustained decline in patronage.
Despite the difficulties typically associated with the shoulder season, many seasonal workers prefer taking time off during the spring and many businesses use the time to tackle overdue renovations or repair work, so it’s not always a dismal time.
AT ELEVATION PIZZA: A TIP POOLING SYSTEM
Elevation Pizza is one of Grand County’s most popular restaurants and all winter long the shop, located in the Fraser Valley Shopping Center, does brisk business spinning pizzas made from scratch. But each year, just before Spring Splash weekend at Winter Park Resort, the restaurant closes its doors for mud season.
Adam Hershfelt, owner of Elevation, said the decision to close for mud season is less a business decision than a lifestyle decision that allows he and his employees to enjoy some time off between the busy winters and the hectic summers.
“I don’t think it is the best business strategy,” Hershfelt said with a chuckle. “We do it for personal reasons. Everybody lives here for the quality of life, the amenities that surround us. We can’t close down during ski season or the summer season, but mud season is a time of year that we can.”
Hershfelt said many of his employees take advantage of the time off to recreate and relax. To help cover expenses during the roughly month-and-a-half period the shop is closed, Elevation’s hourly employees employ a tip pooling system wherein tips are pooled throughout the year and then dispersed during mud season.
Hershfelt said he keeps workers who want to continue working on the clock by tackling renovation, repair and deep cleaning projects in the shop.
“Any employee that wants to work can,” he said.
SISTERS COMBAT SEASONAL SLUMP
Sisters Aimee and Katie Donner know first-hand the impacts created by working seasonal jobs.
Katie Donner has spent the last five years performing seasonal work and typically spends winters on the trail grooming and snowmaking crew at Winter Park Resort, then working as a river rafting guide in the summer.
Her sister Aimee Donner, however, is newer to the seasonal local economy with this past winter being her first iteration as a seasonal employee after leaving a corporate job working for Apple. Aimee Donner spent the winter working at Breeze Ski Rentals in Fraser and will spend this summer working in the Ava Rafting shop in Kremmling.
Mud season for the two sisters is a time to recharge from their hectic winter schedules before the rush of summer begins, but it also creates challenges.
“It is a good opportunity to take some time off in between,” Aimee Donner said. “We can go visit family or go on adventures.”
But Katie Donner highlighted the difficulty being seasonal workers such as her annual loss of benefits.
“You do have a month off where you are not earning money, but I would say the biggest thing is not having benefits and health insurance,” she said.
Working jobs that are stressful on the body adds further concern to not having benefits, she added. If she gets injured, would the out-of-pocket expense for health care be unbearable?
To address the financial challenges created by mud season, the pair said they plan ahead of time and save money for the inevitable break in work. Their strategies include saving money, stocking away meat and other groceries, selling used gear and just saving money. Despite the challenges, though, both women love their seasonal gigs and, at least at this stage of their life, are not wanting to trade them in for year-round work schedules.
“When I worked for Apple, I was working from home,” Aimee Donner said. “It was a great company with benefits, but I moved to the mountains for a reason and I wasn’t able to enjoy that. Being able to work in a seasonal environment allows me to get out and enjoy it.”
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STAYING OPEN THROUGH MUD SEASON
Esteban Rocha keeps his restaurant, Casa Mexico in Winter Park, open throughout mud season, except for a one-week period in mid-May when the restaurant closes down to tackle renovation projects and any needed repair work. Rocha said he sees a dramatic decrease in patronage during mud season, but, thanks to his local clientele base, Casa Mexico maintains enough business to justify keeping the doors open.
“We rely heavily on the locals (during mud season),” Rocha said.
Rocha said he believes Casa Mexico’s year-round specials and happy hour deals are a big draw for the residents of the Fraser Valley and Grand County who typically know exactly what they will order before arriving. He also praised the efforts of the Fraser-Winter Park Chamber of Commerce for its help bringing more people to the valley during the slower time of year through hosting more festivals in the traditional off season.
“I would say (mud season) really starts about the middle of April,” Rocha said. “It goes off and on through the middle of May. The chamber does a terrific job pushing the beginning of the summer season earlier.
Rocha said he sees a significantly larger decline in business in Grand County during mud season than at his other two locations, in Vail and Eagle. The location of the restaurants, which are positioned along I-70, coupled with the larger populations in those areas help sustain a larger flow of business between winter and summer.
COOPER CREEK SQUARE SEEING SLIGHT CHANGE
Stephanie Carey sees a broader view of the impacts of mud season.
Carey, who works as head of marketing and promotions at Cooper Creek Square in Winter Park, has lived in Grand County for over two decades. During that time she has seen the ups and downs created by seasonal economies and the overall trends that impact local businesses.
“Obviously business slows down (during mud season),” Carey explained. “It is a chance for a lot of spring cleaning and maintenance work. Businesses do inventories and kind of get prepared for the summer season.”
According to Carey, Fraser Valley businesses shut down operations in years past, but that trend has shifted over the last decade and now most establishments are able to maintain enough business during mud season to stay open due to the area’s growth. She indicated that many businesses simply reduce hours or days of operation during mud season often in an effort to get caught up before the start of summer.
“Back in the day, businesses used to just shut down,” she said. “We have grown and the pretty consistent business this time of year makes that (staying open) viable.”
Restaurants in the Fraser Valley typically stay busy during mud season and, while the weekdays can be slow, mud season weekends are typically good from a business perspective, especially if temperatures in Denver and along the Front Range warm up quickly, Carey said.
The decline in business traffic typically starts in mid-April, even before the close of Winter Park Resort, and now runs through Memorial Day weekend, a change that has occurred over the past several years in terms of the end of mud season.
“Summer used to really start on July 4,” she said, pointing to a time before the Great Recession of 2008. “It was mid- to late-June before it felt consistent. Now we are seeing it from Memorial Day on. Mud season is getting shorter and not quite as quiet.”
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