As the Island transitions to darker days and doubled-up layers, a common question from mainlanders is, “How do you survive?” One could ask the same of anyone living north of Pennsylvania in the winter, but here, with stores and restaurants closing for the season and tens of thousands of people returning to their winter lives off-Island, it is a valid inquiry — especially from a business perspective.
So how do businesses operate on an Island where the population decreases nearly tenfold in the off-season? J.B. Blau, owner of year-round restaurants Copper Wok, Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Co., Sharky’s Edgartown, Sharky’s Oak Bluffs, and the Loft, likens it to driving a standard-shift car.
“The off-season is the most challenging by far. During summer, we’re in fifth gear,” he said. “Winter is city driving, shifting through first, second, and third.”
Many other businesses would agree. Without the consistency of customers all day, every day, there’s downtime to work with. ’Tis the season to plan, create, and experiment.
Emma Kiley, owner of Citrine, a clothing, accessory, gift, and jewelry store in Vineyard Haven, uses the winter to get her inventory just right. “I do all my summer buying in the winter,” she said. “I like to promote Island artists, so this is the time where I reach out to a lot of local designers to see what I can cover with them before I go to a broader audience.”
CB Stark Jewelers is a year-round mainstay in Vineyard Haven. “For us, we have a full-service department, so our off-season can have a lot to do with repairs, restoration, custom work, and design,” general manager Sarah York said.
Trade shows in Boston, Providence, New York, Chicago, Florida, and Las Vegas are go-to destinations during the off-season for Island businesses preparing for the upcoming warm weather.
“I try to go as far away as possible, branch out a little, and keep it different,” Ms. Kiley said. “My favorite show is out in Las Vegas. I’ll go for a week in February. It’s a heavy show. It’s exhausting.”
“Since we make only 50 percent of our own jewelry, we travel to meet with current vendors, find new ones, and try to keep our inventory fresh in the industry,” said CB Stark’s Ms. York.
Now’s also the time to get clever with that creative energy. Ms. Kiley’s staff at Citrine start offering beading classes and ramp up their social media presence. For CB Stark’s staff, it’s coming up with new designs.
“We literally sit around a table and start brainstorming,” said Ms. York. “We throw around some really silly ideas. A couple years ago someone suggested we do something “Back Door Donuts.” When we decided to try it, people looked at us like we were crazy. It ended up being one of our most popular charms. You never know what’s going to work.”
For Mr. Blau, it’s all about the projects, promotions, events, and discounts. “The winter is a lab for summer,” he said. “Sharky’s and Copper Wok are experimenting with delivery services and online ordering. We can’t do that in the summer. There’s no time.”
Burger nights are also coming back to the Chowder Co. this winter, and “India Thursdays” are being offered at Copper Wok. The Loft has plans to undergo a full bar redesign and implement a food program for the first time. The VIP card program also runs strong all winter long.
“It’s the No. 1 thing we do in the off-season,” said Mr. Blau. “You get points for every dollar you spend at any location. Points get you all kinds of discounts on meals and merchandise.You can use it all year, but the cards are only offered at the end of October through April.”
Above all, most of the Island businesses that remain open year-round do so to cater to their most valuable customers: the locals. Even if, strictly from a profit-and-loss standpoint, it might make sense to shut down.
“We gear as much as we can to the year-round customer versus the seasonal day-tripper,” Elaine Barse, owner of the Green Room in Vineyard Haven, said. “We’re also very lucky as far as being able to offer year-round jobs to people. We love being part of the community in a way that we can support one another.”
“It’s nice to see regulars after the summer is over,” Ms. York said. “People come out of the woodwork now that there’s parking.”
“We look at ourselves as a community center,” Mr. Blau said of his five restaurants. “In the winter it can really feel like a town meeting — with alcohol. And good food.”
The holidays are coming up, which is often considered a season in itself. According to Ms. Barse, Green Room’s third busiest month is December. At Citrine and CB Stark, this time of year means accommodating and anticipating their annual influx of holiday shoppers. For Mr. Blau, it’s hosting holiday parties and fundraisers. But nothing is quite like the jamming months of summer.
“I don’t think I could deal with the intensity all year round,” Ms. York said, “But by March I’m ready. Everything takes the right amount of time. Summers aren’t too long, and neither are winters.”
“Sometimes I wish it was consistent and a little easier to plan,” Ms. Kiley said. “But at the same time, it’s definitely a nice ebb and flow. You’re wild and crazy and you get to September and you’re like, ‘Ahh.’”
Mr. Blau knows he’d have staff turnover every two months if his businesses kept at their summer pace. “People would be crying and throwing down their aprons every day,” he laughed.
It’s all about balance, and experience has taught these places how to use the off-season wisely.
“In the summer, we turn on the lights, we get busy, and we turn off the lights,” Mr. Blau said. “Winter is planning. Months and months of planning.”