Bigfork Retailers Shoulder Through the Shoulder Season

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – In the frigid winter months, Electric Avenue loses some of its buzz.

It’s too cold to walk around downtown and there aren’t many people who would be walking around anyway – Flathead Lake has lost its waterskiing appeal and the license plates on parked cars are all instate.

So when the buzz wears off in the Bigfork Village, downtown retailers choose either to submit to the circumstances, hoping summer profits carry them through the winter, or their survival instincts kick in.

“Usually around this time of year it’s time to start dusting again,” said Tammy Riecke, co-owner of Riecke’s Bayside Gallery.

In the summer, Bigfork is a bustling tourist town. From the Fourth of July to Labor Day – the stretch run – downtown shop owners load up on profits much like a grizzly bear gorges itself in preparation for winter. They know what happens when the snow begins to fall.

Business owners take different approaches on how to deal with these desolate stretches. Some close for a couple of months. Some shorten their hours. And some just push on through, catching up on bookkeeping and inventory while waiting for the occasional customer to stop by.

“You never know when that person is going to walk in,” Riecke said.

This year, retailers are organizing an event around Valentine’s Day designed to draw people to the town, and thus customers to their stores, during an otherwise dead period. Come Feb. 16, two days after Valentine’s Day, Bigfork will be decked out with paper hearts and love-themed decorations, with shops offering wine, customer appreciation discounts, maybe music, and staying open later. The details are still being hammered out, but Gary Riecke, Tammy’s husband, said the basic concept is in place.

“If you can get someone in town,” Gary said, “they’ll probably come into your shop.”

The event follows the footsteps of Bigfork’s Christmastime celebration, which brings the biggest moneymaking period of the winter for Village retailers. Because of a concerted effort by business owners to nurture the Christmas tradition, Tammy said, Bigfork is known today as a destination during the holidays.

The Rieckes have owned Riecke’s Bayside Gallery since 1986. In past years, Tammy said downtown retailers banded together to help transform Bigfork into a viable destination for shopping, arts, dining and entertainment. They called themselves the Bigfork Retailers. The group used to meet regularly during the shoulder season, she said, discussing ways for businesses to keep their heads above water. The Retailers played a large role in building Bigfork’s Christmas tradition.

The group effectively disbanded two years ago, Tammy said, following a several-year fizzle. Part of it, she said, may have been complacency following a string of solid business years. But after a slow Christmas this winter and a couple of years removed from formal retailer meetings, Tammy said shop owners are getting together to have the same conversations as they were in the pre-boom days.

They’re talking about how to get people to their shops.

“Now it’s changed,” she said. “Now it’s urgent.”

Restaurants struggle in the winter as well. Some close down. Showthyme, a well-known restaurant on Electric Avenue, plans to close for a couple of weeks in February. But Blu Funk, Showthyme’s owner, said closing brings additional difficulties for restaurants. Maintaining a long-term core of employees is a difficult enough task at any time in the Flathead, Funk said. Presenting them with long spans of unemployment doesn’t help.

Funk said he serves around 40 or so dinners per night now, occasionally dropping down into the single digits on the slowest nights. In the summer, he said his restaurant, which has been open for 18 years, serves 185 to 200 dinners each evening. Aside from the regular day-to-day tourist activity that brings in customers in the summer, Funk said the Bigfork Summer Playhouse is “an amazing driving force for Bigfork.”

But to make it through winter, Funk said, he knows he has to build up a comfortable financial cushion during the warm months.

“You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines,” Funk said.

Roma Taylor, owner of Roma’s Eclectic on Electric kitchen store, agreed with Funk, adding that she avoids hiring additional help in the hectic summer months in order to maximize her profits.

“When that pace is strong – it’s short-lived,” Taylor said. “You don’t get a lot of employees. You just step up to the plate.”

Taylor said her Electric Avenue kitchenware store gets about five customers a day now. But in the summer, she said she “wouldn’t even be able to give you a number.” One of the biggest challenges, she said, is letting people know the Village isn’t completely shut down in the winter. While some shops like Chris’ Tea Cottage and Bigfork Bay Gift & Gear are closed down for the winter, many are open.

“People say, ‘Why’s everybody closed?’” Taylor said. “But there’s 10 actually open.”

But the winter also allows people to slow down and revel in those quiet small town moments, ones that get lost in the flurries of tourists, Taylor said.

“A benefit of this time of year is you have time to talk to people,” Taylor said as three people walked into her store to chat. “Locals come in and you have time to catch up.”