Gunnison Valley business reflect on challenges of 2020

Jay Clayton, owner of the Centerfield State Liquor Outlet, says this year has brought about different spending patterns among customers, but relatively moderate challenges compared to other types of businesses. He joked that income in his line of work is “recession proof.”

The year 2020 has brought an onslaught of unpredictable challenges to businesses in Utah and the Gunnison Valley.

“Every business owner will tell you” they were concerned for their future livelihoods this year, says Chuck Widick, owner of the Gunnison Inn. “A lot of businesses that have been in families for generations have closed, so of course I was [nervous].”

But it hasn’t been all bad for Widick, who runs the motel with his mother, Sharon Widick. Their year, from a business perspective, reflects the uncertain, volatile, sometimes hopeful and always strange times people across the country have experienced since March.

Since the early pandemic days, family members visiting prisoners at the Central Utah Correctional Facility have not been allowed, which used to make up “about 25 percent” of the motel’s clientele.

He says he was particularly worried during the months of February, March and April. As reports of COVID-19 cases became more frequent, he says, people stopped travelling, and their business was so slow that some days he never entered his own lobby.

However, a few months later the motel had its “best July ever” and saw lots of travelers after months of what constitutes their normal customer base being “cooped up.”

“They were like sailors on a boat—you get them to land and they just go nuts,” he says of the high volume of visitors he saw out to shake their cabin fever. July was so good to the Widicks that they bought the Travel Lodge in Salina, which has significantly increased their profits since.

In a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic, wildfires, earthquakes and civil unrest, other businesses in the Gunnison Valley have adapted as well.

“For us, it’s actually been a pretty decent year,” says Ryan Frandsen, manager of Hermansen’s Mill in Gunninson. “COVID really hasn’t affected us too much.”

Frandsen says the pandemic caused a food-shortage scare that benefited his store’s sales. In a typical “good year,” he sells 1,000 to 1,200 pounds of seed and potatoes. Hermansen’s has already surpassed the 5,500-pound mark this year.

“Everyone planted a garden, people that have never done it before, and it’s just been clear-crazy,” he says.

That success ultimately has served to offset a more consequential hindrance to his business that occurred this year, though.

“The thing that really affects our business the most is drought.” He says this year and 2018 were particularly dry years. Hermansen’s Mill did experience pandemic-related shortages secondhand through its supply chain in products such as fencing products and water tanks.

Frandsen says delays in delivery have made it difficult to keep those products in stock, which provide a “good chunk” of yearly revenue. Delivery usually takes around two weeks, but a normal delay now lasts between eight to 14 weeks, he estimated.

Jay Clayton’s State Liquor Outlet in Centerfield also saw supply-chain complications in a year that he is ready to put behind him, more because of the divisive political climate and seemingly “jinxed” nature of things than his sales.

“2020 has been so crazy with supply chains and stuff like that, but overall, we’re doing okay,” he says. “This business is recession-proof. Somebody said even if you go into a recession, people will buy alcohol.”

In one of the more bizarre examples he offered for how this year has gone, he said there was a shortage of Everclear, a 190-proof grain-based liquor, because people were buying it in droves to use as a disinfectant when normal sanitation products were cleared out of stores.

But the obstacles Clayton’s business has encountered, like with Hermansen’s Mill, could have come about any year and relate less to the pandemic than perhaps those that have shaken businesses such as restaurants, he said. The Centerfield liquor store lost business from beer sales after grocery stores were allowed to sell products with up to 5 percent alcohol by volume, for example. At one point in the year, earthquakes in Salt Lake City caused technical difficulties in warehouses that prevented their machines from accessing some shelves.

Widick, Frandsen and Clayton all speak in good spirits about their businesses and consider themselves lucky, but their experiences this year underscore the many ways it was an exceptional one.

“We’re still fortunate,” Widick says. “I haven’t missed any meals, the lights are still on, so life’s good.”

Though he, his mother and his late brother Scott only bought the inn in 2005, he says the place has been around as long as anyone in the community can remember, perhaps 90 years ago. He references the two-foot-thick walls and rock foundation as indicators of how long it has been a staple of Gunnison Main Street.

Frandsen also says he is “thankful” for “everybody that comes in and supports [his] local business,” and that he is watching the snow accumulation to know what kind of year 2021 will bring for Hermansen’s Mill.  Frandsen’s great-great-great grandfather and ancestors since have also worked at the store that opened in 1914, and the now-manager himself has already worked there for 21 years at age 33.

Clayton says of his hopes for the future, “I want to believe in 2021; it’s going change, but I don’t want to jinx it.” He says he got his hopes up for great things to come in 2020 in a more positive way than what has occurred.

Like his walls, Widick is bringing a thick skin into the uncertain months to come.

“Keep praying. That’s the only thing I can say. I’m grateful,” he says.