Successful tourist season leaves businesses in need of rest

“A great season, but busier than expected” was the consensus of many businesses on the Homer Spit as several prepared to close down after the Labor Day weekend. While some stores currently remain open on the Spit, more “Closed for the season” signs are appearing in window fronts.

“Numerous businesses have reported record breaking numbers this year. The season started earlier than normal with April being a busier than normal month and continuing all summer long,” Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center Executive Director Brad Anderson wrote in an email to Homer News.

While many businesses had a successful summer, that doesn’t mean the season was without its challenges, Anderson said. With a larger influx of tourists than expected because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a national staffing shortage, many businesses had to quickly readjust their plans to ensure employee wellness while serving the community.

“Employee staffing was the primary issue that kept businesses from fully maximizing their opportunities this summer. Many businesses had to limit the number of days or hours they could be open because they could not overwork the staff they had,” Anderson wrote.

This season, co-owner of Finn’s Pizza Sasha Raupp said their main priority was to keep their employees safe while also keeping the doors open for hungry visitors. The shop opened with limited indoor seating to allow for alcohol sales and take-out ordering.

“We’ve done well, really well,” Raupp said. “We’ve had a busy, solid season and nobody got sick, which was kind of the main (hope).”

Raupp said the inundation of tourists this summer made it difficult to avoid exposure. The decisions have been difficult to make in order to stay open, but she didn’t want to risk any of her staff.

“We have faced the challenges of wanting to honor the safety of the people who work here and also wanting to stay viable as a business,” she said. “…The challenges have been all along just making decisions that we needed to make to stay open as a business for ourselves and to serve the community and to keep ourselves safe.”

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Boardwalk Fish and Chips owner Darren McVeigh said this summer was “very taxing” as they struggled to find employees the entire summer. With only four or five employees, McVeigh said they were thankful for the successful season but were ready for a break.

“I’m tired,” McVeigh said. “… But it was still way better than last year.”

While the restaurant had to reduce its hours of operation to adjust for a lack of employees, McVeigh said they were still setting sales records. Boardwalk Fish and Chips closed on Sunday.

Carmen’s Gelato saw more than 60,000 customers this summer, and owner Carmen Ricciardi said they took the precautions necessary to keep everyone safe and healthy. This year, Carmen’s Gelato sold over 25,000 pounds of gelato, according to Ricciardi. The ice cream shop closed on Labor Day after running out of sweets to sell. On a busy day, the store sold more than 40 pounds of gelato, he said.

“It’s been really busy. Last summer was really busy for us too, but this was our busiest summer yet,” Ricciardi said. “We went into the summer fully staffed, … everybody knew what they were doing so we jumped right back into it.”

While the gelato and espresso store sold more sweets than expected, the current national supply chain shortage made it difficult to get all of the ingredients they needed when they needed them.

“It’s been tricky getting things here this summer,” Ricciardi said. “Everything takes a little bit longer; prices go up a little on everything. This year has been a little bit tricky.”

Alaska Salt Co. experienced a similar issue trying to keep products on the shelves. With just the third year in their location on the boardwalk, Nora Evensen, store manager, said they did well and stayed busy, but ran out of products faster than they could get them remade.

“It’s definitely been hard to stay on top of production,” Evensen said. “A huge thing we run out of are our season products. … It’s been hard to produce enough salt and stuff because it’s been going like crazy out here. We’ve been wiped.”

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Alaska Salt Co. is staying open through September.

On the fishing and charter side of the Spit, businesses like Homer Ocean Charters and Mako’s Water Taxi were busier than ever.

Tim White, sales manager of Homer Ocean Charters, said the season has been “fantastic and incredible.”

“We didn’t expect what we got this year,” White said. “Weather was good; fishing was excellent. If anything, it was not expecting as much as we had coming and not gearing up for it in terms of staff and everything. Everything worked out well though.”

Homer Ocean Charters did have to stop fishing for halibut on Wednesdays to protect the population, which is a struggle, White said.

Homer Ocean Charters is closing toward the middle of September.

Mako Haggerty, owner of Mako’s Water Taxi, said 2021 was one of their best years, but keeping up with the influx of tourists was challenging. While the water taxi service operates year round, he is looking forward to slowing down as the tourist season concludes.

“Just in the numbers, I’m not sure we were prepared for it,” Haggerty said. “I think the boat traffic was greater this year. Just everything was a little more frantic. … I almost feel like we maxed out this year.”

Haggerty says the business in the past two years has grown to a comfortable operating level, but after the stress of this year’s increase of tourists, he is interested in creating a more manageable schedule for next season.

Now that summer is coming to an end, closing a successful season on the Spit, many businesses are happy with what 2021 brought them and are looking forward to being able to find a parking spot near their store soon.

Reach Sarah Knapp at sarah.knapp@homernews.com.

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