Summer break means slow business

Late on a Saturday night in mid-April, Yorkside Pizza and Restaurant is bustling with students. The doors are open, the tables are full, and the waiters shuttle from kitchen to dining room bearing trays of pizza, chicken fingers and milkshakes. Just one month later, the scene is very different. Tony Koutroumanis, one of Yorkside’s owners who has seen his restaurant through 35 New Haven summers, said that once the school year ends, so does Yorkside’s nighttime business.

“From six o’clock on, the town is dead,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. It’s not the same when the students aren’t here.”

From the end of August to the beginning of May, the more than 5,000 Yale undergraduates who live in the direct vicinity of Broadway’s shopping district provide a ready-made customer base for the area’s restaurants and stores. But with the end of second semester finals in May, that population dwindles to the few students who stay in town for summer classes, and Broadway-area merchants are faced with the challenge of being located in an area largely focused on the University. Learning to survive a slow summer, they said, is something that comes with the territory.

Restaurant owners said the dropoff in business is noticeable as soon as school ends. While Koutroumanis said he is unable to estimate what percentage of his business is usually comprised of students, he said his evening and late-night business typically falls by 50 to 60 percent during the summer.

“No matter what the city of New Haven does in the summertime, this area in particular drops down,” he said. “When you have no students here, there’s nothing around.”

While summer classes, which begin in early June, usually give business a boost, Koutroumanis said there is little he can do to compensate for the loss of his late-night school-year customers. During the school year, Yorkside stays open on the weekends until 2 or 3 a.m., but during the summer, the restaurant often closes by midnight, he said.

Mike Kochis, the store manager of Ashley’s Ice Cream, said Yale students make up the “lion’s share” of the store’s customers. As a result, business in the summer is usually 20 percent lower than during the peak months of the school year, he said.

“It’s kind of a regrouping period where I clean and organize,” Kochis said. “I almost welcome a rainy day or the summer.”

Ashley’s, which opened its York Street location only four years ago, does its briskest business in the first and last months of the school year, Kochis said. Although the store is relatively new to the area, it is part of a chain that has several other branches in Connecticut, and its recognizable name helps it attract local shoppers as well as students, Kochis said.

“We’re super busy, especially during the semester,” he said. “Sometimes we have lines out the door, and it would be absurd to try to get more people to just stand in line.”

Ashley’s does not change its hours during the summer, remaining open until 11 p.m. every night.

For some Broadway businesses, winter break remains the slowest time of the year. Bulldog Burrito owner Jason Congdon, who opened his restaurant in 2004, said that while he also experiences a slowdown in late-night business during the summer, December is when almost everyone “vacates the area.” Special summer functions like reunions, conferences and the Exploration Summer Program — an academic summer camp for high school students — help keep summer business relatively steady, he said.

“It doesn’t make up for all of the business,” Congdon said. “But it gets close.”

Some Broadway retailers said they do not face the same seasonal challenges as restaurants, which may be more dependent on students. J. Crew store director Steven Plewa said business at the store is steady if not increased during the summer months. Much of J. Crew’s business relies on “clienteling,” in which store employees form relationships with specific customers and personally alert them to new items and promotions, he said. Representatives of the store also attend the monthly meetings of Young Pros, a networking group for recently-graduated professionals in New Haven.

“I think that in order to bring more traffic to Broadway you have to step out of Broadway and let people know that you’re there,” he said. “Sometimes people think that Yale University is just for college students.”

Last month, Plewa attended a general meeting for all New Haven businesses and found that many of the other business owners were not even aware that J. Crew was located on Broadway, he said. Plewa said he has undertaken a “proactive effort” to gain non-student business for the store.

Michael Morand, Yale’s associate vice president of New Haven and state affairs, said the University works hard to draw people to New Haven in general and the Broadway area in particular. The Office of New Haven and State Affairs supports initiatives such as Market New Haven, a group of Yale and community members who work to draw visitors downtown, and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, a 10-year-old summer program that showcases artists and scholars from around the world. The office has also worked directly with Connecticut Magazine and the Yale Club of New York to promote New Haven as a summertime destination.

“Having a mix of retailers as we do helps New Haven stand out and draws people,” Morand said. “We have helped build a true summer season through Market New Haven, and the International Festival so that New Haven has a vibrant retail and restaurant scene 12 months a year.”

But some area merchants said these measures do not do enough to attract non-Yale affiliated people to the area, especially in the summer months. Koutroumanis said he thinks the “mix” Morand touts as an attraction of the area does not actually exist. While the area boasts an ostensible variety of stores and restaurants, Koutroumanis said, many of them provide similar offerings.

“There is nothing to bring people down here whatsoever,” Koutroumanis said. “Whether it’s Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Italian or whatever, it’s all food. Everybody sells the same thing.”

Koutroumanis said the Broadway area could help attract customers by bringing in a specialty store, such as one selling antique jewelry.

“I have expressed my opinion to Yale University many, many times,” he said. “If you don’t bring something different, you are killing your own tenants.”

Congdon said that while the Bulldog Burrito, as a single restaurant, does not have the budget to mount significant advertising campaigns, he thinks the area’s retailers could work together to help build their collective visibility as a destination in New Haven.

“I think it’s just a matter of putting our heads together,” he said. “It’s so easy for us to get lost in our work weeks. But we can do it, I’m sure.”

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