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At small businesses, signs of a rebound

Whether for food or eyebrow plucking, purse strings loosen

Tom Walter, co-owner of Tasty Catering (second from right), talked with employees of the Illinois company at lunch time. He says business in picking up. M. Spencer Green/Associated Press/Associated Press

Some diners at Hurricane Grill & Wings had been limiting themselves to a small order of the chain’s saucy chicken wings and tap water. These days, many are upgrading to a bigger order, as many as 15 wings and a soda.

The larger plates are a sign customers are OK about spending a little more. The evidence may not be a major economic report, but small businesses have their own indicators the economy is improving. For example:

No more brown-bagging

People who held onto their jobs during the recession are familiar with the scenarios. The company doughnuts disappeared from the meetings. Training classes that included lunch were traded in for brown-bag sessions.


“Bring your own bagel into the meeting’’ was the message, said Tom Walter. His company, Tasty Catering in Elk Grove Village, Ill., caters for corporate clients.

When companies did serve food, they cut costs, Walter said. Turkey and brie on artisan breads were replaced by turkey and Swiss on whole wheat.

Last fall, things began to change. Four months ago, many clients had whittled down their catering bills to about $10 person. More recently that’s crept up to as much as $13 per person.

The increased spending isn’t just fueled by an improvement in his clients’ businesses, Walter says. Companies are worried about losing their best staffers, “so they’re giving their employees more rewards.’’

Sprucing up

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, many companies stopped worrying about décor like lobby plants and holiday displays. Sales fell 30 percent at Parker Cos., a Scotch Plains, N.J., company that does interior landscaping.

Hotels and office buildings that used to spend $30,000 for a holiday display were spending $8,000, said William Note, Parker’s creative director.

But in the last quarter of 2011, Note noticed many companies sprucing up. The number of proposals that Parker has written for customers this year is up 60 percent. But companies aren’t spending freely. Note says clients are choosier, asking companies like Parker to bid on projects - not the practice five years ago.


Note is trying to make impressive displays for less money. “I’m trying to be as creative with nothing as I possibly can,’’ he says.

Wings and a soda

At Hurricane Grill & Wings, people are also ordering more appetizers and entrees. President Martin O’Dowd said the average check per person at his company’s 45 restaurants in six states has risen 7 percent from a year ago.

O’Dowd said business began to pick up in the fourth quarter of last year. The improvement has enabled Hurricane Grill & Wings to hire more workers and increase the hours of current staffers. He’s optimistic that customers will keep spending more.

As they do, he expects them to splurging calorie-wise as well - he anticipates more orders of cheesecake and key lime pie.

Back to the salon

For many women - and some men - keeping their eyebrows in perfectly arched shape is a weekly affair.

At least that was the way it was until the 2008 financial crash.

Around that time, Reema Khan, who started her Cerritos, Calif.-based s.h.a.p.e.s Brow Bar salons in 2003, noticed that women who had come in weekly started visiting less often.

Some of her female customers said they would take their grooming into their own hands. She estimated about 30 percent of her male customers continued to come in.

But lower traffic made it harder to sell additional services, such as facials and henna tattoos.


Before the recession, the average bill at s.h.a.p.e.s was $15 to $20. It dropped to $10. Khan said that some customers did not want to tip, which made for unhappy employees.

Business has picked up this year at the company, which has more than 65 locations in six states. Customers are again making appointments for facials and bikini waxes.

Valentine’s Day was a particularly good day.

“We didn’t expect it, but we were crazily busy,’’ Khan said.