- THE MAGAZINE
For many, winter business is a sideline, although it can be an important one.
At Dalton & Co. Professional Cleaning Supply, winter supplies like ice melting products amounts to about four percent of the company's annual business, owner Sue Dalton said.
But that's still substantial: This year, Dalton ordered more than 50 skids of ice melt. That amounts to about 3,000 bags, which went fast due to icy conditions early in the season.
"As of right now, we have none," Dalton said recently, although she's optimistic about getting some new supply on hand this season.
Snow isn't an essential ingredient to good winter business. Cold weather means vehicles with marginal batteries might need new ones.
"On a day when it's 15 or 20 degrees, not really cold, if a battery is weak, it won't start," said Jesse Young, manager of Battery Masters. "When it's zero and there's a wind chill, any battery might not start."
The most visible winter business has to be the legion of snowplow operators who turn out every year.
For some plow operators, like Jeff Burke, the business is an important sidelight in part because it keeps his existing workforce employed.
Burke, owner of Advanced Carpet Care, has a ready workforce of carpet installers and cleaners.
"But when there's three feet of snow, nobody wants to put carpet in their house and business slows down," Burke said. "So [snow removal] keeps my guys busy.
"When you own your own business and have eight or 10 employees, you feel responsible for them," Burke added. "They need to buy food and pay the rent. You hate to tell everybody they're done with work until spring."
Although Burke's snow removal service does some residential work, his fleet of trucks, Bobcats and other equipment tackles jobs with high priority -- like medical offices -- and big jobs. Working as a subcontractor, Burke's crew cleans the parking lot of the Muncie Meijer store.
"That's our biggest job," he said. "That takes about 15 or 16 man-hours. We might have two trucks and two Bobcats on that. They want that lot cleared to the edges."
In more than a decade of snow removal, Burke has perfected his assessment of the difficulty of each snow removal job.
"For a typical parking lot, if we have two inches of snow, we can maybe do it in 20 (minutes)," he said. "If we have a foot and a half of snow, we can be there an hour and a half. But it depends on the kind of snow. If you can make a snowball, it's hard to push."
Burke said the key to snow removal is when it snows. A lot of overnight snowfall means plow operators must rush to get their jobs done before businesses and offices open. Wind also plays havoc with snow removal.
"We've been out at night and after we finished, it all blew back and [the customer] calls and asks, 'When are you coming out?'"
Dalton is hopeful about getting more ice melt in stock for her customers, who can include individuals, snow removal companies and commercial properties. She's not optimistic about the long-term picture, however.
"It's going to be a tough season for all the stores," she said.
Because the weather can be hard to predict, how businesses gear up for winter can vary greatly. Some say they watch long-range weather forecasts.At Dalton & Co. -- where supplies for winter must be ordered by August -- the owners use an old-fashioned method of gauging their needs.
"We use the Farmer's Almanac," Dalton said. "And we kind of guess."
Last year, Dalton sold all but about 10 bags of ice melt, so her forecasting abilities -- and those of the almanac -- must be good.
Because of the long hours in harsh elements, snow business can take its toll, Burke said.
"I've sat in a truck for 18 or 20 hours," he said. "It gets old. But my sons want to go out and do it. They enjoy it more than I do."