Like most Americans, I've been thinking about the economy much more than usual for the last few months.

In addition to worrying about stretching my dollars from paycheck to paycheck — not to mention the plummeting market's effect on my 401(k) — I have wondered how our local small-business owners are faring.

So when my family stopped by Johnniebeefs in Midvale for some hot dogs last Saturday, I decided to get it straight from one of those owners, John Carrasquilla.

My wife and I have talked to John several times, as his unique restaurant has become one of our family favorites. He said the hit his business has taken in the last few months is stunning, and he has the numbers to back up those statements.

John opened his store, which sells Chicago-style favorites like bratwurst and Italian beef sandwiches in addition to hot dogs, in February 2007. Earlier this year, when he started doing year-over-year business comparisons, he saw good numbers. For example, sales in May 2008 were up 39 percent over May 2007. July sales were up 51 percent. They dropped a bit in September, but sales were still up 41 percent from the previous year.

Then came October.

During the first week of that month, which started for John on Sept. 29, his business was down year-over-year. It was on that Monday that the government's bailout package was expected to pass, but didn't, leading to a 777-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average.

"At about 2:30 (p.m.) or a quarter to three, this guy walked in and said to me, 'Can you turn (the TV) on to CNN? We had a problem with the New York market.' They were talking on CNN about a 700-point Dow drop...From that point on, it was horrible," John says.

"We went from being up every week to that week being down."

Since then, it's been more of the same — mostly down days, a few up days, and lots of uncertainty about the future.

John says high food prices were his primary concern earlier this year, but they have at least leveled off, if not gone down. The real problem now is that people just aren't darkening his door as often. In the last two weeks of October, his count of average customers per day was down by 13 year-over-year. In the first week of November, it was down 23. And in the second week, it was down 25.

"I used to get very few customers at lunch that would use coupons," John says. "All of a sudden I'm getting them at lunch. The other thing I'm getting at lunch is people buying two hot dogs, fries and a water... My appetizer business went in the tank."

And his regular customers aren't so regular any more, even though his food is great and his prices are reasonable.

"I have regular customers who used to come in once a week or once every two weeks, and they were regular, almost on the same day," John says. "The guy who used to come in once a week now will come in once every two or three weeks."

He says his peers at other restaurants have seen the same drop in numbers — to the point that several have closed.

Mind you, John's not whining. He understands that people don't feel financially safe. He just wonders how much people are hurting on a day-in, day-out basis, and how much of their reaction to the financial situation is based on fear.

"My hope is that we stop hearing so much of the negativity and people get back to their normal lives," John says. "They still have to eat. I'm hoping, as we get closer to Christmas, people get back to their lives and things get a little bit better.

"In my case right now, I'm not sure I'll survive. I'm just waiting a little bit longer. If business would have kept on going the way it was going, I had foreseen opening another store in the spring. But now, it's tough out there. And unless things change, it's going to be tougher."

It is tough, John. And for what it's worth, I hope you — and other small-business owners like you — survive this period of fear and uncertainty. My family and I will do our best to support you, even as we tighten our own belts.

I hope others will, too.

I'd like to hear from other small-business owners and readers on this topic. And, of course, I also want to find answers for your financial questions. Send correspondence to gkratz@desnews.com or to the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.


E-mail: gkratz@desnews.com