Businesses ready as season nears its peak

Debbie Rush, of the Village of Country Club Hills, looks over some of the paintings at The Kings Gallery while shopping in Spanish Springs.

The first months of the year are like a second Christmas for Christine Chaloupka. Chaloupka’s stores, Lime Light in Lake Sumter Landing and Christine’s in Brownwood, do well during the holiday season, but they do even better during the first quarter of the year from January to March. “It’s the busiest time of the whole year,” she said. She and her staff wait for the quarter to come around. “It’s fun. You get this fresh group of people coming into town,” Chaloupka said. “It’s just a very fun and refreshing time of year to be in The Villages.” Once the holiday season finishes, many snowbirds travel back to The Villages for the season, and there are even some new residents.

January marks the beginning of the busiest season in The Villages for many companies, including restaurants and retail stores like Christine’s — even busier than Christmas and the rest of the holiday season — because many people come back into town.

Consumers spend more in the first quarter each year simply because of the weather and the attraction of The Villages as the nation’s top master-planned community, said Scott Renick, The Villages director of commercial development.

“We have seasonal residents and visitors coming back every year to enjoy all that The Villages has to offer, which affords them the ability to be out and about,” he said.

Gross sales totaled $864 million during the first quarter of 2019 in Sumter County, largely because of  The Villages, according to the Florida Department of Revenue.

During the fourth quarter of 2018, which includes Christmas, Thanksgiving and popular holiday shopping days such as Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, gross sales in Sumter County totaled about $804 million.

There are noticeable economic trends that everyone recognizes during the first quarter, Renick said.

“The most pronounced trend is resident and guest spending at our restaurants, compared to spending during the holiday season,” he said. “During the holiday season, residents and guests are spending at the retail stores,” Renick said. “During the first quarter, it’s more about them getting out with family and friends at the restaurants to enjoy each other’s company.”

This season appears on track to match successes seen in previous years, he said.

“It’s more good news for our hometown,” he said. “We’re expecting more activities and opportunities to serve our residents.”

Chaloupka’s sales at Christine’s and Lime Light continue to grow during the first quarter since both stores’ doors opened in The Villages. She expects this first quarter to be just as busy as she has seen in the past.

To prepare, Chaloupka orders items for the first quarter season six months ahead of time.

The staff tends to unpack a new box every day during January to March because so many people are coming in, she said. Eight boxes are at Christine’s right now ready to hit the store soon.

Rustic Rose Home Accents and Gifts and Rustic Rose Fashion Boutique have a “dynamite” first quarter, said Rosalyn Housley, owner of the two stores.

“It is our busiest quarter. The month of December is a close follow behind that,” she said. “In the whole world of retail, no place is like this. Most places, the busiest time is Christmas. But in The Villages, the first quarter is (crazy), which is just a blessing for retailers.”

During Rustic Rose Home Accents and Gifts’s first quarter in 2019, 30,000 items were sold — an average of about 330 items a day, Housley said.

“That’s a lot of things every day going out of your store,” she said.

Housley said she believes the home decor store does well because many people are moving in or coming back and need items to decorate their homes.

Housley expects the first quarter of 2020 to be the busiest yet for both stores, and for sales to continue to get better as the area grows.

The Lofts at Brownwood, an age-restricted apartment community, is set to open later this year near the square. Twenty pallets of items for the home decor store already are coming in to prepare.

More shoppers venture throughout the community.

King’s Gallery in Spanish Springs relies on foot traffic during the first quarter of the year because those customers keep the store going the rest of the year, said Tracy Freeman, co-owner of the store.

“This part of the season — January through to Easter — that is our real, real peak,” she said. “We have the one in the fall, but it’s not as busy.”

During the holiday season, many people in the area are visiting and make mostly small purchases instead of buying art or using the custom framing services.

“They are people who are traveling, so they are not going to buy big stuff,” Freeman said. Then we get the people who are here for that three to four months and they are the people who are decorating their houses still looking for artwork and doing custom framing. It’s a different type of clientele.”

King’s Gallery puts out new artwork for the busy season.

January to March also is a busy time for restaurants in The Villages.

In the first quarter of 2019, $58 million in restaurant sales were made in Sumter County.

Diners spent about $48 million at restaurants during the fourth quarter of 2018.

From January to March of 2019, Sumter County food and beverage stores rang up $104 million in sales. The fourth quarter of 2018 only saw $79 million in sales at the same stores, according to the Florida Department of Revenue.

The Fresh Made Kitchen restaurant group, which includes Bonifay Country Club, Belle Glade Country Club, Chop House at Lake Sumter, Bluefin Grill and Bar, Scooples Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant and other Villages restaurants, doubles or triples it sales during the first quarter of the year, said Jon McNeely, director of operations at Fresh Made Kitchen.

“We see a nice influx of business during that time,” McNeely said.

The atmosphere is more fast-paced with more guests at the restaurants.

There is more live music, and new daily specials and menus are offered to keep everything fresh.

Restaurants serve many guests on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but other times during the last quarter of the year are much slower with people out of town to celebrate the holidays, he said.

To prepare, Fresh Made Kitchen starts hiring more staff about three months in advance to get everyone through training before the busy season.

About 400 to 500 people have been hired to help out with the busy season across all the restaurants in the Fresh Made Kitchen group, and they plan to possibly over hire, McNeely said.

“... We prepare for January, February and March so our guests can have a nice experience here,” he said. “You’ll have a rough time if you’re not ready.”

Staff writer Summer Jarro can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5404, or Senior writer David R. Corder contributed to this report.