Like the hero of a country song or the moral of a story you learned as a child, Mary Tompkins just won't give up or go away.
Recession or not, she remains.
Tompkins owns Dave’s Restaurant, a neighborhood diner and lounge in the quiet heart of Milton. It’s the kind of a place where friends commiserate with one another, share their daily gossip and exchange the news of the town.
Tompkins and her husband bought Dave’s nearly four years ago, just before the first bad storms of the economy arrived. She since has learned the lessons that bad times teach, and she has been forced to make the kind of decisions that leave scars.
“We’re still hanging in there – barely,” she said recently. “It’s worse than it was. Half of my regulars have been laid off or they’ve had their hours cut, or their unemployment is running out. I do have some customers – they’re in construction – who got their jobs back, but they’re afraid they’re going to be laid off in the fall.”
Tompkins, too, has been forced to lay off a few employees.
She’s not alone.
The state’s hospitality industry has pared 15,000 jobs since April 2008, said Camille St. Onge, communications director of the Washington Restaurant Association.
“Wait staff, cooks, everybody in our sector,” she said.
Still, she said, “People are really feeling more optimistic these days. They essentially have gone through two years of bleak sales, and I suspect many of them have depleted all of their cash reserves while waiting for business to rebound.”
As far as making money, St. Onge said, “The average little guy is making $66-ish a day in profit, before taxes.”
According to the state Department of Revenue, 1,335 restaurants and other food service or drinking establishments were operating in Pierce County in the first quarter of 2010. They conducted taxable sales of $222.5 million.
In the first quarter of 2009, 1,399 establishments did $247.5 million in retail sales; and in the same quarter of 2008, a smaller pool of 1,299 establishments sold $228.5 million.
So at the end of March, there were fewer places in the county than the year before, and they conducted $25 million less business.
Tompkins said she operates on less than the industry average profit margin of 5 percent.
“I haven’t had a paycheck for myself in four years,” she said. “If my husband didn’t work for Comcast, we wouldn’t be open. We would have closed three years ago.”
But she didn’t close.
“I’m just doing it because I’m an idiot, I guess,” she said. “I just love my community. I’ve tried to get a small-business loan, but they’re tough.”
So is she.
“I’ve learned to be tougher,” she said. “I’ve had to cut my employee hours. I’ve had to cut my business hours. I’ve laid off two people. I had 15; now I’m down to 13. One of my cooks is working three jobs in three separate restaurants.”
Four years ago, Dave’s was open daily until 9 p.m. Now, Sunday through Wednesday, the doors close at 3 p.m., after lunch.
“Families don’t go out for dinner during the week, and if they do, they’re going for fast food,” Tompkins said.
“I hear over and over, ‘I wish I could come in more.’ I hear it all the time. ‘I can’t come in every week like I used to.’ They come in when they can. Even if times are bad, they come in when they can.”
The gross income at Dave’s is down by 50 percent from October 2008, when Dave’s was featured in a business section a story in The News Tribune.
“I’ve really noticed it in the lounge,” Tompkins said. “Since taxes went up on beer, the business is really down. Customers want value, they want friendly service, they want a good price.
“I’m paying minimum wage, unemployment taxes, gambling taxes. The food prices have gone up. I have to raise my prices, and business goes down. I couldn’t raise my prices any more than I have. I’d price myself right out of business.”
If her business survives through the recovery, Tompkins said she likely will credit a monthly comedy night, when comedians from around the area – and some national names – come to Dave’s lounge to test their material on the people of Milton.
“The comedians we get, they don’t have to be here,” Tompkins said. “I give them dinner. I pay them the door. They call me ‘The Comedy Mama.’ There’s nothing better than live comedy to make you feel better.”
Within the last two weeks, Mary has torn down one of the walls of the lounge to enlarge the space available for the comedy shows.
“I know I can count on that weekend,” she said. “I tell the comedians that if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here. And that is the honest-to-God truth.”
To survive the recession, she said, “I’m always adjusting. I try to keep one step ahead of it. I do comedy, I do barstool bingo, Texas hold ’em poker. I’m doing whatever I can to hang in there. I’m doing whatever I can.”
ADDING HOURS, CUTTING HAIR
The Cat Eye Salon stands one door down from Dave’s on the edge of the Milton plateau.
It’s where Maile Hudson cuts, curls and colors hair. For her, business is “going good. You just have to readjust. I’m grateful every day that I’ve got a job to come to.”
Her customers, she said, “have definitely downsized. I see people less frequently. People are spreading (their visits) out.”
Sheryl Lipp of Edgewood was in recently for some color highlights.
“I have cut back a little bit,” she said. “I was coming in every five weeks. Now it’s every seven or eight weeks.”
Rather than pay $90 for a haircut and $120 for color, Lipp said, she comes to Cat Eye, and Maile, and pays $80 for a cut and color, “and that includes the tip.”
“I’ve got a family to support,” said Hudson, a single mother of three. “Even though they’re older, they seem to cost more.
“What worries me about the economy is that it hasn’t hit bottom yet. I have a lot of clients who are just getting laid off. The hardest thing – if you have a teenager, they just can’t find jobs.”
Where before the downturn Hudson worked five days a week, now she works six, from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m.
“And I’m not living high on anything,” she said. “The cost of living is ridiculous. Before, I could take a little more time off. I feel like I have to work as hard as I can for as long as I can. When is it going to stop?”
DAVE’S PEOPLE SPEAK
“Times are tough, money is tight and I feel I want to support Mary,” said Therese Graham of Milton.
She was laid off in June after working a year as a waitress at Dave’s.
“I came in as a customer and Mary hired me,“ she said. “Now I’m a customer (again). I always tell people about this place. I know what it’s like. I know this business is struggling hard.”
“The customers I have are the most loyal,” Tompkins said.
One of the factors that draw customers is the Milton Table, a round table in the center of the dining room where customers gather to discuss their world. Gracing the table is a Lazy Susan from which customers take their collective condiments, the hot sauce, jelly, ketchup, salt, pepper and sugar.
“I’m here all the time,” said Trisha Forrest of Milton, having a late breakfast. “The food’s great and there’s good fellowship.”
Mechelle Clough of has been a customer for 10 years.
“It’s in my hometown, there’s always good food and you always run into people you know.”
“It’s because Mary loves everybody,” said another customer from across the Milton Table.
“I come for the people and the food,” said Stacy Maddux of Graham. “This is where everybody comes in and talks about life. The chairs are constantly rotating through.”
“The economy is probably the No. 1 topic of conversation,” Tompkins said. “I try to stay out if it.”