As South Florida shoppers dart to malls and holiday events, some businesses are gearing up for their busiest month of the year. Our area may not experience winter the way the rest of the country does, but that doesn’t mean that people hold back on decking the halls or celebrating in style.
With Florida’ s economy beginning to strengthen, the Florida Retail Federation, a statewide trade association representing retailers, anticipates a happy holiday season for the state’s many small businesses as well as retailers. Unemployment is at a nine-year low, and 100 million additional shoppers — mostly tourists — are expected. Even better, companies are throwing holiday parties again, and businesses from caterers to liquor stores to ice sculpture suppliers are benefiting.
This year, shoppers saw Christmas decorations early. Retailers began stocking shelves with holiday items in November and even October to increase sales. And business executives report that corporate gift giving has risen, too. As might be expected, that’s a boon time for well-established businesses — for purveyors of chocolates, baked goods, food baskets and liquor — from the small mom-and-pop stores to the chain retailers and big distributors.
South Florida’s Hoffman’s Chocolates, for instance, said orders began coming in November for gift baskets and chocolate platters. Overall, “it looks like this is going to be a better year than last year,” said Randall Vitale, regional vice president for Hoffman’s Chocolates. Hoffman’s has 10 South Florida locations, a factory near Lake Worth and a new food truck, “Sweet Ride.” It already sees sales above projections, and year-over-year sales increases in its locations. “It is too soon to say by what percentage, but our same-store sales are up,” Vitale said.
At Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, “December is a strong month,” communications director Lee Brian Schrager says, as tourists flock to South Florida bars and restaurants and home entertaining increases. The company formerly known as Southern Wine & Spirits, with corporate offices in Miami and Dallas, says it has the largest distribution network in North America.
But the holidays are also when many lesser-known and often-seasonal small businesses thrive.
You may see them at events like the recently held “Barry Special Christmas” at Barry University. The Dec. 3 event transformed the palm tree-lined main campus in Miami Shores into a holiday wonderland. Behind the scenes were a host of seasonal “elves” — including a holiday decor company and a Santa, Mrs. Claus and their helpers. “The holidays are a bonus for these businesses to make extra money — if they take advantage of it,” said Amy Deutch, director of the university’s conference and events services.
Here’s a look at some other South Florida companies that are especially busy around the holidays.
1330 West Ave., Suite 2012
If you visit a large mall this holiday season, you likely will see the handiwork of Miami Christmas Lights. The company’s creations are visible all over South Florida, from the red-bowed trees at Aventura Mall to flashing trees at Gulfstream Park to the guitar-adorned trees at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
Visit Fort Lauderdale Beach and you will see the company’s “sand/snow people” welcoming beachgoers. Relax at Rock Spa & Salon at the Seminole Hardrock Hotel and you will see the company’s Christmas tree, adorned with scented potpourri as well as lights and ornaments. Walk through the lobby of 600 Brickell and you will see a giant 40-foot wreath that Miami Christmas lights designed and erected with a 200-ton crane.
For a residential display, Miami Christmas Lights provides all the Christmas lights, extension cords, timers, materials and other items necessary to complete a holiday light installation.
However, Kurt Stange said his company is best know for its larger lightings and decor that help hotels, malls and cities get more attention — and more business.
“Where are you going to go — to the mall that’s festive with a million light bulbs on the property or one across the street that’s not?” Stange points out. “We want to support our clients, whether it’s increasing foot traffic or getting people to spend more money on their properties.”
Stange considers himself an expert in the field of Christmas holiday decor as well as the new technology being incorporated into displays.
Year-round, Stange’s 17,000-square-foot warehouse houses giant wreaths, yards of garland and Santa sleighs waiting to make their appearances in retail centers and commercial buildings as early as November. To keep displays cutting-edge, Stange travels around the world to add to his collection. This year, he has incorporated more LED twinkle lights and red-green-blue (RGB) lights that use software to change colors in a synchronized way.
“Technology is advancing every other aspect of our lives and that’s consistent with the Christmas business as well,” Stange said. Of course, competition abounds, even in the holiday lights business: “What sets our company apart is that we have a software engineer on staff who specializes in this stuff so it can be more embedded in our décor.”
Stange launched Miami Christmas Lights 10 years ago on the suggestion of his buddy in California who had a similar business. He started putting up holiday lights for homeowners’ associations and has since built a reputation for creativity; many of his clients are municipalities and commercial-building landlords. His team now includes 25 full-time designers, artists, tech gurus and a software programmer; he has a total of 200 workers during the season. Prices for his company’s work typically range from as little as a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars for large-scale displays. The price for a single bulb on a tree, for instance, can run between a few pennies to more than $10, and Stange can use more than one million bulbs for a large display. Being a seasonal business requires the careful management of budgeting and cash flow, Stange has discovered.
One of the biggest challenges is keeping light bulbs lit for all displays — a big part of the allure. Using high-grade light bulbs is the key to his success here, Stange said. “Every light bulb is to our specs. We have invested money in quality.”
The crew at Miami Christmas Lights begins preparing displays the day after Labor Day and dismantles them through the end of January. After that, preparation starts for the next holiday season.
1831 S. Dixie Hwy.
Need a last-minute elf? How about a real-life angel or shepherd? Marla Lisine will come through for you.
Lisine has spent the past 28 years building a database of costumed characters and stocking her warehouse with holiday props. When Barry University needed Santa and Mrs. Claus for its Barry Special Christmas Celebration on Dec. 3, planners turned to Lisine’s Show Biz Productions. The event planning and entertainment company puts on parties and special events year-round.
In December, the phone at the company rings overtime.
“The holidays are a constant frenzy, but it’s our favorite time of the year,” Lisine said. “Each year we think harder about how to come up with interesting holiday party ideas.”
If you spot Lisine out and about these days, it is likely you will see glitter stuck to her face or hair while she’s on a break from gluing the sparkly stuff to a foam snowflake or snowman. “My job is making someone’s fantasy a reality,” she said.
For one event, for instance, her company is providing the illusion of someone levitating who’s surrounded by smoke. Lisine said a popular theme this year at corporate and individual parties is “The Nutcracker.”
“I am pulling in lot of ballerinas, even some with light up tutus,” she said. “They are pretty and enchanting for children and adults. Whatever people want, I wave my magic wand and get it for them.”
Originally, Show Biz Productions started as a casino party company, offering card games and game tables, but after a year, Lisine felt stymied and wanted to expand her offerings. And she learned along the way: The ins and outs of the business include carrying the right liability insurance, warning her employees about drinking and driving and screening her actors.
“I’m very careful about who I send into a client’s home,” she said. “This is serious business. You are only as good as your last event. If you send the wrong person and he says the wrong thing to wrong person, I could lose thousands of dollars worth of business. I have a very healthy neuroticism about it.”
The planning for holiday events begins as early as August, when Lisine meets with customers from Orlando to Key West. Because of her many years in the business, she’s able to tap an extensive resource list when someone calls with a last-minute request for decorations or a Santa Claus, for instance. And she almost always comes through: “In South Florida, people plan things at the last second. That’s why this time of year I never know what’s going to pop up in an hour.” She estimates her company will be a part of 60 events this month.
Lisine said her business has rebounded since the recession. “Overall, people are spending less than prior to 2008, but (they are spending) more this year than last,” she said.
Being an event planner and producer is fun and particularly rewarding during the holidays, she says. “It’s a pleasure to see the end user walk in and see the magic — whether it’s a smile on a kid’s face or a CEO.”
If you visit Heritage Park in Sunny Isles Beach and notice children skating around a synthetic ice rink, you will see Extreme Ice Events’ product in action. In fact, the company is used by many Miami-Dade municipalities to provide ice skating at their holiday events.
After years on the professional figure-skating circuit, and several more years giving lessons, Jason Kane and his wife, Jennifer, saw an opportunity for offering “pop-up” ice skating rinks in South Florida.
So, six years ago, the couple bought three mobile rinks and began renting them, along with helmets and skates.
Kane said that coming from a background as a skater, his knowledge and experience guided his decision to get the best artificial ice on the market. Now, he spends his December darting around South Florida putting up the three rinks (which vary in size from 16 by 32 feet to 40 by 60 feet) and taking them down — not an easy process.
The rinks made with synthetic ice sheets — “polymer infused with silicone and then sprayed with an enhancer for a better glide,” is how Kane describes it — are fitted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Then, the ice panels are treated with a lubricating solution that reduces contact friction and enhances the glide and speed of the skating experience. The rinks require no refrigeration and no water, meaning no electric or water bill. The materials are less expensive to purchase and less costly to customers than a rink made of real ice — and skaters still get the feeling of skating on natural ice.
Kane said business received a big boost when Disney’s “Frozen” became a hit, inspiring young girls to hold ice-skating parties. Outside of the winter months, the company also participates in “Christmas in July” events. Still, about two-thirds of annual revenue come from wintertime rentals, Kane said.
To rent a rink this month, expect to pay between $1,500 and $4,000, depending on the size. Of course, beyond materials, one of the biggest expenses is liability insurance, something Kane has come to realize he can’t operate without.
It’s a tough business, Kane concedes. “My kids don’t get normal Christmas.”
Yet, for the Kanes, there is an upside: “We have a ball watching kids skate and have fun.”
7991 SW 40th St.
A Chinese restaurant may not be the business you first envision when you think about the holidays. But Tropical Chinese, strategically located across from Santa’s Enchanted Forest, makes a bundle in December.
The 33-year-old restaurant in Tropical Park Plaza is owned by the Yu family and has three dining areas. The main dining room has an open glass-encased kitchen and seats up to 120 guests. The full service bar/dining room seats up to 100 guests, and a VIP private/banquet room seats up to 40 guests. The restaurant gets a holiday boost from private parties and catering jobs.
However, it also benefits from a Christmas tradition: Chinese food for anyone without a party to attend or desire to cook. In Miami-Dade, it’s one of the few restaurants open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and one of the busiest.
Mei Hensley, manager for the last seven years, said the restaurant fully staffs up with 55 employees for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to prepare for the crowds. On those days, it usually doubles its typical business, serving about 600 meals, Hensley said. If this year follows previous experiences, Tropical will serve hundreds of its signature Pekin duck — carved and wrapped table-side — along with its wide selection of other items. Hensley said the restaurant usually closes at 10 p.m. on weekends but will stay open until midnight or 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, depending on demand.
The Westchester stalwart, which serves mainly Cantonese with Northern and Southern inspirations, is well-known to local residents and has numerous Zagat awards. Even while Hensley greets the many repeat customers, she talks excitedly about the new ones who find their way in during the holiday season.
“We are expecting a very good year,” she said.
(Part of PakMail Centers of America)
5794 SW 40th St.
As soon as Black Friday arrives, Mary Rodriguez knows chaos is about to ensue. From large corporate packers to small and family-owned pack-and-ship stores, store owners like Rodriguez count on the holiday season for a boom in business.
Since 2003, when they bought Pak Mail Miami, Rodriguez and her husband, Ricardo Rosales, have packed and shipped holiday gifts across the country and around the world from their store in unincorporated Miami-Dade.
By now, Rodriguez knows how to package items — regardless of their size and shape — to get to their destination in the least amount of time for the lowest price. She knows how to package fragile items to survive their journey and how to ship items to clear customs and reach their intended destination. “There are a lot of ins and outs of packing and shipping,” she said.
The holidays mean extended hours for the business, which attracts customers from around the area. During the year, her store opens Monday through Friday until 6:30 p.m. However, during the holidays, it remains open until customers are served — and it opens on Saturdays and Sundays, too.
Rodriguez has found tackling the challenge of shipping large pieces of art or unique estate items can be rewarding, but not more than knowing a carefully packaged holiday gift will bring a smile to its recipient. “I love to do the presents. Everyone is excited to send them,” she said.
For the holidays, Rodriguez encourages her regular customers to start shopping and shipping early. Experienced in logistics, she knows by heart the last possible dates from each carrier to guarantee a Christmas delivery.
She also knows when a package has no chance of a timely arrival: “Some countries close down Customs for the holiday, and if you don’t plan ahead, you are out of luck.”
When customers wait until the last minute to send holiday packages, the store actually makes more money. “I have to upgrade the shipping,” she explained. For the customers’ sake though, she tries to help them avoid higher charges.
When a customer comes with a complicated request, she goes the extra mile: “If I don’t know the answer, I know who to ask.”
During their years as owners, the couple have shipped all kinds of everyday and unusual items — from thousand-dollar Christmas tree ornaments to someone’s ashes.
But they say the holiday bustle only reinforces the store’s mission statement: “We want to become the only place that comes to mind when you need to pack and ship anything anywhere.”
1915 NW 18th St.
Need snow in South Florida?
The Fort Lauderdale Ice Company will deliver it to you, whether you just need a small mound, or enough for a giant snowball fight.
“This has got to be the strangest business around,” said John Rezai, CEO and owner of Fort Lauderdale Ice. “Any other place on the planet would think we’re crazy down here.”
Churches, schools, cities, parks and even hospitals hire Fort Lauderdale Ice (mostly in December) to dump snow on their properties for children to enjoy. “Most kids here haven’t seen snow and some may never see it their whole lives, so this is a way for kids to play in the snow,” Rezai said.
The company sells snow by the ton (from 3 to 40 tons) and a few tons can be made an hour. The snow itself is manufactured as a byproduct of the ice-making process. The company then uses refrigerated ice trucks to deliver the snow and sends a crew to shovel it into mounds or hills — a multi-hour process.
Some customers want enough only to cover a surface area to create a winter setting. In January, Fort Lauderdale Ice will deliver a mound of snow to St. Louis Covenant School in Pinecrest, a repeat customer. A few years ago, Rezai said his company delivered a mound of snow to a dog park for pets to frolic in.
“Santa would rub his eyes if he saw some of the events we have done, but it’s a fun business for us,” Rezai said.
Rezai, a former Wall Street investment banker, bought the 40-year-old Fort Lauderdale Ice Co. with his wife, Jennifer Rezai, about seven years ago. Together they have increased its market share by extending throughout Broward and further into Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties and building on its emergency delivery for businesses that need ice fast.
When it is not making snow, the company delivers ice cubes to restaurants, hotels, caterers and and major events. It also sells dry ice and blocks of ice to carvers.
In terms of revenue, snow represents less than 5 percent of total sales.
However, “it’s the funnest product line we put out,” Rezai said. “Nothing compares to seeing kids frolic around in snow they have never seen before in their lives. … There’s nothing like it. … It’s an enormous joy for us.”
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