Boulder’s University Hill neighborhood has a reputation for being the students’ part of the city. After all, it’s located directly across Broadway from the University of Colorado Boulder, and the Hill’s home to many of the bars frequented by students. But what happens to business when they leave for the summer? Do Hill businesses hit tough times, and how hard is it to survive without students?
Mark Heinritz, a co-owner of The Sink, says that he notices more of a “shift” in business rather than a drop-off. He says year-round Boulder residents do fill in some of the space that students leave behind.
“Summer definitely changes over to more of a tourist and university visitor demographic, along with Boulder residents,” Heinritz says. “There are all of these misconceptions about the Hill, like you can never get a parking space. They come when the students are gone. We see a lot of different folks that way.”
Heinritz added that the times when The Sink is busy change.
“Lunches get busier than they are in the school year,” Heinritz says. “We are fortunate overall that it is pretty steady in a way. The reasons people are walking through the door change.”
The Sink, though, is one of the more historic restaurants in Boulder, especially after an appearance on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Most other restaurants on the Hill lack the crossover appeal that The Sink has, and some say they do feel a hit to their business in the summer months.
“The biggest dropoff happens in June when kids go back home,” says Sean Ryan, general manager at Half Fast Subs.
Half Fast Subs generally does not see as many non-students during the school year, Ryan says. Like Heinritz, Ryan says that people usually come in when the students aren’t around.
“During the school year, [Boulder residents] know we get crazy, crazy busy,” Ryan says. “I think that they know [summer] is a good time to come in. It is a little slower, so it is not as wild in the restaurant.”
Heinritz suggests that the shifts in business patterns are more about seasonal changes than population changes.
“Summer and winter are a big change in dynamic,” Heinritz says. “People are out and happy. They are active this time of year, compared to February, when everyone is hunkered down.”
But besides Heinritz’s point, some numbers from CU illustrate just how much of a dropoff the businesses face. During the 2013 spring semester, CU-Boulder reported almost 28,000 degree-seeking students. There are currently only about 8,000 enrolled for the current summer semester.
“It’s definitely quieter on the Hill in the summer-not as many people around,” Heinritz says. “The school year is really event-driven: football games and graduation. You don’t have too many things going on like that this time of the year.”
In a meeting of various Boulder business owners last month, Heinritz cited CU football games as a draw for customers on the Hill. He suggested at the June 28 meeting that the poor performance of CU’s team last season could have had a negative impact on the Hill’s business, as fewer people attended the games or stayed until the end.
Ryan says that the bar scene at night helps Half Fast along, even though the sandwich shop does generally staff fewer people, on shorter shifts, in the summer than during the spring and fall.
“Our lunches stay pretty similar. People come over from the university-they work across the street,” Ryan says.
“But once lunch passes by, we get the same crowd at night-the younger drinking crowd. On weekends we get more families than we would during school.”
Heinritz also emphasizes the variety of customers The Sink relies on in the summer.
“The fun thing about The Sink is that it is so dynamic,” he says. “There are so many different types of people that come through here.
“I guess this time of year we are working with people who know The Sink and people who don’t. I guess we work with people who do know The Sink during the year. We have all of the people who know The Sink coming back during school for all of the [events],” like football games and graduation, he adds.
Though The Sink and Half Fast Subs are two of the Hill’s more well-established restaurants, not all of the businesses there have the same advantage.
Boss Lady Pizza, which opened its doors just before the spring 2013 semester, has been having a bit more of a struggle. Whitney Gleave, who co-owns the store with her husband, has seen the size of her staff go from 15-20 to eight.
“We could run the store with just the four managers and two people to fill in the gaps,” Gleave says.
She says she has had to cut the hours from all six of her delivery drivers.
“It’s worse than I anticipated,” Gleave says about the summer season, “but we are going to make it.”
Because Boss Lady Pizza opened during CU’s winter break, which stretches all the way until mid-January, Gleave says she and her husband got a bit of a taste of what summer would be like, but they might not have been ready for it to come around.
“I didn’t think it would happen so quickly,” Gleave says.
Gleave says that although the student traffic has been very small and continues to dwindle, she, like Heinritz and Ryan, has noticed that more of the residential demographics are coming out to try her restaurant.
“It’s nice that we got community members that we didn’t get during the school year,” Gleave says.
Another new business on the Hill is finding the summer equally difficult. Peter Howser, owner of the new restaurant The Corner at 13th Street and College Avenue — not to be confused with The Corner Bar downtown — said at the June 28 Hill business owners’ meeting that he was struggling through the summer. Howser previously owned the Del Taco franchise at the same location, and acknowledged that summer months can be deadly for a business.
“I get business seven months a year,” Howser said at the meeting. “I pay bills 12 months a year.”
Despite her newly found fans, though, Boss Lady’s Gleave still cannot wait until the students come back for the fall.
“We rely on the students during the year,” Gleave says.
Steve Weishampel contributed to the reporting of this story.