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Road Work Ahead: Crosstown Barbecue owner says ongoing street improvements have cut his revenue in half

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Historic inflation has thinned the margins for most businesses, and this is particularly true for restaurants.

According to summer 2022 data from the National Restaurant Association, a typical restaurant has a pretax profit margin of about 5%, and 85% of operators said their restaurant was less profitable at the time of the survey than it was before the pandemic.

These are pain points Springfield restaurateur Steve Williams feels, too, and ones he thinks he could contend with ordinarily. But for Williams, owner of Crosstown Barbecue Inc. at 1331 E. Division St., there is another complicating factor: construction.

The city’s $4.6 million Division Street Reconstruction project began in July 2022 and was projected to last a year. Traffic was reduced to a single eastbound lane with a hip-high concrete median separating the driving lane from the work in progress.

There is a break in the median to allow traffic to turn from Division Street onto Rogers Avenue, where customers can enter the Crosstown Barbecue parking lot or pull up to its drive-thru window. Traveling the speed limit, the opening is easy to miss.

Williams said his revenue for the period of July to December 2022 was pretty much cut in half by the road work.

“You gotta, like, want to come here,” he said. “It ain’t gonna be like, oh, man, I smelled the smoke. Then if you really want to come here, you’re still like, man, they got a construction zone.”

Williams said his business pulls in $300,000-$350,000 in a typical year, but he hasn’t had one of those since before the pandemic. He added that because he was impacted by roadwork, the city offered him a $50,000 loan to help with the shortfall, and he appreciated it.

Even so, he said he doesn’t like having to go into debt just to stay in business.

Crosstown’s website states Steve’s father, Jesse Williams, opened Crosstown Barbecue in 1970 and commuted from Kansas City to run it, sleeping on a rollaway bed in its storage room during the week. Steve enrolled in then-Drury College in 1980 and began helping his father out before taking over the business upon his graduation in 1984, when Steve was 20 years old.

To Williams, taking on debt feels inconsistent with the legacy of his family’s dedicated work, but customers aren’t finding him. Williams said he has heard some people think he’s closed down, but he comes every Monday through Friday and smokes meat over green hickory wood in an open pit.

He said he’s thankful for his regulars.

“I’ve got one guy comes in here every Tuesday night with his family – he says, ‘We’ll be here every Tuesday, as long as you’re out here’,” Williams said.

Sooner or later …
The Division Street Reconstruction project is a complete rebuild of the roadway, including new pavement, curb and gutter and stormwater drainage improvements. There will be new sidewalks on the north side, and a multiuse path is already completed on the south side. Gas and water utility renewals are included in the project, according to the city’s web page about the project.

Brett Foster is traffic engineer for Springfield’s Department of Public Works.

“Every situation’s a little different,” he said. “It’s never if your business is going to be impacted by construction; it’s when. They’re all tied into gas, water, electric, roads.”

Foster said city staff always try to communicate with business owners, even as early as the predesign phase. Sometimes they learn a business needs a certain point of access, or there is some other important information that can change the parameters of the project.

“We try to accommodate, if at all possible, to keep the business functioning,” he said.

Sometimes construction can be moved to night or weekends when a business is closed. Projects are occasionally timed to accommodate trash pickup or other services.

“We don’t just go in willy-nilly,” he said. “We try to minimize the impact as much as we can.”

The city is currently also at work on the $1.8 million Jefferson Avenue Streetscape project, which is providing sidewalk and roadway improvements, stormwater infrastructure and lighting between St. Louis and Walnut streets. Estimated as a 90-day project, the work began March 13.

Foster said the project was complicated by a break in a century-old box culvert that failed where gas and water lines went through it. City Utilities of Springfield is working with the city on the project and had to come up with a bid to repair the box, Foster said, adding that the unexpected repairs became the top priority.

There are surprises downtown, Foster said.

“People used to have coal chutes that were buried,” he said. “We’ve found oil tanks buried where people used oil or kerosene to run their equipment. Anytime you’re digging in a city that’s over 150 years old, you’ll find that kind of thing.”

Ethan Edwards, general manager of Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe at 220 E. Walnut St., said business has been affected by the street closure.

“There’s a little downturn in business on the weekends, but really it’s the weekdays having lower sales than before,” he said. “We’re hoping they’re going to finish up and get out of the way.”

He estimated business is down by about 25% on weekdays.

Edwards said he wasn’t notified by the city of the planned closure – “Unless it slipped by me,” he said.

“I saw them moving down Jefferson Street and kind of saw them coming this way, but I didn’t know until I saw our street blocked off,” he added.

What businesses can do
Foster said the city tries to work with business owners to give them ideas of how to promote their business when road access is blocked. He said the work doesn’t all fall back on business owners, but it is their responsibility to promote their offerings.

“Some business owners do a really good job of getting info out, but others don’t,” he said.

Kristen Milam, communication coordinator for the city, said it is important for businesses to take the information provided by the city and make sure their customers have it via their social media channels, websites and other methods of communication.

“This is a great way to reiterate alternate parking options, detours and timelines: ‘We’re still open! Here’s how to get to us,’” Milam said.

She added that the city can often post additional signage to remind passing vehicles that businesses remain accessible and open despite construction work.

Additionally, customers can help spread the word. Williams noted some of his customers post from time to time on social media to ask the community to support Crosstown Barbecue.

“I appreciate that,” he said.

Williams’ best solution was to open a food truck that operates in the summer at the corner of Campbell Avenue and Primrose Street. It’s something he set into motion when he first learned of the construction project that was coming to his neighborhood, and it will open again the second weekend of May.

Nothing beats greeting his customers in his own restaurant, however.

Many of the restaurant’s online reviews on Yelp mention Williams, either by name or position, and refer to his friendliness and energy.

“The cook/possibly owner was greeting everyone and even came out to talk,” wrote Patrick M., of Youngstown, Ohio.

“My favorite part was Steve’s warm welcome and hospitality,” wrote Garrett O., of Austin, Texas. “I watched him greet customer and customer by name, asking them about their friends and families. When the crowd slowed down, he sat down next to me, shook my hand and asked about my trips/travels. … Our conversation alone made the trip worth it for me!”

Williams is still friendly, but he admits to being tired.

“You don’t know, maybe you’re not going to be in business tomorrow or the next day or whatever,” he said. “Yeah, it’s very stressful. When something messes with your livelihood that you’ve been doing for the last 44 years, it’s just – you know. We’re really taking a hit.”

The city has several other roadway projects underway, including the widening of Republic Road, scheduled for March to December; the multiyear Grant Avenue Parkway project, slated for completion in 2024; and the Renew Jordan Creek project, a multiphase project expected to be completed in 2024.

Other projects include the widening of Galloway Street, to be bid this winter with construction starting in spring 2024, and various Commercial Street projects that are ongoing.

Brett Foster: The city tries to minimize the impact the impact of construction however it can.

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