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Shelter Island merchants struggle with higher costs

“I cringe every time I have to raise my prices,” Whale’s Tale operator Erich Inzerillo said.

Similarly, John Sieni, who owns The Tuck Shop, among other Island businesses, said he tries to hold prices and did so last summer, but had to raise them this year.

Both have experienced the same increases in what they are paying for ice cream that is triple what it once was. Mr. Inzerillo said a tub of ice cream is now $46 when it used to be $15. There are also costs of maintaining machinery in good condition.

Those aren’t the only increases the two men have had to absorb. Electricity is high, with Mr. Sieni saying it’s costing him $2,000 a month.

They spoke with one voice, pointing out everything is more expensive — wages, insurance premiums, Workmen’s Compensation, taxes and credit card costs for customers who choose those payments rather than cash.

National trends sometimes take a while to filter down to local businesses, but there might be good news on the way. According to a Reuters report at the end of July, “Annual U.S. inflation rose at its slowest pace in more than two years in June, with underlying price pressures receding … The improving inflation environment was reinforced by other data showing labor costs posted their smallest increase in two years in the second quarter as wage growth cooled. It mirrored reports this month showing the economy shifting into disinflation mode, with consumer prices moderating sharply in June and producer inflation muted.”

But still, a host of merchants find they’re between a rock and hard place when it comes to maintaining their operations on Shelter Island. Mr. Inzerillo said the mini-golf/soda fountain business must make its money for only about 10 weeks in late spring, summer and early fall.

He has operated the business on the Island for 22 years and knows customers are being charged a lot for his ice cream, but he can’t pass all the increases to customers. He and Mr. Sieni have to absorb some of their rising costs, making it difficult for their businesses to earn a profit.

Unlike some East End communities able to extend their seasons, once the visitors and part-timers leave, there’s no real business to be had, Mr. Sieni said.

Merchants are struggling to absorb increased costs of their own — products that have doubled, tripled or more; delivery charges that are high because of the price of gasoline and ferry fares to get their products to the Island; pressures to pay staff, when they can find workers; and anger from some customers who find their prices exorbitant.

“I’m not paying for a third house in Acapulco,” said Darryl Weinstein, owner with his wife Amy of the Eccentric Bagel. Every time he needs to place an order for the food they prepare and sell, he sees his costs escalate. “As a store owner, I feel bad to have to pass along some of the higher costs to customers, but you have to stay afloat,” he said.

It’s a responsibility to pay employees a fair wage, and that’s another one of the higher costs of doing business these days, Mr. Weinstein said.

The struggle started with the onset of COVID. Then it was a supply chain problem to get the ingredients he needs for his shop, and still later, warnings about bird flu. All have taken their tolls.

That doesn’t even include weather as another factor, since many businesses can’t operate year round and have to make their money in spring, summer and early fall, several merchants said.

Sylma Cabrera is a business owner who knows what it’s like to lose everything and have to start again. Ms. Cabrera operated two stores in Puerto Rico that were both wiped out by hurricanes. She picked up the pieces, and with her daughter in tow, moved to the mainland determined to start from scratch.

She wasn’t planning to locate a new store on the Island, but when she saw a rental space on Bridge Street, it was a sign she was in the right place. She opened Pure Soul.

She’s determined to appeal to residents and visitors and so carries fair market items she buys traveling to other countries to find unique items — clothing, gifts, accessories of all kinds. “Pricing is about knowing your sourcing,” Ms. Cabrera said. It means not always expecting what would be a normal markup.

“This business is so tough these days,” Johnny Cavaman at Jack’s Marine said. Struggling to meet shipping costs, electric bills and pay workers a fair wage has forced him to pass some of his rising costs to customers, he said.

Nearby, Lilielle Bucks runs Heiberg Cummings, an international interior design firm. She feels lucky that her business seems to be thriving. “My prices are fair,” she said, stressing the quality the company offers. She’s received no complaints from customers about pricing.

Marika Kaasik at Marika’s Eclectic Boutique is among the few who can say her prices haven’t really changed. It’s the nature of the items she sells, spanning a wide spectrum of prices because her store in the Center sells old and new stock and, it seems, whatever strikes her fancy when she’s buying. Deliveries are more costly to bring goods to the Island, she noted, but still the cost to customers has been able to stay the same.

The same response came from Leslie Dworkin at Dworkin and Daughter, originally an antique store, now with goods old and new. She opened the store on North Ferry Road with her mother 47 years ago. Her approach to business is simple — everyone deserves to be decent to others — and that carries over to pricing. Never intentionally or inadvertently overcharge, Ms. Dworkin said. 

“We had to raise prices,” Maria Serano of Maria’s Kitchen said. Her costs have doubled. The high cost of meat, vegetables and drinks has risen. “I try to do my best,” she said about keeping her prices as reasonable as possible.

At Shelter Island Seafood, an inability to hire enough staff resulted in not being able to operate the restaurant, cutting an important part of the company’s business, said Kathy Bucci, who operates the business with her husband, Ted. Only the market is open this summer. The business is seasonal and prices vary with the demands of the marketplace and availability of different kinds of fish.

Becky Smith at Shelter Island Florist blames fuel charges and delivery costs from truckers who have to pay full ferry fares to bring her the flowers she sells. And the cost of growing flowers has gone up, she said.

Mary Lou Eichhorn at Cornucopia said her costs have doubled, but she also cites the presence of off-Island competition, where some stores are still able to run sales.

“We need sales here to compete,” she said. But still, some price increases have been necessary.

Being a year-round merchant operating seven days a week, Ms. Eichhorn has a buffer. When other stores close in the fall, she keeps going seven days a week throughout the year. When competitors have packed it in for the season, she is still open to serve customers at reasonable prices.