ABERDEEN – Richard Donahoo’s pizza shop suffered one major setback after Sept. 11, 2001 — his drivers were banned from Aberdeen Proving Ground without proper identification.
It would have meant big lunch and dinner losses for Donahoo and his West Bel Air Avenue shop if two new hires had not stepped in: retired servicemen with old military identification cards.
“We lost a lot of business because of 9/11,” Donahoo said. “But now we have military drivers. We started preparing.”
Running a small business in wartime is not easy for businesses like Donahoo’s, which count on the proving grounds and its thousands of civilian and military personnel to stay afloat.
While many say the war with Iraq has not caused slowdowns like those after 9/11, a dependence on the base has forced many store owners to find new ways to solve problems or new techniques to lure back customers.
In some cases — and especially when the country is at war — Aberdeen Proving Grounds actually leans on the town’s businesses for support. It’s a partnership that is special to Aberdeen, a military town that takes pride in its soldiers and defines itself by the base.
“We were thinking probably business was going to drop,” said Rose Toscani, whose family has operated Toscani’s restaurant for the past 33 years.
“Some of the customers would ask what would happen . . . would you guys end up closing during that time?” said her daughter-in-law, Ramona.
But the Toscani family has made it though the thick of the war, with business staying fairly steady in recent weeks. One Tuesday, more than a dozen military workers and veterans wandered in for lunch around noon, chatting across tables and joking with the waitresses.
That is not to say all businesses have seen their regular customers lately.
“They were staying home glued to the TV,” said Vickie Keithley, co-owner of Grumpy’s Bar and Grille on Bel Air Avenue. “The first week, there was nothing.”
Bar patrons are slowly coming back, Keithley said, but business is not quite where it used to be.
Like Donahoo, she has felt the effects of heightened security at the base, which has kept many regulars from stopping by for lunch. It just isn’t worth coming into town for a one-hour lunch break, she said, because backups at security checkpoints eat away at the time.
As a result, Keithley has tried to draw more people at night and on weekends.
“We sent out a lot of coupons, where you get one dinner and another half- off,” she said. “It’s like when anything happens. Just gradually, people start going back to their normal lives.”
In the early days of the war, restaurants and bars were not the only businesses hurting. Joe Roedder said he did not see many people interested in buying shoes, and his Howard Street shop was pretty empty of customers.
“I think people had anxiety about, are, we going to be under attack,” said Roedder, whose family owns Aberdeen Shoe and Repair. “Right when the shooting started it was like business dropped off for a couple weeks. We’re still not where we were.”
But Roedder said at least one side of his business has increased — boot repairs. Since the war began, a few hundred soldiers have been deployed from Aberdeen, while new groups from other states have turned up for training, said spokeswoman Pat McClung.
That has left Roedder busier than usual because he has been asked to fix boots on short notice, often days before soldiers are ordered to leave. The family operates a kiosk for quick repairs at the Aberdeen Proving Ground Post Exchange, but Roedder said they have had to send some of the rush orders back to the main shop.
“We’ve had people show up and say, `I’m shipping out tomorrow, I need these right away,'” he said. “We’re seeing different kinds of units. We’re seeing unfamiliar faces.”
Ray Johnson’s Starlight Cleaners on West Bel Air Avenue also has been busier than usual these days, even though some of his regular customers from the base have been deployed.
Dozens of camouflage military uniforms hung from circulating racks in his dry-cleaning shop on a recent afternoon, taking up just as much or more space than civilians’ clothes. But the dry-cleaning demand isn’t what has kept him busiest.
“Basically what’s improved is sewing and alterations,” Johnson said.
Military uniforms need mending and altering, and soldiers need someone to attach nameplates and patches.
Even though Aberdeen Proving Ground provides certain services at the Post Exchange, there are some soldiers who prefer to come to town.
Tom Buzzard, whose barber shop is down the street from Donahoo’s pizza place, said he had 10 soldiers lined up before he opened his door one morning.
Buzzard and a few of his customers guessed that’s because the men like a barber who takes his time and offers a free shave.
Plus, the conversation is better, Buzzard said: “They have barber shops on post, but I talk to them.”