Noe Valley Voice March 2001

Merchants Hyperventilating Over PG&E Bills

By Heidi Anderson

Many Noe Valley merchants had to take a deep breath when they opened their PG&E bills last month.

Those who own laundromats and restaurants might even have had to lie down for a minute. Their businesses are among the highest users of energy, and most were confronted in January with gas and electricity bills that were double what they were in December.

Eva Skoufis, who manages the Coin-Op Laundry at Church and Day streets, reports that her January bill soared to more than $3,000.

Skoufis says she had no choice but to raise washing machine prices from $1.50 to $1.75. A quarter once could buy 10 minutes in the dryer. Now it's been shaved down to eight.

"My customers are being nice about it," Skoufis says, "but they may start going to another laundry that hasn't raised the prices yet."

She's also noticed that her patrons are overloading their washers to save a quarter or two. "Some of their clothes aren't even getting properly wet!" she laments.

Skoufis isn't shy, and she's been working the phones to get help for her problem. Calls to her state assemblyman, her state senator, Gov. Gray Davis, and of course, Pacific Gas and Electric have been less than fruitful. "I got a letter from my assemblyman saying thanks for my concern. And from PG&E I got a recording about how my business should expect a doubled or tripled bill and that I could arrange to make installments on my bill if I qualify."

Skoufis says she's not only worried about her own business but about other merchants' ability to keep their heads above water. "It looks to me, in the news, like it's becoming just a political thing. But to us down here, it's scary."

Restaurants Forced to Raise Prices

At Savor Restaurant on 24th Street, Maher Fakhouri is not so much scared as hopping mad.

"This is absurd!" said Fakhouri, after opening a PG&E bill twice the size of the last one. "What can we do? I see only two things to do, and both are very difficult."

The first thing, he says, is to change the menu a bit and raise prices by 10 to 15 cents per item. The second is to let staff go, to compensate for the higher bills he now has to pay.

"We've always been in the habit of conserving, turning the gas on to make the omelet, turning it off when we're done, things like that," he says, "so we don't know what else to do, and I feel like we're hitting a brick wall."

Fakhouri says he is reluctant to spread the costs to his customers, but he would be heartsick if he had to lay anybody off. "We have a good team here. I hope a slight price increase on the menu will allow us to keep everyone working."

However, when asked for his title at Savor, he responds: "Owner, general manager, and I guess soon, dishwasher!"

Down the block at Noe Valley Pizza Restaurant (24th and Sanchez), Manager Adam Bousiakis sighs when asked about the PG&E bill. He says he's pretty sure it has increased threefold.

To reduce costs, "I am decreasing the oven temperature about 40 percent during the less busy hours [in the afternoons]," says Bousiakis, and cranking it up for the dinner hour.

"I have also bought some new lower-watt light bulbs and some dimmer switches, but I really don't want to change the menu." Still, he admits the restaurant may eventually be forced to raise prices.

When he learns that other restaurants are being asked how they're coping with the crisis, he grows interested. "Really?" he asks eagerly. "What are they doing?"

Terra Mia Packs a Very Hot Oven

Christine Simmons, who owns Terra Mia, the pottery studio that recently moved from 24th Street to 1314 Castro Street, doesn't have the option of turning her oven down. The kiln she uses to heat paint on pottery to a glassy, waterproof glaze has to reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for the glaze to set properly. And it takes 24 hours to get to that temperature.

The only way to economize is by loading the kiln with more pottery before turning it on. "For a more efficient firing, we wait a little longer for more pieces to fill the oven." But, says Simmons, this creates problems at the other end. The oven, packed with hot pottery, takes longer to cool down to the point where the pieces can be handled. Customers now have to wait longer to retrieve their works of art.

To save a few more dollars, Simmons has begun waiting until after 7 p.m. to fire up the kiln. (PG&E charges her a lower rate after 6 p.m.) Simmons hasn't seen a difference in her bill yet, but she's crossing her fingers.

Terra Mia's bill, even on a busy-kiln month, runs about $500. Simmons attributes this to some of the techniques she's using. But she also gets a little help from Mother Nature--her new location on Castro has skylights. Not only does the extra sun cut down the need for electrical lighting, but it also helps her customer-artists see and judge their work. M