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Warm winter chills this business

Higher than normal temperatures up north have taken a toll on the sales of Sno-Rakes.

Published February 4, 2007

[Times photo: Edmund D. Fountain]
Shuttsco employee Rick Dofka practices his golf swing in between making Sno-Rakes at the business off Spring Hill Drive.


No snow up North?

Who cares down here?

These people: Katy Shutts is the owner of Shuttsco off Spring Hill Drive near the Hernando County Jail. Shuttsco makes a snow removal tool called the Sno-Rake.

Shutts keeps the books, and Rick Dofka, her son-in-law, makes the rakes and fills and ships the boxes. And the wacky-warm winter in most parts of the country this year has been mighty unkind to this business here in sunny west-central Florida. Shuttsco, they said, has made about a third of the sales it would do in a regular year.

"The phone's not ringing very much," Dofka said one morning this week.

"It's not ringing at all," Shutts said.

Shuttsco is more than 25 years old. Bud Shutts started all of this. Katy Shutts' late husband could sell anything, and did - cars, cremations, Sno-Rakes. The Sno-Rakes were his. He invented them.

Way back when, when he was selling Pontiacs and Cadillacs in Valparaiso, Ind., he had to go out with his colleagues on the mornings after snows and clean all the cars on the lot. They used brooms, ice scrapers, whatever they could find, and he thought to himself: There's got to be a better way.

Thus cometh the Sno-Rake. It's made out of a long wooden or aluminum handle and orange high-grade polyethylene - which kind of looks and feels like gym-mat material - that is heated and pressed around a shank of wood to make the rectangle-shaped head of the no-scratch rake. It's good for dragging snow off hoods and trunks and hard-to-reach tops of cars.

Bud Shutts died of colon cancer almost 12 years ago. But the company kept going.

Around 2000, Shuttsco had eight employees, Katy Shutts said, and in the winter of 2000-01 they sold some 50,000 rakes.

"We couldn't even keep up," Dofka said.

Now the staff is just Shutts and Dofka and one guy who comes in one day a week to help.

Maybe it's El Nino, maybe it's global warming, and maybe it's all just a fluke, but 2005 was the warmest year in the world on record, and 2006 was the warmest year in the United States on record. There were those back-to-back blizzards last month out West and in the Plains states, but winter in the East hasn't been much of a winter at all - and, Dofka said, about 80 percent of Shuttsco's business in the East.

Warm winters are bad news for ski resorts and snowmobile clubs and places that rent ice fishing huts and kids who like pond hockey and anybody who tries to make some extra bucks driving a snowplow.

Also: ice sculptures.

Last weekend at the annual Winter Carnival in St. Paul, Minn., 40-degree temperatures turned the sculptures into ... what exactly is that thing?

It was 72 degrees in Manhattan on Jan. 9.

It was 68 in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 15.

New York had its latest first snow fall since folks started keeping records in 1878. Daffodils and cherry blossoms in Central Park sure are pretty ... in the spring! In January, though, they're weird at best and disconcerting at worst.

Here at Shuttsco, last year wasn't great, either, but this year is bad.

"It's like anything else," Shutts said. "There are slow times and there are good times. This is one of the slow times."

Dofka has plenty of time to check online for the weather up North.

He talked on the phone not long ago with a store owner in Buffalo, N.Y., who stocked 150 Sno-Rakes. The guy said he's sold ... 12.

In a normal year, Shuttsco makes rakes all spring and summer long, and the busiest selling time is October, November and December.

But it's February now, and lots and lots of Sno-Rakes are not in New England and Buffalo and Cleveland. They're here: stacks and stacks of long wooden handles and boxes and boxes of wood cores and rolls and rolls of orange polyethylene.

"Normally," Dofka said, "this place would be empty by this time."

One morning earlier this week he put a $23.95 Sno-Rake into a box. Then he put two $22.95 Sno-Rakes into another. Then he put labels on both of the boxes.

And that was it. Those were the orders for the day.

"I'm done," he said.

"We're done."

Dofka and Shutts laughed. Kind of.

"Isn't that terrible?" she said.

Material from the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Christian Science Monitor and the Independent of London was used in this report.

[Last modified February 3, 2007, 19:51:48]

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