LODI — When the snowmobile trails are open, KD’s Bar and Grill becomes such a busy hub for sledders from all over south-central Wisconsin that it’s not uncommon to see snowmobiles filling up the parking lot, as well as the snow-covered property in front.

KD’s owner Katie Larrabee-Lane sometimes considers those the good old days.

A lack of snow has kept the Columbia County trails closed every day so far this winter and for all but 26 days during the previous three winters. She was excited to learn that KD’s hospitality earned a spot on Snow Goer magazine’s recently published list of the nation’s 101 great snowmobile pit stops. But it’s a useless promotion without snow.

“This is the fourth straight winter where we haven’t had much snow, so we look at any business we receive from snowmobilers as a bonus,” said Larrabee-Lane, 37.

KD’s is surviving because it’s also a destination for dart, pool and card players and has maintained its reputation for great food that draws a steady local business. “It hasn’t been the same as when the trails are open, and this year has been the quietest of them all, but the locals have really helped us out,” she said.

Other businesses with bottom lines affected by the vagaries of winter have incorporated similar survival techniques. But the stress of four straight winters with little snow has forced some businesses to close, some business owners say.

‘We need snow twice a week’

Even with the possibility of snow this weekend, the problem has been longer-term. Since Dec. 1, less than 14 inches of snow has fallen in Madison, or about 12 inches less than normal, according to National Weather Service data. Thus, snowfall totals for the Madison area are on pace to stay below 40 inches for the fourth fourth straight winter, the data shows. The average is about 50 inches.

Some snowplow businesses in Madison have closed because their owners are fed up, and they haven’t told their customers about it, according to Greg Serro, who owns a small snowplowing business.

“It’s the worst winter ever, and I’ve been through more than 40 of them,” Serro said. “It gets worse and worse and worse every year. It’s terrible.”

Higher prices for gas and costs to maintain and rent equipment have hurt businesses like Serro’s. “We need snow twice a week, and we’re not getting that,” he said.

Snowmobile and snowblower dealers are dealing with stagnant inventories because the only buyers are hard-core sledders who don’t mind making the two-hour drive from Madison to find snow, said Engelhart Motorsports owner Robert Hintz. Adding to the dealers’ woes are declining profits from maintenance and repair of equipment because it’s not being used, he said.

Hintz estimated that about 30 percent of the businesses selling snowmobiles in Wisconsin in 2013 have either gone out of business or quit selling them.

“Businesses that sell snowmobiles are shifting their focus,” Hintz said. “Some are stocking fewer brands of snowmobiles. Others are not stocking them at all.”

At trade shows last year, snowmobile manufacturers told dealers that there has never been four straight winters of little or no snowfall, Hintz said. “They said this is going to be the season to get caught up (financially). It didn’t pan out, at least not in this market,” he said.

Diversification helps bottom lines

Sales of snowblowers and snowmobiles at Engelhart have dropped about 15 percent compared to last year, and maintenance and service on snow-related machinery has dropped 30 percent, Hintz said. But he said those dips have been countered by a surge in sales of all-terrain vehicles and side-by-side utility task vehicles — 15 percent increases in each of the past few years.

“I look at that as a win because the (ATVs and side-by-sides) are used 12 months a year. They need more service, more parts,” Hintz said.

Engelhart’s also diversified its snowmobile inventory by adding more long-track sleds that are capable of traveling off trails. They are popular with snowmobilers who travel to deep-powder destinations like the Rocky Mountains and the Upper Peninsula, Hintz said. “I’d say 50 percent of our snowmobile sales are long tracks,” he said.

Engelhart is celebrating its 50th year in business in 2018. Hintz, who bought the company in 2000, believes its diverse product lines has been a key to its survival.

Diversification also has saved Johnson Sales Inc. in Arlington, over the past four winters, co-owner Gregg Johnson said. Johnson Sales, which opened 92 year ago, sells snowmobiles, snowmobiles and ATVs, as well as cars, trucks, lawn & garden and farm equipment.

“Snow business is good only when it snows,” he said.

Charging by the inch

Serro might not keep the snowplow business that he’s had for more than 40 years. One reason: While some businesses survive by charging their customers a flat rate for the year, Serro continues to charge by the inch. He also limits his contracts to 40 customers and can’t add any more even though some businesses are looking to hire.

“I can’t keep anybody working, and the bills keep coming in,” he said. “I’m going to finish this year and see where everything lays before I decide (whether to do it next year).”

At KD’s in Lodi, Larrabee-Lane is approaching her 10th year as owner. Her husband, Brian Lane, is a builder and has remodeled the exterior and interior of the business. The latter is paneled with basswood, which gives the spacious bar a unique, log-cabin ambience. It also has a sports-bar feel with plenty of big-screen TVs, pool tables and a big bar. He built an outside bar that makes it a great hangout during the summer and for snowmobilers on warm, winter days.

But Larrabee-Lane’s personal touch is the key to its success. She offers free food for customers during Packers games and other athletic events. She also makes warm and cold beverages and plenty of food available for snowmobilers. Snowmobilers “come hungry and leave happy!” according to Snow Goer magazine’s snippet on KD’s in its list of top stops.

Wisconsin had 23 bars or restaurants that made the list, but KD’s was the only one that wasn’t in northern Wisconsin. The social element makes the difference, Larrabee-Lane said.

“I want it to snow so I can see all the people I don’t see when it doesn’t snow,” she said. “This is a destination for snowmobilers, and there are people I haven’t seen in more than three years. I want to see them again. So, please, let it snow.”

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.