Boom or bust, fireworks stands a rite of summer

By Reece Alvarez

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Like the Christmas tree shops of December and the Halloween costume stores of October, Independence Day has its own mini-economy in the fireworks stands that dot the heavily trafficked areas of northern Fairfield County.

One might think a summer fireworks stand is a cash cow, but the business can range from lucrative to debt-ridden and even dangerous at times.

“Fireworks are pretty profitable,” said Paul Ayoub, owner of Party Pyro LLC fireworks stores in Danbury.

In business in Danbury for five years, Ayoub started his enterprise as an offshoot of the sparkler and fountain firework displays he incorporated into wedding ceremonies organized by his wedding services company, Digital Video Productions in Brookfield.

His two stores stock $15,000 worth of sparklers and ground-based fountains, the only two types of fireworks the Connecticut law permits, and sell more than 100 varieties. “It has a 100 percent markup, so whatever it costs me, I double it,” he said.

Fireworks were a profitable component of his wedding ceremonies. But that ended in the last few years as Connecticut imposed more stringent fireworks laws that required those displaying fireworks for commercial purposes to obtain permits and licensing and complete a multiyear apprenticeship. “It is just the state trying to get their hands on money,” Ayoub said.

At the  TNT Fireworks stand on Federal Road in Danbury, business has been booming for Kyle Nettland, a second-year economics student at Southern Connecticut State University. “Fireworks kind of sell themselves,” he said.

Nettland and his fraternity brothers at Tau Kappa Epsilon run the stand, working 12-hour shifts. The fraternity contracted with TNT Fireworks of Alabama to sell its merchandise for a 20 percent share of the profits. Nettland said his fraternity hopes to reap a profit of $4,000 to $5,000, from which it will make a small donation to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

For fireworks entrepreneurs who assume all the risk, a lot can go wrong in the short selling season that can turn the roadside venture into a money pit.

Bill Starbuck, who for eight years has operated Black Dragon Fireworks stands in the county, has seen that side of the business.

“First year we did it, we lost on paper $13,000 and the second year we lost money as well,” he said. “It is not for the faint of heart. We have near six-figure break-even numbers every year. Most years we don’t know if we are going to be profitable until the Fourth of July.”

Starbuck has opened as many as six tents each Fourth of July season in his family-run busienss in Danbury, Ridgefield and Milford. This year he opened only four tents between Danbury and Ridgefield.

Vendors said they frequently receive requests for illegal fireworks. Starbuck said he gets calls daily for those items.

Ayoub said he would like to sell the highly sought fireworks that Connecticut prohibits, such as Roman candles and firecrackers, and finds the state laws overly strict.

“Smoke bombs — even the little tanks you used to light as a kid and they move a few feet are illegal,” he said in disbelief. “The state of Connecticut is losing so much money on taxes and labor. If we were able to sell the stuff here people wouldn’t be going to New Hampshire and Pennsylvania to get them.”

Starbuck attributed his eight -year run to the fact that each of his tents is run by trusted family members, ranging from stepsons and brothers-in-law to his wife and their two 4-year-old twins.

“They are willing to do the long hours — whatever it takes to make it work — even if it is sitting here until 8 at night to make one sale,” he said. “There are a lot of ups and downs, you have to have the stomach for it. If it wasn’t for the family, it wouldn’t be as enjoyable or probably worthwhile.”

“It is not a very pretty business. You come home covered in gunpowder and filthy from road debris,” Starbuck said.

Security can be an issue. Starbuck’s storage containers and moving truck have been broken into three times, with $2,000 to $3,000 worth of merchandise stolen each time.

“Those years we were actually able to turn a profit but it wasn’t what it could have been,” he said. “It was disheartening.”

Despite the setbacks, Starbuck perennially opens his stands to a customer base he described as consistent and loyal.

“It’s a tough business but fun,” he said. “You’re selling fireworks on Fourth of July. It’s like selling candy to kids.”

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