Keeping it light

Tuthill’s Balloon Emporium on Hennepin adapts to helium shortage

The scissors in Meg Tuthill’s mouth barely muffled her voice as she recommended balloon colors to a customer from behind the counter.

It was a busy Friday at Tuthill’s Balloon Emporium at 2455 Hennepin Ave. S., and Meg didn’t have time to put down the balloons, scissors and ribbon she was juggling next to the helium tank. She and husband Dennis Tuthill, daughter Carmen Tuthill and employee Anne Pelton were filling, tying, bundling and wrapping about 1,200 balloons for the Minneapolis Public Schools Information Fair at the Downtown Radisson Hotel. Balloons floated so thick in the cozy little shop that walking through it became a challenge.

Over the squeak of rubber, whoosh of helium and occasional bang of a popping balloon, Meg said the store might not turn a profit from the massive order. A nationwide helium shortage recently hiked the price she pays for the gas by nearly a third, she said. The school system ordered its balloons before she upped her own prices, but she doesn’t mind.

“I can’t think of a better place to make a donation,” Meg said. “That’s how I see it.”

The Tuthills see the jump in helium prices as simply the most recent change to their constantly evolving business, which they have operated blocks from their home in Lowry Hill East for 27 years. The store started out as an ice cream parlor and, over time, it has become a Southwest hot spot for balloons, party goods and friendly conversation.

Birth of a balloon shop

Meg, 57, and Dennis, 62, first featured balloons in their store during a St. Patrick’s Day celebration back in 1981. Meg, who is quite proud of her Irish heritage, gave away green balloons for a week. Customers soon began asking for more colors and, to the Tuthill’s surprise, were willing to pay for a piece of air-filled latex.

Balloons were quickly added to the store’s inventory, and when ice cream sales started to slide about 15 years ago, they became the focus. Every now and then, the Tuthills will get an old customer who comes in looking for ice cream, Dennis said, but all that equipment is long gone.

Today, the shop is stocked with a variety of balloon colors and sizes, helium tanks for rent and party supplies, including several piñatas. Large-scale balloon orders make up the bulk of the Tuthill’s business. The most sizeable orders come from corporations and the Jewish and gay communities, Meg said.

“That’s what really keeps us alive,” she said.

The Tuthills often deliver balloon orders and work with customers on-site, creating arrangements and balloon sculptures. Meg and Dennis have decorated personal parties, Target Center events and just about everything in between.

Walk-ins are still common at the balloon emporium, but they aren’t as frequent as they used to be, Meg said. Many area residents drop in every now and then to pick up a few party goods or to chat. Meg raves about her customers.

“No matter what you do for a living, if you go into it expecting the best from people, you will get it,” she said. “We truly do deal with the best people.”

Shaun Kluza, a blue-haired customer whom the Tuthills call “boy” stopped in recently to pick up some blue party pieces for his 29th birthday party. He lives in Lowry Hill East and said he finds things at Tuthill’s that he can’t anywhere else, plus he enjoys catching up with Meg and Dennis, from whom he ordered balloons when he worked at The Saloon on Hennepin Avenue.

The atmosphere in Tuthill’s is as light as the air in the balloons. Pelton, who has worked at the store for about four months, said she’s never had such a cheery a job.

“Everyone who comes in here is always happy because they’re getting ready for a party,” Pelton said. “It’s fun seeing the little kids come in here, and they just light up.”

Meg and Dennis both work long hours, but they often have employees on hand. Each of their three children – two sons and a daughter who are now all adults – has worked at the store at one time or another. Daughter Carmen is still working there after 20 years of service, but she has no intention of taking over the business.

Meg said the business probably won’t stay in the family, but she and Dennis will run it for as long as they can. Retirement is not an option.

“It’s up to the community,” Meg said. “As long as they continue to support us, we’ll be here.”

Still evolving

Supportive customers will find helium to be a bit more expensive at Tuthill’s these days.

“Birthday parties aren’t going to be as cheap as they used to be,” Meg said.

The recent helium shortage, caused by routine maintenance of a large plant in Amarillo, Texas, and problems at two helium plants overseas, has pushed prices of the gas higher than the Tuthills have ever seen.

In one day, the cost of helium jumped 30 percent, Meg said. On any given day, the Tuthills have five or six 292-cubic foot tanks on hand. Each tank contains enough helium to fill 600 11-inch balloons.

Meg declined to comment on the cost per cubic foot she pays for helium, but she said she increased the price of renting a tank that can blow 30 balloons from $20 to $25 and upped the cost of the store’s largest rental tank, which can blow 270 balloons, from $125 to $156.25. The increases are significantly less than the new cost of helium, she said.

“We can’t jump 30 percent in pricing,” Meg said. “We would be out of business.”

The helium shortage is hitting the balloon industry hardest, said Leslie Theiss, who oversees the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s National Helium Reserve complex in Amarillo. Suppliers are probably focused on getting the gas to vendors who use it for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs), welding and other more crucial purposes, she said.

The Amarillo reserve supplies 42 percent of the nation’s helium and 35 percent worldwide. It closed Nov. 8 for maintenance and was scheduled to be fully operational by Thanksgiving, Theiss said. When the complex is operational again, helium prices should go down some, she said.

The Tuthills don’t expect the reduction to catch up with them for a while, but they aren’t too concerned. They aren’t stocking up on helium or taking any other precautions other than their price increases. Besides, New Year’s Eve is on the way and people don’t want helium for balloon drops, Meg said.

“In the big scheme of things, this is nothing,” Meg said. “You’ve just got to keep things in perspective.”

 

Jake Weyer can be reached at 436-4367 and [email protected].