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For Restaurants, Political Conventions Bring Obstacles and Opportunity

How Cleveland and Philadelphia businesses will navigate next month’s circus

Phones were ringing off the hook at Cleveland's Market Garden Brewery two summers ago. The Republican National Committee had just announced it selected the Midwestern city to host its 2016 political convention. "There was a lot of high-fiving when the news broke," says Sam McNulty, whose ambitious neighborhood restaurant empire includes Market Garden. Within hours, restaurants across the city were fielding calls from people looking to book private parties and full buyouts (which basically turn entire restaurants into private spaces) during convention week. Chefs and restaurant owners, and everyone else in the city, were thrilled at what it could mean.

Reactions were a bit more muted in Philadelphia restaurants six months later, when the Democratic National Committee announced that it would bring its 2016 convention to the City of Brotherly Love. "I thought it was cool," says Greg Vernick, the James Beard-nominated chef and owner of Vernick Food & Drink. The DNC's announcement came at a time when a wave of big events, including a papal visit, were on tap for Philadelphia. Locals were excited about it all; Vernick says it felt like the city (and its restaurant scene) was growing exponentially. "You feel like you're part of something," he says.

This summer’s political conventions will draw more than 50,000 people to Philadelphia and Cleveland.

While this summer's political conventions might be exciting for Cleveland and Philadelphia residents, the opportunity comes with obstacles. These aren't typical events, not even city-engulfing parties like SXSW or Mardi Gras. Political conventions draw in 50,000 people for a full week of events across the host city. They require high levels of security for the presumptive presidential nominees. They bring in major media and corporate sponsors, catapulting each city into the international spotlight for the duration of the convention. And they're sometimes held in cities like Cleveland, which has never hosted an event of this magnitude before.

Though the stakes seem higher for the underrated Cleveland, restaurant owners in both cities have spent the recent months and years preparing for the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions. They're booking buyouts and private parties; grappling with how to juggle the needs of conventioneers alongside their regular customers; and coordinating with convention officials about security perimeters and street closures. But, perhaps most of all, they're figuring out how to make the most of the international attention.

Cleveland's Greenhouse Tavern. Photo: Edsel Little/Flickr

Buyouts vs. Parties vs. Regulars

There's a good reason why Cleveland restaurateurs were psyched when the Republican National Convention was announced. Restaurant spaces, which generally sit in the center of the action, are prime retail during these conventions. They're perfect for delegations and lobbyists planning swanky soirees. But they're also good solutions for media organizations and corporations who are sending employees to the conventions and need temporary headquarters for the week.

Those corporate buyouts solve problems for restaurants, too. James Beard Award-winning chef Jonathon Sawyer's flagship Greenhouse Tavern lies mere blocks from the RNC's chosen site in the heart of downtown Cleveland. It and other restaurants nearby will find themselves within an outer security perimeter come convention time. People will still be able to access those restaurants — they're far enough away that pedestrians won't need convention credentials to get in — but there will be security screenings. Knowing that, Sawyer entered negotiations with Twitter 14 months ago for a buyout of Greenhouse Tavern. Sawyer and his team will vacate the premises — "I'm probably not going to be making them omelets," he jokes — but will collaborate with the social media service on restaurant tours and live events on the site's Periscope app.

While restaurant owners near the Quicken Loans Arena knew right away that they needed to set up full buyouts, many other restaurateurs weren't yet ready to make firm plans. But brokers were. As early as 2014, Cleveland restaurants were besieged with brokers hoping to act as middlemen between private event spaces and those booking parties. Brokers called McNulty's restaurants nonstop for weeks from the moment the convention was announced, asking to reserve tables for large parties years in advance — and for no group in particular. "It must be a cottage industry out there," McNulty says. But the brokers wouldn't put any money down, so he ignored them. Instead, McNulty's restaurants are directly booking parties and registering with the host committees' exhaustive vendor directories.

But with 11 restaurants in various parts of town, Zack Bruell found himself in a pickle. He had originally aimed to get full buyouts for his portfolio, but it didn't work out. Location mattered. Only two of his restaurants — those in downtown Cleveland — were bought out, and he realizes now that the the other nine won't get that kind of play. Fully booking them with parties and special events is a no-go, too. "How do you do 90 parties in five days?" he asks. It's his personal nightmare. He says he'll likely mix parties with regular business. "At this point, we're just trying to roll with the punches."

Location has been less of a concern in Philadelphia, where the main convention events will take place in a part of town home to the city's rabidly beloved sports teams but few businesses. There are some restaurants in the nearby Navy Yard — including Marc Vetri's Lo Spiedo — but most sit far enough outside of the security perimeter not to force a full buyout. Lo Spiedo will remain open to the public during the convention, likely the busiest of its restaurant family.

For Vetri's group, the convention's main challenge will be balance. "Obviously I have to consider what effect this will have on my existing clientele," says Jeff Benjamin, Vetri Family's chief operating officer. "You have to weigh the option of telling guests that you won't be open today, but you still want to be open and welcoming to them." Benjamin is looking to host a mix of private parties and regular guests at the Vetri Family's six restaurants across town.

"How do you do 90 parties in five days? At this point, we’re just trying to roll with the punches."

Benjamin says that the drawn-out Democratic presidential primary means some delegations have held out on booking their convention parties: Before the last set of primaries, there were still plenty of private spaces to snap up at restaurants around town. As a result, brokers weren't a problem in Philadelphia, where there are more restaurants and private event spaces. But with the nomination wrapping up now, Benjamin says that Vetri's restaurant group will be more than happy to accept the bookings that are likely to come in.

But even without private parties, Vetri will be busy. He's been tapped as the exclusive caterer for events in the Navy Yard, thanks to Lo Spiedo's convenient location nearby. And Benjamin expects some of his farther-flung restaurants to do well that week, too. DNC officials have estimated a $350 million economic injection via both direct and indirect spending. So restaurants like Pizzeria Vetri (near some of Philadelphia's best museums) and Amis (in the theater district) will be natural stops for conventioneers exploring the city.

Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland. Photo: Edsel Little/Flickr

How Does Politics Play Into This?

Politics will kink any well-laid track, but it has especially in Cleveland, which leans heavily Democratic. "Certain old-schoolers might wish it was the DNC or the Libertarian Party instead," Sawyer says. He thinks it's a privilege to host a convention regardless of ideology — but, still, when the convention was announced, he decided to find an apolitical organization to buy out Greenhouse Tavern. "It's about having a separation of church and state," he says.

"Certain old-schoolers might wish it was the DNC or the Libertarian Party instead."

And now that the Republican party seems to have chosen its nominee, things have gotten even trickier in Cleveland. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, some corporations that would normally host parties or even buy out entire buildings are reticent to participate in a convention that appears likely to nominate the controversial Trump.

Politics comes into play for the host cities in a more direct sense, too. Ohio and Pennsylvania have archaic blue laws that require restaurants and bars to close early; last call is 2 a.m. in both states. But each convention's main events run until around 11 p.m., after which delegates will likely still want to go out for a late dinner or drinks. Legislatures in both states are taking action to make that possible: Cleveland-area restaurants and bars can apply for waivers that would allow them to serve until 4 a.m., while a bill is winding its way through Pennsylvania's state House to also allow certain establishments to serve booze later. (It's lost on no one that local politicians are only lifting these laws for other politicians.)

Security in Philadelphia during Pope Francis's visit last year. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Lessons Learned

During Pope Francis's visit to Philadelphia last fall, restaurant owners were frustrated: It was a thrill to host the Pope, but street closures (and threats of street closures) crippled the city. "We are the fabric of this city yet it seems as if the people that make this city great were by in large... an afterthought," Vetri wrote on Facebook. Residents stayed home instead of dining out, while the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were more interested in glory than gastronomy. It was a tough reality for restaurateurs who thought the crush of visitors would give them all record-breaking weeks, a mistake that few are making this summer heading into the DNC. "I think we all became much more realistic after the papal visit," Benjamin says.

Keeping expectations in check is also one of the big challenges for Cleveland. City officials are projecting a possible $250 million infusion into its economy that week, but local officials warn it will be spread across many sectors and won't make any individual operator flush. As Emily Lauer, senior director of PR/communications at Destination Cleveland says, "It's an opportunity, not the opportunity that will allow you to retire."

"There are moments in the evolutions of a city where there’s a palpable moment of optimism."

That's why officials in both cities are advising restaurants to welcome regulars during convention week. Last week, to convince locals to stay in town, the Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee unveiled a campaign called "You Don't Want to Miss This." The campaign includes events like a food truck festival, as well as a newly minted #DNCDeals hashtag for restaurants and bars to advertise their convention-related specials.

But on the bright side, restaurants in Philadelphia can expect a more chill logistical situation compared to the papal visit. Anna Adams-Sartou, communications director for the Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee, points out that Pope Francis' outdoor events were the reason for the closure of major arteries. The conventions, by contrast, will be inside an arena with a limited security perimeter. Staff and delivery trucks will still be able to pass through, albeit with a little more scrutiny than usual. Vernick isn't worried; he says he's always been "pleasantly surprised" by turnout during supposedly logistically apocalyptic events.

Cleveland's restaurateurs aren't really worried about security, either. "Maybe I should be, but I'm not," Sawyer says. "If a truck goes missing, we can replace it."

A Hillary Clinton rally in Philadelphia, primary night April 2016. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Try as they might to temper expectations, restaurateurs and local officials have found great meaning in their hosting duties. Both cities are up-and-coming, with the edge to Philadelphia as a newly anointed culinary darling and travel hotspot. So the moment really belongs to Cleveland. "There are moments in the evolutions of a city where there's a palpable moment of optimism," says McNulty, who formerly worked in urban planning. In anticipation, Cleveland has sped up the long-needed renovations to its public spaces and built new hotels. "The fact that the convention came changed everything here," Bruell concurs.

And these restaurant owners are hoping it will change everything for Cleveland's reputation as a dining destination, as well. On July 17, Sawyer will welcome delegates and media with a Greenhouse Tavern kickoff event called Rock the Night in CLE, designed to show off what he calls "New Cleveland." He invited every restaurant in town to participate — from food trucks to classic restaurants — resulting in a massive party with 57 vendors, a surprise musical guest, and fireworks.

Sawyer hopes the DNC will be enchanted by Cleveland's hospitality and bring its convention here in the future. Maybe Top Chef producers will do the same. But mostly he wants his hometown to be recognized as on the same level of culinary prowess as a Nashville or a Portland. And this convention, he says, is a sign that might be happening. "In a relatively quick time," he says, "we've found ourselves being part of a conversation that used to be a goal of ours."

Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.
Editor: Erin DeJesus


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