Almost everyone in the Philadelphia restaurant industry has a pope story. Very few of those stories end well.
Francis Cratil Cretarola, co-owner of Brigantessa and Le Virtu on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, said business was so slow the Saturday night the Pope Francis was in town that he and three other local restaurateurs abandoned their shops and gathered along the avenue at 9 p.m. to sip beers and crack wise.
“There was a lot of whistling-past-the-graveyard kind of laughter and joking about it,” said Cretarola.
Not so funny? The fact that business was down 66 percent over the course of that weekend and the week leading up to it, he said.
A pre-papal survey of restaurant owners by Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovtiz found that 50 percent expected increased revenue during the pontiff’s visit. A list curated by VisitPhilly.com identified an astounding 49 local food and drink specials targeted for the pope’s visit.
When the controller’s office checked in after Pope Francis left the city, 69 percent said business was “significantly down” from the prior September and 55 percent said they were “significantly behind” yearly projections.
In the hyper-competitive restaurant game, one bad weekend can ruin your year. When an entire city of restaurants has a bad weekend — after expecting a bonanza — it can leave a bitter taste.
“We had been told by the city that it was gonna be a million people in town and be ready for them,” said Ben Fileccia, president of the Philadelphia Hotel and Restaurant Alliance. “And they had really gotten our hopes up that that was not just gonna be a normal week, but it was just gonna be an incredible week.”
When restaurants lashed out afterward, Mayor Michael Nutter poured gourmet sea salt in the wound by saying the papal visit was never intended as a boon for local eateries. He told a Philadelphia Magazine reporter that papal pilgrims weren’t the type to go for “pecan-crusted salmon with basmati rice.”
That pretext creates an interesting scenario headed into the Democratic National Convention. As another big-ticket event barrels toward Philadelphia, restaurateurs are caught between open embrace and feelings of lingering skepticism.
“I think people are cautiously optimistic,” said Cretarola.
Part of the cautious optimism stems from a sense that the city had handled the runup to the DNC better than it did the papal lead-in. Fileccia praised Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration for meeting regularly with restaurant groups and keeping expectations reasonable.
“We know that there’s 40,000 to 50,000 folks gonna be in town that week, which is a great amount of people. It’s the same amount of people as a pre-season Eagles game,” said Fileccia. “So we’re gonna be doing our regular business, plus a little bit extra.”
Kenney also launched an outreach campaign to keep Philadelphians from fleeing the city. Many restaurateurs accuse the Nutter administration of talking too tough before the pope’s visit and scaring locals away.
There are also inherent elements of the DNC that augur better for local business.
For starters, late July is a slow season for Philly restaurants — so even a little boost could play big. Plus, the event is smaller and centered on the southern fringe of the city, so it won’t prompt major road closures.
Politicos vs. pilgrims
Perhaps most importantly, the politicos crashing Philadelphia during the DNC profile as big spenders. Delegates and lobbyists will be looking to spend money, the logic goes, unlike papal pilgrims who arrived with a cost-conscious disposition.
The city doesn’t have an official economic impact projection for the DNC. A Villanova professor pegged the benefit at $130 million. The DNC host committee expects a $250 million-$300 million boost to the region’s economy. That would be about in line with the 2008 DNC convention, which injected $266 million into Denver’s economy, according to a post-convention report. About $19 million of that money went to food and drink.
Some restaurateurs worry the convention hours — 5 to 11 each night — will leave eateries barren during the dinner rush.
“I was here during the Republican convention when there was also a lot of hype, and when I look back at my records from 2000 the month of July was no different than any other July in the 20 years of being open,” said Ellen Yin, who co-owns a quartet of Philadelphia restaurants, including Fork in Old City.
She has, however, been able to rent out Fork for a trio of prepaid breakfasts. Places around town are banking on “buy outs” from delegations and lobbyists to juice their bottom lines — and provide some stability in case walkup crowds aren’t as robust as expected.
Judy Moore, associate vice president of sales and marketing with the Garces Group, said her company is either catering or hosting 76 events over the course of the DNC. Two Garces locations — Volver and Garces Trading Company — have been rented out over the entire week. The group projects revenue of more than $1 million.
“Politicians like to party,” she said with a chuckle.
From a proud past toward a hopeful future
Few restaurants have embraced the partylike atmosphere of the DNC like McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Center City, which opened in 1856, the same year Philadelphia hosted the first ever Republican National Convention. Co-owner Chris Mullins Jr. has plastered his pub with bunting, pennants, and all manner of political paraphernalia.
The 2000 RNC, he said, was a blast for him and his employees, but not much of a financial boost. And he admits, the pope’s visit was a dud businesswise.
But he hopes the post-pope hangover doesn’t keep Philadelphia restaurants from embracing the DNC.
“I hope that the pope experience didn’t negatively affect people’s planning,” said Mullins Jr. “If we come off like we don’t care, then in the future, events like this may think twice. Do we wanna come to Philadelphia if [they] are not gonna roll out the red carpet?”
Mullins Jr. believes the DNC will deliver more dollars than the RNC because Center City is further along now in its hospitality-heavy transformation than Cleveland.
“Center City is much more alive, much more electric,” he said. “I think now people are more interested in seeing the fun side of Philadelphia, they’re not scared to venture out of their hotels.”
Mullins expects a 20-30 percent bump during the DNC. But the real value of the convention, he said, won’t be measured in one week’s worth of receipts.
“It’s events like that that will help Philadelphia over the next 10 to 15 years,” he said. “It improves our image.”
Of course, when you’ve been around for 160 years, you can afford to take the long view.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Garces group projected to make over a $1 million in profit during the DNC. The group projected over $1 million in revenue. This story has been updated to reflect that change.