Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Features and More

RNC may be a mixed bag for Tampa Bay restaurants

"There will be winners and there will be losers." Bill Morrissey of Morrissey Hospitality Cos. in St. Paul, Minn., is not talking about candidates, but rather how local businesses might fare during the 2012 Republican National Convention this August in Tampa. He knows a thing or two about collateral successes and failures at the Republican Party's biggest shindig. His hotels and restaurants were at the epicenter of the Twin Cities convention in 2008, where many reaped handsome payoffs. Others, not so much.

From the 73 official Tampa Bay RNC venues being marketed to delegations, media and other groups, to the hundreds of other restaurants, bars and cafes hoping to service the big influx of visitors, businesses aren't quite sure what the convention will mean for their bottom line. Twin Cities restaurateurs have lots of advice about what worked — and what didn't — during that frenetic week in August 2008.

Phil Roberts, founder and CEO of the Parasole Restaurant group, which includes the fabled Manny's steakhouse, says the most important thing for restaurants is to maintain reasonable expectations.

"Restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul had high expectations of the RNC. But it ended up being kind of like kissing your sister. I would caution restaurateurs not to get too juiced."

Out of 14 different venues, only two of Parasole's restaurants saw a bump in revenue. Roberts estimates that Manny's was up $200,000 and Chino Latino was up $100,000 by convention's end.

The key to success, according to Roberts and other Twin Cities restaurateurs?

Location. Too close to the convention center and the security perimeter choked off business. It was restaurants adjacent to hotel-heavy areas, especially in sister city Minneapolis, that reaped the benefits of the influx of visitors.

According to Rick Nelson, restaurant critic and food writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, security at the Xcel Energy Center was "so tight that it discouraged people to explore beyond it." He says the convention center was surrounded by barbed wire and 8-foot fences and that delegates and media bussed in from Minneapolis hotels didn't venture out on foot from the convention center.

Morrissey confirms this, saying, "Our St. Paul Hotel was the second closest hotel to the convention. The hotel rooms did well, but our experience was that from a restaurant perspective it was very disappointing. Delegates were in the convention or being entertained at parties — they were being wined and dined and didn't have the time or the need to go out to restaurants. And our regular clientele couldn't overcome the security issues, with police officers on every corner and people with guns. Curiosity seekers wanted to see what was going on, but they were just sightseeing, not spending."

Lucky and smart

Russell Klein, chef/owner of the French brasserie Meritage, was one of the lucky ones on the St. Paul side, located two blocks from the convention center.

"I know a lot of other businesses, especially restaurants, who were really unhappy with the security setup that prevented people from getting to their businesses. And local people stayed as far away as they could. But we had a great experience."

Russell did his homework, calling restaurants in previous convention cities like Boston and Denver to ask what had worked best in that election cycle.

"They said book every private event that you can because there's no a la carte business. We booked CPAC, Congressional Quarterly and a few other groups. We basically had two or three groups booked every day. To Tampa Bay restaurants, I'd say be really aggressive about booking events and being a destination. If you're not, it's a real crap shoot."

Morrissey and Roberts agree, suggesting restaurants pre-sell as much as possible to groups, going so far as to demand deposits and to collaborate with other area restaurants to establish "best practices" about no-shows or acts of god. Morrissey reminds us that nonessential events on the first day of the 2008 convention were cancelled due to the expected landfall of Hurricane Gustav.

"No one wanted to be seen eating and drinking while the country was going through a crisis."

Fish or fowl

Location aside, we asked RNC veterans if there are certain cuisines or kinds of restaurants that are likely to do well.

"Tourists and conventioneers, they go to places they are familiar with," said Nelson, the food writer. "It's not like the James Beard Foundation came here," referring to the country's premiere culinary organization.

He says chain restaurants, steak houses and late-night bars near hotels captured the dollars of conventioneers.

Chef Klein worked on political campaigns pre-restaurant. He says, "Democrats and Republicans eat the same way: a lot of steaks. Bern's will kill it that week."

So, not too close to the convention center; near hotels; steaks and chains? Sounds like, beyond Bern's, restaurants along Tampa's Boy Scout Boulevard, at International Plaza and at WestShore Plaza may "kill it" during the RNC, to use Klein's colloquialism.

Klein adds, though, that even restaurants that don't see convention throngs may benefit from the RNC.

"In the Twin Cities, it's had a positive long-term benefit and improved the national image of St. Paul. It brought great energy to the city. And it was a lot of fun to talk to Tom Delay over my bar."

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.

Comments
My husband has been on the ketogenic diet for three months. Here’s how he does it.

My husband has been on the ketogenic diet for three months. Here’s how he does it.

This week I wrote about something with which I have become very familiar: the ketogenic diet. If you’re like, "Huh?" you are where I was three months ago, before my husband, Phil, embarked on the weight-loss regimen. The keto diet is a high-fat, low-...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Jobsite’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ should be more gripping than it is

Jobsite’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ should be more gripping than it is

TAMPA — The virtues of Dancing at Lughnasa, with which Jobsite Theater closes its season, are many. This drama by the celebrated Brian Friel opened in 1990 to much acclaim. It captures a family’s joys and sadnesses, and the quickness with which one s...
Updated: 9 hours ago
A perfect pick for dessert

A perfect pick for dessert

America’s Test KitchenIt might seem impossible to improve on a perfect peach, but we decided to try. We wanted a simple, warm dessert that amplified the peaches’ flavor. To achieve tender, flavorful peaches with a lightly sweet glaze, we began by tos...
Published: 06/19/18
Everything you need to know about marinating meat

Everything you need to know about marinating meat

For a lot of home cooks, marinating meat is almost as automatic as cooking the meat itself. Douse the meat in some kind of flavored liquid, pop it in the refrigerator overnight and cook it the next day.Seems straightforward enough, but there are reas...
Published: 06/19/18
Restaurant review: Chile Verde is serving up very solid tacos in an unlikely spot

Restaurant review: Chile Verde is serving up very solid tacos in an unlikely spot

ST. PETERSBURGThere are a lot of decommissioned gas stations across the country. Some have been reinvented, cleverly made over as upscale restaurants. There’s Big Star in Chicago, Elaia & Olio in St. Louis, Red Truck Bakery in Warrenton, Va., even Bi...
Published: 06/18/18
Taste test: Chocolate chip cookies

Taste test: Chocolate chip cookies

When we started seeing ads for Nestle Toll House cookies already baked and prepackaged, I knew it was time for our tasters to get involved. They are cookie lovers, and one even has his own cookiemaking business. We found the Nestle brand and had hope...
Published: 06/18/18
Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — In his vision for this weekend, Connor Coyle is standing in the ring at the Coliseum, and the referee is raising his gloved fist.He’s got a National Boxing Association middleweight championship belt around his waist, the first of sev...
Published: 06/15/18
With over 40 years between the birth of my two daughters, I am two different fathers

With over 40 years between the birth of my two daughters, I am two different fathers

Still shaken by Bobby Kennedy’s assassination six days earlier, I sat in the hospital waiting room mindlessly thumbing through a May 1968 Rolling Stone while my wife, Fran, gave birth to our daughter Elle. As was customary, when everyone had been fre...
Published: 06/15/18
Puerto Vallarta is a dreamy Mexican getaway within reach

Puerto Vallarta is a dreamy Mexican getaway within reach

LOREN ELLIOTT • Times CorrespondentPUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICOThe third-floor balcony attached to our rented apartment served as a peaceful refuge above Puerto Vallarta’s bustling central district streets. Below us, taxis honked, people crowded bus ...
Published: 06/15/18
How Tampa's Cole and Marmalade got famous, beat cancer and helped save more cats

How Tampa's Cole and Marmalade got famous, beat cancer and helped save more cats

Here's how to make your cat famous on the internet, according to the owners of some famous felines.
Published: 06/15/18