Saturday, February 24, 2018
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Tampa restaurants waiting for nibbles from Republican National Convention

The biggest party Tampa has seen in years still looks a little like the eighth-grade dance: Delegations and visitors on one side of the room, restaurateurs on the other, waiting to be asked.

Come August, the city will host the Republican National Convention. The event already is on the minds of Tampa Bay restaurateurs, who stand to get quite a lot of business from the thousands of delegates and journalists who will attend.

But who, what and where still remains to be seen. Longtime Tampa restaurateur Jason Fernandez is one of the few who already knows.

Fernandez has signed a contract to host a media organization (he declined to say which one) for convention week, Aug. 26-30, in his as-of-yet-unopened Carne Chophouse in Ybor City. The Illinois delegation has committed to using his Hot Willy's for "Chicago culture" catering, and Fernandez said he also has had interest in his Green Iguana and Bernini.

"Every city that has hosted this convention, their convention business has gone up 20 percent for the following five years. That's where the real benefit is," he said.

But ask around Tampa and many of the most established and high-profile restaurants have had nothing more than nibbles thus far: Pane Rustica, Datz, Malio's Prime, Donatello, and convenient downtown spots like Bamboozle Cafe all are still unbooked. And Tampa's most famous restaurant, Bern's Steak House, intends to reserve its dining rooms for individual customers and small groups during convention week. Sister restaurant SideBern's is open to the possibility of booking the entire facility but Bern's is not.

There's a reason for the lack of restaurant commitments overall. According to James Davis, director of communications for the RNC, the number of delegates aren't confirmed until spring. Until that is known, bookings won't be firmed up.

The RNC has booked blocks of hotel rooms in roughly 95 area hotels, 16,000 rooms in total, but, as Davis says, "A lot of the delegates haven't even been elected or nominated yet, and then they go through a confirmation process."

Meanwhile, Davis' office acts, he explained, like a concierge for visiting Republicans, media and guests. Each group separately submits a request for venue, which outlines specific needs: audio/visual equipment, formal versus casual dining, how big or small a space, proximity to the hotel or convention center, price and so forth.

Then, working closely with the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee, the RNC starts putting it all together.

"It's a big puzzle so you need to wait until you have all the pieces," Davis said. "In all likelihood there will be multiple parties wanting the same venue on the same day, so we hold off a long time because we want to get all the requests in first."

Laura Schmalhorst, a chef who works for Panache, a party rentals company in Central and South Florida, said that, "although the RNC has no sense of immediacy," the longer delegations and visiting groups take to commit to a host restaurant, the harder it is for independent restaurants to prepare adequately with staffing and equipment purchases.

Maryann Ferenc, co-owner of Mise en Place, is on the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee, and agrees with Schmalhorst.

"It's all very exciting, we've talked to some great people and heard some exciting names, but we don't know what we're going to be doing yet. We're hoping to know by March. It's a challenge, and you'd rather have more time for the creative aspects," she conceded, but added that being in business 25 years gives restaurants like Mise en Place a bit of wiggle room.

"We have great relationships with our vendors, and there's this feeling that we're all in this together. We can do a lot with shorter notice, and we've been exploring ideas so that we can be ready to act when we determine what we get."

For some local restaurateurs, the week of the convention is just one part of the bounty.

Kim Bailey, owner of Bailey's Restaurant on Davis Islands, doesn't yet know who will fill his restaurant for the convention proper, but he has seen a huge influx of RNC business in advance.

"We've had RNC officials themselves in the restaurant at least once a week since August. Visitors from Montana and Texas and New York, 15 or 20 people at a time. I'm only one restaurant, so I'm sure they've been visiting all over."

Restaurants may have to wait a little longer to find out which delegation or group is interested in occupying their space for the convention, but as Davis said, "Certainly with bringing 50,000 people to town, you can expect an increase in restaurant traffic. They're in town for at least a week, and some come early and some stay late. They've got to eat somewhere."

Times staff writer Rick Danielson contributed to this report. Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.

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