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Republican convention more bust than boom for downtown Tampa restaurants

Security fencing runs down Brorein Street beneath the closed Lee Roy Selmon Expressway on Tuesday. Street closings have hurt restaurants.
Security fencing runs down Brorein Street beneath the closed Lee Roy Selmon Expressway on Tuesday. Street closings have hurt restaurants.
Published Aug. 29, 2012

TAMPA

David Cullen figured his Quiznos restaurant downtown would be jammed during the Republican National Convention. He packed his freezer with extra food. He brought in more workers. Then the fence went up. Police erected the security barrier around his building adjacent to the police headquarters. To get to his restaurant, customers had to walk to the opposite end of the block and ask a police officer for access through a gate. No one did. By 11 a.m. Tuesday, Cullen sent his single employee home. By 1 p.m., he locked the door. "Would you really bother going through an armed guard just to get a sandwich?'' he said.

Cullen isn't the only downtown restaurant owner disappointed by business from the convention's estimated 50,000 visitors. Several complained of empty tables and idle employees. Most cried out for their regulars, who have fled downtown.

"Don't ever bring this here again,'' said Jeff Morzella, co-owner of Fresh, a breakfast and lunch cafe on Franklin Street. "We're ready to go, but there's no one here. It's brutal.''

Business at his restaurant was down about 75 percent on Monday, when convention officials canceled downtown events because of Tropical Storm Isaac. Tuesday, the first official day, wasn't much better. Two people came in for breakfast.

Morzella left at lunchtime, unhappy and frustrated.

"All our regular customers have been scared away,'' he said. "There's no one downtown."

Many owners complained that people stayed away because they didn't want to deal with the traffic or parking. The city blocked streets throughout downtown and eliminated parking meters on some of the main thoroughfares.

Samaria Cafe on Tampa Street planned to stay open for dinner but, aside from a few delegates, business hasn't warranted it. Owner Georgia Xanthoudakis remained hopeful crowds would swell as the week progresses but acknowledged she overestimated the convention's impact.

"I'm going to be very positive because this is a great thing for Tampa,'' she said. "But we did overstock and overstaff for it.''

Lynn Pham, owner of Bamboozle Cafe, said business was so slow she already had to throw away food and take a loss. She fears only restaurants that booked parties in advance will benefit from the event.

"We're hurting terribly,'' she said, profusely thanking two locals who came in for lunch on Tuesday. "It's painfully disappointing.''

Downtown coffee shops seemed to fare a bit better, enjoying a caffeinated boost from police and media to offset the loss of regulars.

"It's going well,'' said Katie Senkovich, manager of Indigo Coffee at Franklin and Twiggs Street. "We expected to be slammed, but it's better to be overprepared than underprepared.''

Even some restaurants in Ybor City — quite a distance from the convention zone — were feeling a bit snubbed.

When asked how business was going, Vicki Doble, co-owner of Tampa Bay Brewing Co., gave a big thumb's-down.

"I hope this does something for Tampa, because it's not doing anything for me,'' she said.

She had turned away some private parties to accommodate regulars but now regretted it. Sales over the weekend and early in the week were lackluster for August. Many locals have stayed away.

"It's tough, there's no question about it,'' she said. "I think people are a little afraid of the protesters.''

Carmine's restaurant on Seventh Avenue in Ybor has been steady for several days, enjoying business from regulars and RNC visitors. Orders for deviled crabs were up, said Gino Iavarone, who runs Carmine's and Market on 7th next door.

"Carmine's is a destination restaurant,'' he said. "We've been doing this for 31 years.''

The Tampa Downtown Partnership, which promotes local businesses, has heard mixed reviews from restaurants and blamed Monday's bad weather for the slow start.

"Some are doing well and some have not been doing well,'' said spokeswoman Donna Chen. "But the week isn't over.''

She anticipated people would go out to eat after Jon Stewart's tapings at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and parties at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. She also pointed out that famous politicians and media types were dining locally: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at Hattrick's and Fox News' Chris Wallace at Bernini's.

That comes as little solace to Cullen, the owner of Quiznos. He planned to stay closed until at least Friday, compounding his losses after an already exceptionally slow summer. And Monday is a holiday.

"I've been waiting for this for six months. I thought it was going to be great,'' he said. "But it has been a disaster.''

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