NRN checks in with restaurant operators in Tampa, Fla. and Charlotte, N.C.
The Republican and Democratic National Conventions are more than just political grandstands. They’re huge, celebratory events attended by thousands of influential people from across the United States — prime time for restaurants in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C. to show off their goods and drive increases in traffic and sales.
In Tampa, where the Republican National Convention took place throughout the week, restaurant chains located in hotels faired particularly well, including the Beef O’Brady’s location at the TradeWinds resort in Tampa Bay. The California delegation, the largest in the U.S., selected the resort as its home base during the RNC, meaning big money for the resorts’ restaurants, said Jeffrey Fredrickson, food and beverage director at TradeWinds.
As hungry delegates gather back at the resort after a long day of campaigning, they’re looking for food that’s nearby, good and quick, he said. That’s where casual-dining chain Beef O’Brady’s comes in.
Fredrickson said TradeWinds made about $160,000 in food and beverage sales during just the first two days of the RNC — and that doesn’t yet include sales numbers from the resort's 14 restaurants. Fredrickson said that the uptick in sales was likely aided by Hurricane Isaac, for which the first day of the RNC was cancelled. When delegates didn’t have anywhere to be on August 27, they stayed at the resort and ate.
“It’s certainly a boon for the Tampa area,” said Fredrickson.
Hurricane Grill & Wings in Tampa saw significant increases in sales, too, said Martin O’Dowd, the chain’s president. Hurricane’s Tampa location is located at a Ramada Inn where many RNC attendees have chosen to stay, and O’Dowd said that sales at that location rose 55 percent after the first full day of the RNC.
Alcohol sales have also increased from about 30 percent of overall sales to about 44 percent for that location. “We’re hoping to be up over 50 percent [in total sales] for the week,” he said. “We’re very fortunate that we’re located in a hotel. We consider ourselves very lucky.”
In order to cater to the needs of hungry convention goers, Hurricane made some changes to its Tampa menu, according to O'Dowd. “We reengineered the menu a bit to include more dinner options,” he said.
The location is the only Tampa-area unit for Hurricane Grill & Wings, which has 32 locations throughout Florida, O’Dowd said.
Other restaurants in the Tampa area, such as the Brandon, Fla.-based Little Greek chain, have seen a dip in sales due to the RNC. What it comes down to, according to Little Greek president Nick Vojnovic, is location.
“Between the hurricane and the RNC, it just seems a lot of people are not in town, or not going to their usual dining places,” he said. The fast-casual concept has eight locations in the Tampa area.
Vojnovic said sales at his Tampa-area locations have been down 10 percent to 20 percent during the first two days of the RNC. “It appears to me the people who really do well in this is if you’re inside the security zone, or the real high-profile steakhouses,” he said. “The fine-dining guys do really well.”
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Chris Tomasso, CMO of the Bradenton, Fla.-based First Watch Restaurants, Inc., said his company’s eight Tampa locations have also taken a hit. “Obviously, the RNC has been great for just the overall exposure and profile of the Tampa Bay area, but from an actual business impact standpoint, it has not been a positive experience,” he said.
Tomasso said street closures and the hurricane likely contributed to lower sales. Also, he noted, the RNC attendees are probably going to private and pre-planned meal events, and aren’t really walking around and trying out local places.
Little Greek's Vojnovic, an ex-president of Beef O’Brady’s, is also a former chairman of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. When Tampa hosts the Superbowl, he said, the city sees a similar effect — less business for stand-alone locations and lots of sales for restaurants in resorts.
Preparing for the DNC
In Charlotte, N.C., some restaurants are preparing for the onslaught of Democratic delegates next week. Charlotte-based Bojangles, for instance, expects to see increased sales.
“To be prepared for the DNC activities, we have told our store management teams to staff appropriately and to be prepared for a busier week than normal,” said Ken Reynolds, director of field marketing for Bojangles, in an email.
Wild Wing Café, which completed renovations on its Charlotte location in time for the delegates to arrive in town, is also hoping to see big money once they arrive. “We really wanted to get open in time for the DNC,” said William Prather, president of Wild Wing Café.
Prather said that renovations, which included a substantial bar upgrade, were intended to make the location look brighter and lighter.
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“Our theme is ‘great food that rocks.' A convention is really a great party,” said Edna Morris, the managing director of Charlotte-based Axum Capital Partners, the private equity firm that owns Wild Wing Café. "There’s no way you want to miss this opportunity when you have people from all 50 states in town.”
Both Edna and Williams said the Charlotte location is hosting several parties for delegates, but declined to specify which delegations would attend.
Catering gets a boost
Restaurants aside, companies are seeing an increase in catering business as a result of the conventions.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based LYFE Café will furnish “Oasis” cafes throughout the conventions in partnership with The Huffington Post. LYFE Kitchen is a fast-casual chain focused on healthful foods.
Mike Donahue, chief brand and communications officer, restaurant and grocery at LYFE Kitchen, said that the decision to cater the conventions was a strategic one.
“We want influencers to learn about us,” said Donahue, who previously worked at McDonald’s for 20 years. “One of the biggest public policy issues is nutrition, wellness and preventative medicine. It’s the epicenter of public policy discussion for two whole weeks.”
Donahue said LYFE Kitchen plans to expand during the next couple of years, including opening new locations throughout the East Coast.
Bill Tracy, regional VP for Stamford, Conn.-based hospitality company Centerplate, said the company fed more than 10,000 people during the RNC welcome party at Tropicana field. “It was one of the largest events we’ve put on at Tropicana Field,” he said, not including baseball games.
The turnout, however, was about 2,000 people fewer than expected due to the hurricane. Still, he said, "everything got off to a good start. There’s a lot of hometown pride in the area.”
The RNC officially ran from Aug. 27–30, and the DNC will run from Sept. 3–6.