Dan Katt didn't think 2020 could get any worse. For more than a year, the co-founder and owner of the Milwaukee restaurant and craft brewery chain Good City Brewing had been looking forward to the boost his business would get from the Democratic National Convention, taking place at the Wisconsin Center, just steps away from one of Good City's locations. The week-long media spectacle, which was expected to attract 50,000 visitors to the city and deliver a $200 million economic impact to the region, is now an online event because of the pandemic and expected to draw only about 300 visitors to the city itself. What's more, Milwaukee doesn't have any assurances that it'll get another shot at hosting in 2024, according to a spokesperson for the DNC. The city will be required to apply again with everyone else in 2022.
The downsized affair has left many area business owners in mourning. While there's a general understanding of the need for safety, many proprietors see the snub as adding insult to injury. After revenues bottomed out in March and April when the pandemic forced widespread closures, they remain subdued because capacity limitations and social distancing guidelines are still in place as Americans continue to contract Covid-19. The event had been seen as a lifeline for businesses.
"People were very confident in the spring, [thinking] that 'by August, things will be back to normal,'" Katt says. Now, he says the company's revenue is down seven figures for the year.
Besides the foot traffic boost, Good City Brewing had been looking forward to fulfilling its contract to cook about 1,000 meals a day for NBCUniversal employees. But the entertainment conglomerate canceled its order in early August. On top of Covid-19, Katt adds, a convention without the presence of former vice president Joe Biden is "the straw that broke the camel's back."
Down the street, Brent Brahsier of Doc's Smokehouse echoed Katt's sentiment. He says the stripped-down convention is another "kick in the teeth" after hard times for the hospitality industry in the last seven months. The barbeque restaurant had planned to host heavyweights like Senator Bernie Sanders for interviews, and its contract to feed a "major media organization" was in the six figures, says Brashier. He notes, though, that Doc's was able to keep the deposit.
Keeping Hope Alive
Of course, not everyone is upset that the DNC stayed away; the bigger problem is the pandemic. Eric Resch, founder and managing director of Stone Creek Coffee, which has a location near the Wisconsin Center, says he's relieved to avoid the crazy jump in traffic. Massive events can be difficult to staff and prepare for, he says. Though it is possible he might have enjoyed the revenue bump: Since the pandemic began, volume to his 11 stores is down 40 percent. Still, rather than big event to make up for it, he craves a return to normalcy. "What you want when you're running a business is predictability and stability," adds Resch.
At least one tradition--convention viewing parties--will go on as before, though amid far more subdued circumstances.
In pre-pandemic times, Shaw's Tavern in Washington, D.C., hosted packed crowds gathering to view presidential primary debates and high-profile congressional hearings, according to owner Rob Heim. Before the James Comey hearings in 2017, he advertised a "Comey Hearing Covefe" (a typo immortalized by President Trump's Twitter feed), which brought in 500 patrons and a line around the block. "We had more people for that than we would have for the Super Bowl," Heim says.
This week, he's attempting to replicate that success, if in a smaller way. Business has been down by about 30 percent since March. He's hoping to make some of that back by streaming the convention inside, even though he can only seat about half the restaurant's capacity.
Sasha Carter, owner of the Red Derby in Washington, D.C., is similarly hoping to capitalize on her community's unfailing interest in politics with a three-day outdoor DNC viewing party. "We want to keep our traditions alive," she says. "We want to to be hopeful, versus all the gloom and doom and gravity and sadness of the moment." Still, even if the event is completely full all three evenings, she doesn't expect the viewing party will measurably change the bar and restaurant's bleak sales. Revenue was down 86 percent in July compared with last year.
She remains undeterred, though. Bars are all about connection, which Carter says she'll try to find even while following pandemic restrictions and watching the convention outside with a limited number of guests. "I'm really looking forward to finding the joy you feel when you're in a group, even though it's socially distanced," she says.