Every four years, presidential hopefuls from around the country descend on Iowa like a Great Plains tornado: They strike with a sudden ferocity and then move off gustily, leaving a scatter of confetti, signage, and paper cups in their wake.
David Panther is well familiar with the crazy lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, the first in the long series of state contests, which this year take place on February 1. The owner of Hamburg Inn No. 2, a diner in Iowa City that has become one of the more famous political stopovers in the state, he says by now he has seen just about everything. That includes the man who arrived to make a case for gay rights while dressed as a silver spaceman. Or the time in 2012 there was nearly a brawl between Michelle Bachmann's camp and people protesting the Republican candidate. The incident featured Bachmann's campaign piping increasingly loud Christmas music into Panther's restaurant to silence the protests.
To cash in on the frenzy -- and to keep cashing in when things suddenly quiet down again -- Panther, like many business owners in the state, has had to get pretty creative. He has managed to parlay the caucuses into a thriving year-round trade by creating something he calls the Coffee Bean Caucus. Some might even say the event, which he has held for the past three presidential elections, now upstages the state's official caucus.
In brief, Panther arrays large mason jars in the windows of his restaurant, each labeled with the name of a candidate, and encourages patrons to vote by placing a coffee bean in one of the containers. The vote isn't scientific, and probably isn't an accurate reflection of the Iowa electorate, since anyone can add a bean. But over the years, it's predicted winners of the party nominations with some success: In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney won on the Republican side, and in both 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama got the most beans.
Politicians have taken note, and Panther has hosted as many as two dozen presidential hopefuls eager to press the flesh with locals and consume one of his fresh-ground, locally sourced burgers or the house specialty, breaded pork tenderloin. In recent weeks, diners have include New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Vice President Joe Biden, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who stopped back in the kitchen to get a lesson on making omelets, Panther says.
In the long interim between caucuses, some of the buzz remains. Panther says it's impossible to tell how much lift the revenues for his 35-employee establishment have gotten from all the politicking over the years, but features in the food and travel sections of national newspapers and magazines have made it a frequent stop for tourists. And then there's this distinctive honor: The TV show The West Wing recreated the Hamburg Inn and its Coffee Bean Caucus in a 2005 episode, he says.
"It has been a win-win for whoever comes in here," Panther says. "It generates a good media presence."
Similarly, Mike Draper, the owner and founder of Raygun, a three-location retail store with headquarters in Des Moines, has built a quadrennial niche in provocative, caucus-themed buttons, mugs, and T-shirts (think plenty of puns using the word caucus). Unlike with Panther's business, Draper says no candidates from either party want to take the risk of coming into the store, which he describes as Iowa's alternative to Urban Outfitters.
Nevertheless, various celebrity supporters -- mostly Democrats -- have over the years wandered into Raygun to purchase candidate-themed items during the caucuses. The store's famous customers include Hillary Clinton supporters Lena Dunham and Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as Kal Penn, an advocate of Obama's.
"We like to joke that we are the liberal Pizza Ranch," says Draper, who founded the 42-employee company in 2005. Pizza Ranch, a restaurant franchise with 200 locations, is a favorite spot for Republicans. (The company declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Draper estimates his caucus trade gives his stores' $3 million annual revenue a 3 percent bump.
"It is not huge in terms of sales," he says. "But it is disproportionately big for attention."