Six weeks before what some predicted as a gold mine for uptown restaurants, restaurateurs say theyre still scrambling to find out who theyll be serving at the Democratic National Convention.
I was going to have everything done by now, staffed and planned, Jill Marcus of Halcyon and Something Classic catering said this week. But bookings have not poured in, and many delegations and other groups are just now shopping for venues.
There are still people coming in here and looking at china, she said. When you ask their budget, they say they dont have sponsors yet. ... Youre kind of giggling at that point.
That may not get better: Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told Politico shes encouraging Democratic candidates not to come to Charlotte at all. I think they should stay home, campaign in their districts, use their financial and political resources to help them win their election, she said.
Not exactly what restaurateurs want to hear.
All of which contributes to the rumor mill going crazy, as restaurateur Pierre Bader put it: Owners start saying to each other, Oh, youre not booked? Everybody else is booked. No. No one is booked (completely).
Bader has several parties scheduled at his upscale Aria and a big three-day job pending at his barbecue place, City Smoke, plus catering work. But Ive already written (the convention) off in my head. (DNC organizers) made it look in the beginning as if everybody was going to go buy mansions and Porsches (after the DNC). Well be renewing our Kia leases.
Host committees role
Several factors contribute: groups simultaneously planning events and chasing the money to pay for them; the fact a detailed schedule has yet to be released for the Sept. 3-6 convention; uncertainty about appropriate pricing; and an attempt by the Charlotte convention host committee to coordinate reservations through vendor agreements.
These put restaurants that signed into a pool of places the committee showed to visitors. In return, the venue was expected to hold off booking until the committee contacted the potential booker. The committee viewed this as a way to expose visitors to a variety of venues; some owners found it slowed or stopped the process.
We tried to be helpful, said committee press secretary Suzi Emmerling.
We waited and waited and waited and waited, Bader said. Nothing big, concrete came out of (it).
Cassie Parsons of Harvest Moon Grille decided early on to keep the restaurant open to the public throughout the convention and to book events only into three private rooms upstairs. As of Thursday, those rooms are fully booked, she said, and her mobile cart has a five-full-day gig off-premises (for the Oregon delegation, who really had its ducks in a row).
She pointed out she took bookings early, while some venues waited, thinking they can get a little more money I think everybody got a little greedy.
Has the Charlotte convention host committee heard of places trying to price-gouge?
I have, said Emmerling, declining to name any.
Marcus, who has several bookings for Halcyon (in the Mint Museum) but also plans to be open to the public, said she heard about places asking, 40, 50, 70,000 (dollars) and now dont have anything booked.
Said Bader: The gouging started early on, where everyone wanted $100,000 for the evening, and they very soon realized that was not going to happen.
Alex Myrick of Blue said numbers were wildly exaggerated at the beginning, with rumors that bookers were willing to pay triple for spaces. We gave very high numbers (to early potential bookers) and found out quickly they werent interested. (So) we decided we were going to be realistic about this. Blue now has bookings, but has both day and night space available, according to its director of sales and marketing, who notes inquiries have picked up this week.
Whether those inquiring have any money is another issue.
Ive been told (by groups) their budgets havent been finalized, said Krista Mann, sales and marketing manager at Mortons. Whos on first? she laughed. Whats on second?
Does she get the sense folks dont know whats going on? Exactly I think the last four weeks are going to be chaos, she said. It makes me a smidge nervous.
Restaurants are also faced with planning around security challenges: Trucks delivering food within a still-to-be-determined perimeter will need to be routed through security, owners say theyve been told, while some believe staffers may also be vetted individually by security personnel.
Even spots outside uptown are trying to puzzle out the plan. I think there has just been so much hype that everyone expected it to be crazy busy, says Bonnie Warford of Carpe Diem, who now expects her place will be open to the public. It has been frustrating, but I dont know how it could have been any different.
For now, restaurants prep for what may or may not materialize.
Were hiring and training for ghost events right now, Marcus of Halcyon says. We assume theyll be there.