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Local businesses weigh in on DNC

By Celeste Smith, Florence Bryan and Justin Mayhew
cesmith@charlotteobserver.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. So, how was business during convention week?

Everyone is still adding up totals, and the complete story of the convention’s economic impact on small businesses may not be known for weeks.

But a Friday sampling of places close to the activities shows some places soared – such as retailers and restaurants – while others struggled, such as vendors who went through convention channels to sell their merchandise.

Here’s a roundup:

Shops

Delegates and souvenir seekers stopped in Friday morning to buy convention-themed shirts, buttons and tote bags at The Beehive, a gift shop inside Bank of America Plaza.

South Carolina delegate Sally Howard of Myrtle Beach loaded up on cookies and trinkets packaged with donkey labels.

“I’m a shopper,” she explained.

Customer turnout went well all week, co-owner Betsy Almond said, thanks in part to self-promotion and Mother Nature.

The store’s biggest challenge is that its location inside the plaza can be a mystery to locals and visitors alike. So during CarolinaFest – the Tryon Street party on Labor Day sponsored by the DNC’s local host committee – Almond sent a kid walking through the street wearing a sandwich board advertising the store and its DNC items.

That boosted customer flow, Almond said. So did the rainy weather: The store sold $500 in umbrellas two days in a row, she said.

Nearby at the Bijoux Bellagio clothing and jewelry store, “Business was good, but not great,” said sales associate Fran Salerno.

“Everybody thought you couldn’t get around” because of security restrictions, and may have stayed home, she said.

Booth vendors

On a scale of one to 10, Tina Eyre of DenverCrat rated her convention experience as a two. “One being bad, right?”

DenverCrat was among 20 or so businesses that paid the DNC host committee as much as $2,800 to be official retailers of the convention. The Denver, Colo.-based business was selling T-shirts, buttons, water bottles and more. But their space in the “Legacy Village,” in a parking lot at College and Stonewall, proved to be a low-traffic area blocked by barricades, Eyre sad.

“They really turned it into a demilitarized zone downtown that really kept foot traffic” down, she said. “It really killed the energy.”

Charlotte business owners in the village said they also took a financial hit. They included Nila Nicholas with Curlicues & Confections and Sharon Kimel of I Thee Wed Studio, which had a photo booth.

What made matters worse, Legacy Village vendors said, is that other vendors working outside the host committee set up shop along bustling College Street.

By Thursday, the remaining village vendors – at least three had called it quits, Eyre said – had moved across the street to try to get some of the College Street foot traffic.

DenverCrat invested more than $20,000 in its DNC effort, Eyre said: “We’ll be lucky to cover cost.”

Restaurants

Bernardin’s Restaurant at Ratcliffe on South Tryon Street had the busiest lunches it’s ever had, said general manager Chad Cooper. The restaurant at least doubled its usual number of customers, many of whom were from out of town.

He said the restaurant couldn’t close, knowing tens of thousands of people might be at the convention center only a block away.

“(The convention) was great for uptown businesses that were actually open,” Cooper said. “I think the security scared a lot of people off.”

Protesters uptown did not disrupt the restaurant’s business, Cooper said.

“If anything, they kept guests in their seats a little longer because they couldn’t leave,” he said. “So it was better for us, I guess.”

The only difficulty was getting food deliveries to the restaurant through all the security, Cooper said.

James Hiller, the manager of Carolina Ale House on South College Street, said the governor of Hawaii, a senator and other government officials from the Aloha State frequented the restaurant throughout the week.

“They ended up coming every single night,” he said.

Hiller said the Hawaiian leaders were very friendly and handed out wooden bead leis to the staff. Each night they ordered several big plates to share and especially enjoyed the restaurant’s ribs.

Hiller said the Carolina Ale House had more staff working longer hours to handle what he said was triple the normal volume of customers. “We were definitely pushed to the limit, but it was a lot of fun,” Hiller said.Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen on North College Street, which usually has a flexible closing time depending on customer traffic, stayed open until 2 a.m. every night during the convention, said general manager Bo Buxton.

The restaurant hosted two private parties: a luncheon on the second floor and a cocktail party on the main level. It was open to the public the other nights and had about four times the typical number of customers, Buxton said.

“It was like a revolving door,” he said. “It was awesome.”

He said he noticed out-of-towners returning several nights throughout the convention.

“We saw the same people coming in,” Buxton said. “To build a regular clientele basis within a four-day stretch was really, really cool. It humbled us.”

The convention brought a lot of new faces to Connolly’s on Fifth, an Irish pub in uptown Charlotte typically frequented by regulars. In fact, many regular customers weren’t around to enjoy the pub’s drinks last week.

“A lot of people headed for the hills,” said bartender Mark Murphy.

Instead, Murphy said, many new visitors frequented the bar, including a senator from Iowa, perhaps because of the laid-back atmosphere.

“They wanted a local bar, somewhere comfortable, somewhere without all the bells and whistles,” he said.

The bar hosted a private party Monday night and was open to the public the rest of the week, Murphy said.

He said most nights this week were very busy except for Tuesday, when the rain may have deterred many people.

“Prior to this, everybody was grumbling about (security and traffic),” he said. “But it’s a historical event, no matter your political views.

“And in all fairness, there are local festivals that cause us more hassle than the DNC.”

Smith: 704-358-5087
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