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Businesses who banked big time share key to DNC success

From keeping cool under pressure to reaching out to regulars, managers reflect on what worked

Jersey Mike’s knocked out 7,000-plus boxed lunches for first responders.

Andy Jackson’s team baked 500 cupcakes in less than a day.

The 5Church Restaurant loaded its Twitter feed with photos of visiting celebs. And Panera Bread on College Street hit new store records for walk-in traffic.

Whether it was big paydays, big-time publicity or both, it all added up to success for these and other Charlotte businesses during the Democratic National Convention.

Their experiences weren’t universal: Plenty of uptown places saw little or no DNC-related business despite predictions the convention would pump $150 million into Charlotte’s economy.

If Kirk Bailey, regional manager at Jimmy John’s gourmet sandwiches had to do it over again, he’d plan more, be more proactive.

Its uptown location saw a little bit of catering every day and gave away welcome menu packets to two hotels. But business at that site was down for the week, Bailey said. “I’d try a little harder,” he said. “I thought it would be a gimme, like with Speed Street.”

There might be a next time, as Charlotte leaders aim to host other major events in the future, like a Super Bowl. Here’s what businesses that thrived during the DNC suggest for others who want in on the action next time:

Embrace the chaos

Erin Kelley, general manager at Panera Bread on College Street, knew her store would stay open during the convention: “This is what we do. Feed the masses,” she said.

Convention week brought lines out the door from lunchtime to 3 p.m. Running out of breads and bagels meant serving only soups and salads during dinner rush.

“On Wednesday, we broke our walk-in record. On Thursday, we broke Wednesday’s,” said Kelley, who said she’s not allowed to share specific numbers.

Some luck with location was involved: Panera is a short walk from the Convention Center, where delegates had caucus meetings. But Kelley thinks the store’s edge came from everyone staying pleasant about everything. Managers talked up the convention with employees, instead of criticizing its inconveniences.

“The advice I’d give: Go in with just an upbeat attitude. Kind of be ready for anything. And know that your first, second, or third plan isn’t going to work, and that’s OK.”

“And,” Kelley said, smiling, “order more food.”

Get your story out there

The 5Church Restaurant hosted parties with celebs Patricia Arquette, Zach Braff and Rose Byrne of “Bridesmaids.” So, how was business?

“I would say it was 400 percent better than the typical week,” owner Patrick Whalen said.

“What’s more important is the people that came had a great time … and hopefully will say great things about our restaurant.”

The restaurant and its fans helped that part along through Twitter, tweeting out sightings, and photos with the likes of MC Hammer and Tim Daly.

“Once (people) were here, we utilized it to increase the exposure of the business,” Whalen said, “which not only helped that day but following days.”

Adding to the buzz: good pre-DNC press, including a positive restaurant review in The Washington Post.

Whalen said they also worked contacts in other cities to help land a lot of planned events, including ones with the Human Rights Campaign, the Latin American Coalition and Black Entertainment Television.

“Nothing is going to fall in your lap,” Whalen said. “You have to make your own luck.”

Put quality first

Around the time Andy Jackson of FuManChu Cup Cakes made 500 of his alcohol, beer and meat-inspired treats for a DNC party at Neighborhood Theatre in NoDa, he turned down a 350-cupcake order.

They only wanted vanilla: bo-rr-ing.

“I don’t do vanilla,” said Jackson, the mustachioed inspiration behind the business, which produces treats with flavors like White Russian, blueberry almond and salted caramel with bacon. Large orders go for $2 a cupcake.

He thinks getting a DNC gig has something to do with selling his cupcakes at Salud Beer Shop on North Davidson Street.

Jackson said he landed steady work catering the Showtime series “Homeland,” filmed in Charlotte, after the show’s catering manager tasted his cupcakes.

Then came the mysterious order in May for three dozen cupcakes with specific flavors; the purchaser said she was taking the treats to a party in Washington, D.C.

When a different person called requesting 500 cakes to be dropped off at the theater on Labor Day, “they didn’t even request flavors,” Jackson said. When he made the drop-off, an event planner told him the treats were for a convention party.

Jackson said if he knew such good business was coming his way, he still wouldn’t change a thing.

His advice: “Make the best thing you possibly can,” he said. “Quality over quantity any day.”

Nail the logistics

Jersey Mike’s franchise co-owners Nick Smith and Rodger Blake-Ward catered 7,100 boxed lunches over six days for police, firefighters and other first responders working the DNC.

The contract represented one of the largest orders in the franchise’s history, Smith said. Their five-figure payment matches sales other stores might do over three or four weeks.

Working from their East Boulevard location during DNC week, the Jersey Mike’s team crafted more than 1,000 Italian and turkey subs daily. He said planning was key – from ordering bananas in manageable batches for freshness, to the timing of the refrigerated truck deliveries to uptown.

Now, “we feel we can do anything when it comes to off-site catering events,” Smith said.

“For a little business like us, logistics was key in order to be able to execute.”

Even small sales count

Griffin Home Health Care rented 100 wheelchairs to Time Warner Cable Arena for the convention, company president Bill Griffin said.

More business came from mailing color fliers with the DNC logo and Charlotte skyline to 70 hotels housing convention-goers.

“These were things that we went after ourselves,” Griffin said. “The economic impact, not huge. But this day and age, we’re grateful for every order, and every sale or rental.”

Remember your regulars

Jim Alexander’s Zebra restaurant in the SouthPark area was about six miles from the uptown action – so it wasn’t a primary destination for delegates and media. But Alexander turned that to his advantage, touting the restaurant’s location as being unaffected by the convention uptown. His 5,000-or-so regular customers all got emails saying his place was open, with easy access and free parking.

Alexander thinks that worked: On Monday, the first night of convention week, “we had walk-ins all night.” He also said the restaurant got some good exposure hosting a private party for a Washington, D.C., group.

Think big

Rose Chauffeured Transportation stayed busy handling transportation for Fox News, Bloomberg and AT&T – jobs the company likely landed through word of mouth, vice president and co-owner Andy Thompson said.

Business “was probably four to five times what the normal week is,” Thompson said. “The majority of our cars were pretty much on the road 24 hours a day.”

To prepare, Rose boosted the cars it normally runs from 50 to 175 and got the proper permitting and Secret Service clearance for drivers. They got additional drivers from the surrounding area, all the way to Raleigh. Still, “we turned down a lot of business, too, that we couldn’t handle.”

And that leads to one of the biggest benefits from DNC week: knowing exactly what a “big event” means for the city, Jackson said, so everyone can be even more prepared next time.

“It was great for the city,” Jackson said. “I think it’s going to … (bring) more business to Charlotte.”

Smith: 704-358-5087
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