Cleveland Caterers and Restaurants See Cutbacks and Cancellations for RNC-Related Events as Kick Off Approaches

click to enlarge Cleveland Caterers and Restaurants See Cutbacks and Cancellations for RNC-Related Events as Kick Off Approaches
Bliss Davis

Ever since Cleveland learned that it would be hosting the Republican National Convention, there has been non-stop chatter about the piles of cash that would rain down on the North Coast. Restaurants were being booked by national corporations for literally millions of dollars, others were being snatched up for champagne-soaked private parties, and every caterer in town lined up to the trough for a big fat slice of the pie.

But as we get closer to the big event, we’re learning that many of those grand projections about the Grand Old Party’s party are turning out to be a heaping portion of pie in the sky. From caterers and restaurant owners on down to third-party vendors, almost everybody we spoke with confirms that the money just isn’t there – at least not at the levels projected by most.

“Everything we have booked has adjusted their budgets down,” explains Mike Smith, chef-partner at Marigold Catering, which is one of a dozen official caterers to the Republican National Convention. “We had somebody cut their guest count in half and we’ve had somebody cut their budget in half. Everyone across the board expected all this craziness and the money is just not there. We released a bunch of staff because, like everybody, we expected to do a lot more than we are actually doing.”

Marigold will be hosting between 12 and 15 events per day inside the Q and many more outside the arena. Despite losing between 10 and 60 percent of the volume they initially hoped and expected to be banking on, the high-end caterer still will be paying approximately 200 employees throughout the event.

This dramatic drop in dollars is a direct result of big name corporations electing to sit this convention out. Bloomberg recently reported that prominent companies like Wells Fargo, UPS, Motorola, and Ford all have said they would not be sponsoring this year’s convention. Though none would admit publicly, the cause likely can be found at the top of the ticket.

“I think what happened here is a lot of the companies that come to conventions are publicly traded companies and they may or may not be in love with the presumptive nominee and they may not want the public to know they are supporting him so they scale back or don’t show up at all,” explain Scott Kuhn, whose Driftwood Catering also is an official caterer. “I think a lot of people were licking their chops a little bit when it was looking like it was going to be a contested convention, and when that fell by the wayside I think corporate America really stared to bail on this thing.”

An illustration of the diminishing magnitude of this year’s convention can be shown in actual dollars and cents. Kuhn, who also operates a number of Cleveland restaurants, including Hodge’s, Washington Place Bistro, and Cibreo, says that every one of his places has been booked up for some time.

“They are all privately contracted, with our first one being signed all the way back in January 2015,” he says.

But those restaurants were gobbled up by third-party brokers, the ticket scalpers of the events world, who then attempt to peddle the spots to the highest bidder. But much like a scalper hoping to unload those seats after the home team finds itself behind by five runs in the first inning, value can be fleeting.

“As it gets closer and closer to the deadline, they’re trying to get any dollar as opposed to no dollar to mitigate their losses,” Kuhn explains. “The inability to resell that space has made life very challenging for us over the past month.”

While the numbers of elected officials, delegates, media and staff all descending upon Cleveland might not have precipitately fallen, the quantity and scope of the events feting them most certainly have. And that uncertainly makes it nearly impossible to plan for, especially for small businesses who help support the big caterers.

“We’re lower on the food chain,” explains Shane Culey, who along with his wife and pastry chef Britt operate Coquette Patisserie, which supplies many of the caterers in town with high-end pastries. “We’re at the mercy of our caterers, who are at the mercy of their customers. If the goal posts keep changing for our customers, then they can’t confirm anything for us. It’s impossible to prepare for that, especially when a lot of the work we do takes days if not weeks to prepare.”

Culey says that Coquette went from working with three RNC-approved caterers in the beginning of all this to just one, largely because the business those caterers originally had lined up has vanished or been significantly reduced.
“The initial estimates coming from caterers on what they were going to come to us for were significantly higher than what’s coming into fruition now, to the tune of 80-percent higher,” he says. “We had estimates as high as $40,000 for the event, which is significant for us. To have that figure dropped down to $1,500 is disheartening.”

Some small local businesses, like those large national corporations, are electing to sit this one out. Izzy Schachner, who operates the Streat Mobile food truck, is helping to organize all the food truck components of the convention. He’s working with a dozen different trucks that will provide food within the security perimeter.

“Some food trucks have been weighing the cost of doing RNC events versus screwing the whole thing and going somewhere else, not because of dollars but because of the logistics involved,” he explains. “When you have regular corporate lunch stops with 150 customers locked up, you weigh that against something they don’t really know how it will turn out.”

The more we learn about the convention from those involved, the more it seems that those inside the Q likely will fare better than those outside the Q.

“Quicken Loans is getting the prime cut of the business,” explains James Gibson, who along with his wife Kim runs Hungry Bee, an official caterer of the RNC. “Aside from the businesses being rented out by Twitter, Yahoo or whoever – the restaurants with contracts signed – there’s not going to be a lot of traffic throughout the day outside where the convention is going on because once people are in there, they’re in there for the day.”

As for who benefits and by how much, nobody will know for sure until the GOP rolls out of town. But when they do, many expect to see results well below early projections.

“I think there will be a lot of people who don’t get what they’re expecting – I know that will be the fact,” says Kuhn. “The RNC is nowhere near what we just saw a couple weeks ago when 1.3 million people were downtown. This is a Cavs game in terms of crowd four days in a row. I just hope for Cleveland’s sake that this turns out okay because this is not Cleveland’s fault. This is the Drive of politics.”

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Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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