After a traditionally slow summer, Philly restaurant business really begins to pick up again in late September — the first Friday to Sunday in fall is often a top-grossing weekend. This year, it’s also the weekend Pope Francis will be in town.
And while the papal visit brings prestige and worldwide attention to Philadelphia, it also brings stringent security restrictions which may make it unfeasible for some restaurants to stay open at all.
“I stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars,” a person whose restaurant falls within the likely pope-fence zone told Billy Penn.
The U.S. Secret Service, which is leading the design and implementation of the security plan for the visit, has said it is taking “unprecedented steps” to work with area business owners to help them stay open. But that’s not necessarily the message restaurant owners have gotten.
“If [by working with us] they mean swinging by unannounced in the middle of the day and telling the manager on duty that our staff will have to walk to work and carry see through plastic bags and we won’t be able to get deliveries,” said one restaurant proprietor, “then yes.”
“They kind of suggested we close,” said another.
None of the restaurateurs Billy Penn spoke with wanted to be overly pessimistic. Nearly all expressed the desire to treat the event with a positive attitude. “We are excited and trying to keep spirits up and remind people this is a huge showcase for Philadelphia,” said one person who co-owns multiple Center City food and drink operations.
But many — especially those with storefronts near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where an estimated 700,000 will attend Pope Francis’ public mass — questioned how the visit was being handled, from location to timing of release of information to area business owners.
‘Couldn’t they have held the event at Lincoln Financial Field?’
It’s not hard to see why holding the event on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway appealed to city officials.
The boulevard has been called the Champs-Élysées of Philadelphia, and its tree-lined streets lead to the impressive vista of City Hall framed by a gleaming downtown on one end, and the baroque Art Museum backed by the Schuylkill River at the other. It’s also a common event site, home to the Roots-headlined Fourth of July music jam and fireworks show and Jay-Z’s end-of-summer Made in America concert.
But the crowds at those festivals are expected to pale compared to the throngs that come to hear Pope Francis give his only public mass during this U.S. visit.
Several restaurant owners said the Secret Service had warned them about the size of this event as compared to those happenings.
“He said this is going to be ‘far more people’ than any concert or sports event you’ve seen,” recounted one Parkway-area owner, who wasn’t actually present when a Secret Service rep showed up at the restaurant but spoke with him in a follow-up telephone call.
“We’re going to be inside the fence, which I was told will either go up on Thursday night or Friday morning, so it doesn’t look good for staying open,” the restaurateur continued.
“It’s unfair, if you ask me. Couldn’t they have held the event at Lincoln Financial Field?”
‘I don’t know how we’ll get food’
Because concrete security plans have not yet been announced (something the Secret Service attributed, in a press release, to the fact that “the exact configuration of the venues” Pope Francis will visit has not yet been finalized), no one yet knows the exact borders of the security perimeter.
However, the Parkway location for the Festival of Families on Sept. 26 and the public mass on Sept. 27 means the perimeter will almost certainly encompass most of Center City, and possibly part of University City. City officials have been calling the area a “traffic box” because they expect no vehicular traffic allowed within the designated area.
For restaurants within those boundaries, that means they’ll be cut off from deliveries of food, beer and liquor.
“We have reservations on the books, [but] I don’t know how we will get food. Perhaps we’ll have to consider running a consolidated menu?” said one Center City restaurant owner who had not yet been contacted by the Secret Service.
Another mused about shutting down regular operations and just manning a hot dog cart/BBQ stand out front.
“If we stay open, it definitely won’t be our regular way of doing business. We won’t get the fresh bread we usually get every day. We won’t get our vegetables. Beer and liquor are another story — we’re going to really have to load up.”
Food and drink vendors contacted by Billy Penn in early August still weren’t certain of their schedules during the papal visit. Some said they thought Thursday deliveries would be the last, but some suggested a Wednesday cut-off had been discussed.
Secret Service spokesman Robert Hoback, contacted by Billy Penn, declined to address these concerns.
‘I am going to turn my house into a hostel’
Comestibles aren’t the only thing needed to run a restaurant. The other key ingredient is people: Cooks, waitstaff, dishwashers. Without vehicular transportation — bicycles are reportedly also not allowed, and SEPTA stops are very limited — they’ll have to walk to work.
“I have a lot of guys coming from South Philly, and walking home late at night is not a very viable option,” one bar owner said, noting he had not yet made arrangements for accommodations because he did not yet have final information on restrictions and timing. “[The Secret Service representative] flat out said, ‘I can’t give you a firm answer right now.’”
Others are assuming the worst.
“I am going to turn my house into a hostel for my crew,” said one restaurateur who co-owns several operations throughout Philadelphia. “I’m even going to set up a teepee on the back deck. It’ll be a Pope party.”
‘Five days worth of trash’
Assuming staff and supplies can be worked out, and a restaurant does stay open, there’s the issue of a several days’ worth of trash.
Officials have suggested businesses treat the event “like a blizzard,” which also brings with it a disruption of transportation and municipal services. But winter does not treat consumables trash the same way as summer heat.
“We’re going to be sitting on five days worth of trash — It’s going to bring out all the pests: mice, roaches, rats, whatever. I’m sure it won’t smell too pretty. My neighbors are going to hate me,” worried one Parkway-adjacent proprietor, adding, “Although, maybe they’ll be smart and just leave town.”
‘How about a tax break?’
Then there’s the bathroom issue. More than 3,000 porta-potties will be erected around the city, according to a report from the Inquirer. There’s been debate about whether that will be enough to handle the needs of the huge crowds, and restaurant owners aren’t that happy about one of the organizers’ stated contingencies: use bathrooms in area restaurants.
Bathrooms regularly become an issue during the Parkway summer festivals, and some restaurant and bar proprietors institute a cover charge simply to try to keep their restrooms from becoming trashed.
“I certainly don’t want 1.5 million people coming in to use my bathroom,” said one pope-zone restaurateur.
“Overall, [the visit] is a good thing. But the businesses directly impacted by that zone — nobody’s taken that into consideration. How about a tax break, or something?” suggested another.
Or maybe just a “get into heaven free” pass?