Outdoor seating is big business at Bru Craft & Wurst

UPDATED: 2:30 p.m.

How much will the Democratic National Convention disrupt regular day-to-day business in Philly? No one seems to be sure, and the city is sending mixed messages.

On a four-page FAQ sheet the city and DNC organizers crafted for Philadelphia businesses, the Convention is compared to an Army-Navy game, the annual December tradition where 50,000 or so out-of-towners tailgate and watch football at Lincoln Financial Field — i.e., not a huge deal. Its effects on Center City are further downplayed by noting that events of similar size are often held at the Pa. Convention Center. Additionally, most delegates are expected to eat breakfast at their hotels, receive boxed lunches at meetings and spend their evenings at the Wells Fargo Center, the FAQ says.  

A couple of pages later, things get a bit more serious. The city and DNC organizers note they are asking businesses to remove outside signs, flags, tables and all other non-fixed objects — as preparation for the possibility of “unpermitted protests.”

So is this a routine business conference or football game? Or a once-in-a-generation event with the possibility for chaos? Many restaurant owners are confident memories of horrendous business during Pope in Philly won’t resurface next week, but they’re not exactly certain what to else to expect.

“(We’ll) hope for the best and plan for the best and accept what we get,” said Chris Mullins, owner of McGillin’s Olde Ale House. “The bigger issue or opportunity is for the city.”

Some restaurants are planning to stay open later than usual and run specials. Others will treat the late-July week, often one of the slowest of the year, just like any other.

But in the background for their preparations is the letter from the Department of Licenses and Inspections that explicitly demands removal of furniture and signs during the DNC.

The L&I letters started going out earlier this month. In them, the agency requested that by July 20 and through the end of the convention on July 28, business owners:

  • Securely chain dumpsters so they can’t be removed;
  • Remove benches, flower pots and other types of non-permanent street furniture from sidewalks;
  • Remove all signs and advertisements from sidewalks.
L&I Letter
Credit: Courtesy Photo

Last week, L&I followed up by visiting some restaurateurs in person, including Teddy Sourias (BRU, U-Bahn, Finn McCool’s) and Olivier Desaintmartin (Caribou Cafe, Petit Roti, Zinc). Desaintmartin, who said he didn’t receive a letter, said the L&I employees requested his restaurant make sure its Dumpsters were chained. Sourias said he was told he must to remove his outdoor tables and benches at BRU, even though the bar/restaurant’s tables are permitted by the city to be there.

“We have no choice,” Sourias said. “We lose that entire section.”

Percy Street Barbecue co-owner Erin O’Shea said she was told “everything” had to be removed. Michael Schulson (Sampan, Double Knot, Independence Beer Garden), said he discussed the letter with his legal department and plans to leave his tables on the sidewalk.

We will just make sure that we act smart and work with the city to make sure Philadelphia is looked at as the amazing city we are,” Schulson said. “I think the city just wants to make sure residents, visitors and all are safe during this crazy time.”   

Karen Guss, spokesperson for L&I, said only unauthorized tables and benches need to be removed, and establishments with proper permits won’t have to remove them. But she admitted the wording in the letter wasn’t clear.

“It’s definitely possible that some of our inspectors don’t have it quite right,” she said. “We definitely should have been way more clear. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some confusion out in the ranks as well.”

Many restaurateurs interviewed by Billy Penn had not received the L&I letter and were not aware of the request.

Exactly why L&I is asking for the removal of tables is somewhat vague. The letter offers ensuring “the safety of our citizens and the many visitors to the City” during the DNC as its reason. Shawn Darragh, co-owner of Cheu Noodle Bar and Bing Bing Dim Sum, said he was under the impression the request was made because lots of people would be on the street.

Though the city and DNC organizers warned of protesters as the reason for pulling furniture and signs off sidewalks in the business FAQ sheet, L&I commissioner David Perri denied that was the intent of his department’s letter.

“The intent,” he said, “is to have walkable sidewalks and clean and orderly presentation of the public right of way.”    

Lauren Hitt, communications director for Mayor Jim Kenney, said the L&I request was made because of the expectation of more pedestrians next week, including protesters.

“Some of these outdoor items can take up a lot of room,” she said, “which makes it difficult for pedestrians. And while we think it’s unlikely, we also don’t want them to be misappropriated by demonstrators.”

Protesters demonstrated throughout Center City during the 2000 Republican National Convention. Despite hundreds of arrests, little property damage was reported aside from the vandalism of around a dozen city vehicles. Mullins, of McGillin’s, was working at the Union League during the RNC. He doesn’t recall the protests causing much trouble for businesses.

“I think protesting now has become more of an art form than it was in 2000,” he said. “I think we can expect it to be more pervasive.…If you think about it, there’s always some kind of protest going on in Center City.”

In general, he’s excited for the DNC. He remembers the RNC as being “electric” and bringing visitors to a downtown Philadelphia that lacked the population and many of the entertainment options it has today. McGillin’s is already decked out in red, white and blue for the convention, and Mullins has plans for special offerings and events next week.

Next Wednesday, with a DNC-related event planned on East Passyunk, Darragh will keep Bing Bing Dim Sum open through 1 a.m., rather than it usual 10 p.m. closing time, and have a late happy hour. He might keep Cheu open later if crowds are sizable.

“I don’t really expect too much from these kinds of things,” Darragh said, “but I definitely think it’s going to be better than the pope. With the pope, people were running out of town.”

Fergus Carey, co-owner of Fergie’s Pub, Monk’s Cafe, Grace Tavern and Belgian Cafe, said he expects a better boon for businesses than the city saw 16 years ago, because Philly has more to offer. And given Philadelphia’s new prominence, he’s not sure why the city is making changes and sprucing up the roads and sidewalks.

“If it’s good enough for Philadelphians,” Carey said, “it’s good enough for the Democratic National Convention.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...