Many city businesses report papal weekend losses

Pam Kingsland, owner of Pamcakes, says business was awful at the cupcake and coffee shop she owns near Rittenhouse Square. Friday was the slowest on record, Saturday was "incredibly slow," and she wishes she had just stayed closed.
Pam Kingsland, owner of Pamcakes, says business was awful at the cupcake and coffee shop she owns near Rittenhouse Square. Friday was the slowest on record, Saturday was "incredibly slow," and she wishes she had just stayed closed. MARIA PANARITIS / Staff

The glow of the papal extravaganza that put Philadelphia in the global spotlight began to fade as it became clear Monday that the historic event had lifted the city's profile while harming the bottom lines of many of its businesses.

Pam Kingsland, owner of Pamcakes, says business was awful at the cupcake and coffee shop she owns near Rittenhouse Square. Friday was the slowest on record, Saturday was "incredibly slow," and she wishes she had just stayed closed. Gallery: Many city businesses report papal weekend losses

The damage was worse than many expected, and appeared to be the result of a drumbeat of disclosures about onerous security measures, as well as missteps by hoteliers and business owners who misread the spending appetites of the hundreds of thousands eager to see Pope Francis in the flesh.

Pilgrim after pilgrim in Center City on Saturday and Sunday told of sleeping not in downtown hotels, where unsold rooms were abundant for weeks, but as far away as Lancaster, a one-hour drive west, or Atlantic City, an hour east toward the ocean.

City restaurants where reservations are usually a hot ticket were nearly empty and left with heaps of unsold food.

Small-store owners in dense, bustling, high-income neighborhoods stood behind counters serving hardly anyone, wishing they, too, had skipped town like so many residents around them.

Even food trucks nearest the action, where hundreds of thousands of people spent hours waiting for Francis to pass along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, were badly bruised.

"I brought 4,000 crab cakes, costing $20,000 to $25,000," said George Mamalis, whose truck was parked all weekend alongside others on Arch Street at 16th Street. "I've made about $4,000." That number represented sales, not profit.

Restaurants that reported brisk business, including Jose Garces' Village Whiskey and Tinto at 20th and Sansom, and Spread Bagelry on 20th, made sure they were not overlooked, setting up tables - and in some cases grills - in streets off-limits to vehicles.

The pope's whirlwind tour through Philadelphia was by many measures a success. It drew hundreds of thousands of people to events telecast worldwide, leaving officials hopeful the newfound prestige and publicity would pay dividends in months and years ahead.

But acute costs were felt across the heart of the nation's fifth-largest city, and the financial toll weighed on the minds of many people Monday.

Had merchants miscalculated the spending power and tastes of the devout Catholics most determined to travel from far and wide to see the pontiff? Had the prospect of forbidding security measures scared others away from coming - or staying - in the central area?

The answers, it seems, are yes and yes.

Mayor Nutter was dismissive when asked during a Monday news conference about low revenue reported by businesses.

The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau had projected months ago the papal visit and World Meeting of Families would be a $417.8 million economic boon to the city.

Nutter said at a City Hall news conference Monday that the event was never billed as a moneymaker. The mayor said it was an opportunity to elevate the city's profile.

"Look," Nutter said. "It was billed as a huge event for the city - a major opportunity for Philadelphia to be on a national and international stage. If we're going to be a big city that does big events well and raise our profile, yes, there will be some inconvenience from time to time."

Inconvenience, however, was not the way small businesses viewed the significant loss of take-home pay. For them, a lost weekend cuts directly into profit. They still have to pay the same in rent, utilities, and worker wages each month, whether they lose several days' worth of business or not.

"Friday was the worst Friday I've had since I've been in business," Pam Kingsland, 30, said Sunday morning from behind the counter of her cupcake-and-coffee shop, on 20th Street near Pine Street.

Saturday was no better.

"Incredibly slow," Kingsland said. "Especially since they said it was going to be very, very busy."

Closer to Independence Mall, where throngs gathered Saturday to hear Francis deliver an address on immigration and religious freedom, things were just as grim.

By Sunday morning, Nikki Patel, 28, of Bensalem, manager of the 7-Eleven at Eighth and Walnut Streets, could not hide her disgust - and not just because she had slept on a blanket on the floor every night since Thursday.

It had everything to do with the stacks of bottled water and chips throughout the store, the result of triple-ordering she did in anticipation of pope-related sales that never happened.

"We didn't have enough people in the streets," Patel said.

The emptying out of office high-rises, courts, public schools, and museums began days before the pontiff's arrival, harming businesses as early as Wednesday.

But perceptions of a forbidding urban atmosphere had developed several months earlier, as details of Secret Service-led security preparations began to emerge.

Highways would be closed. So would the Ben Franklin Bridge. Law enforcement would restrict traffic during the papal weekend so that no motor vehicles could enter a nearly five-square-mile section of central Philadelphia.

At the end of July, however, Center City hotels were charging $300 and up to $1,000 a night per room for the papal weekend. Several weeks later, with bookings alarmingly low, organizers launched a publicity campaign to express that the city would be a welcoming place to visit.

By then, however, many would-be visitors, such as retired Fire Marshal Steve Conroy, 54, and his wife, Lynn, 51, of Armada, Mich., had made plans to stay elsewhere - and more cheaply.

They stayed at a Microtel in West Chester, took a SEPTA bus to the 69th Street Transportation Center, and then rode the Market-Frankford El into Center City to see the pope Saturday and Sunday. (A mother and daughter from Cleveland, standing next to the Conroys on Saturday on Logan Square, had commuted in on Amtrak from a hotel in Lancaster.)

To Lynn Conroy, hotel prices in the city were too high when she searched about five weeks ago.

"They were like, $300 a night, $400 a night," she said. "They were just way too expensive." In West Chester, the pair spent $300 in all for a three-night stay.

For third-generation event merchandise vendor Mike Cattolico, conditions on the ground were so challenging that his family collected only a third of the sales that his grandfather managed to make when the last pope visited Philadelphia in 1979.

He was unhappy Monday to see he had sold only $2,000 worth of papal pennants and banners. "It's bad," Cattolico said. "It was really bad. We ended up giving stuff away."

For their part, hoteliers may have miscalculated the demographics of those most likely to descend on the city to see the pope. Accustomed to charging big-city rates and anticipating historic demand, they set high rates, but scrambled, in the final weeks, to lower them just to fill rooms.

Food-truck operators and their gourmet fare, which have supplanted the old-fashioned hot-dog-vendor-and-cart model, were just as chastened.

"It was not a great weekend for food truckers, because it was a pilgrimage crowd and not an epicurean crowd," said Rob Mitchell, president of Philadelphia Mobile Food Association. "They just weren't eating. It's a lesson learned. Now we're a little smarter."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

215-854-2431 @Panaritism