Corktown restaurants and bars are struggling with the news this evening that the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is cancelled due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The annual event hosted each year along Michigan Avenue attracts an estimated 100,000 spectators to the historically Irish neighborhood, boosting demand for beer, whiskey, and plates of corned beef. This year, much of that product may go unused.
Word that the parade might be cancelled spread earlier today as organizers the United Irish Societies communicated with city officials about concerns over large gatherings. Around 4 p.m. on Wednesday, in anticipation of recommendations by Governor Gretchen Whitmer and state health officials, the organization called off the event.
What for spectators may be a disappointment, could prove disastrous for Corktown neighborhood businesses who plan for months in expectation of the parade by bringing in massive amounts of extra food and drink to accommodate the hordes. “All of us have ordered our liquor, beer, and wine, so we’re all out tens of thousands of dollars,” says Matt Buskard, owner of Bobcat Bonnie’s. Bonnie’s had already ordered around $15,000 in product with the expectation that a typical parade day will generally bring in upwards of $40,000 in sales to the Corktown location. Now, Buskard is not sure what he’ll do.
“We can’t send liquor back, so we’re stuck with liquor. We can’t send food product back. For the most part we’re stuck with beer, too,” he says. “We don’t do our normal service, because it is so chaotic,” he adds, so the usual menu isn’t generally available on Parade Day. Bonnie’s also typically brings in more bartenders to handle the increased demand for drinks. “[The parade cancellation] puts us in a weird spot where we don’t know how many people are going to come.” Buskard also worries that if customers come in expecting a regular service and menu, they may be angry and disappointed.
PJ Ryder, owner of PJ’s Lager House, was still reeling from the news when reached for comment on Wednesday night. “It’s all so fresh,” he says. “I haven’t quite figured it out.”
Parade Day is usually a huge event for the Lager House. “It’s off the hook. It’s the biggest day of the year by far,” he says. In the past, when Corktown was still in decline, the Lager House might earn the same amount of money on Parade Day that it made in an average month. The past few years, as business generally improved, the bar has made the equivalent of two weeks revenue in a single day. St. Patrick’s Day is the Irish pub’s second biggest day and it’s unclear how many people will still come out. So far, one band on Tuesday has canceled its booking at the Lager House. “It’s unprecedented territory,” he says.
Ryder notes that moving of the North American International Auto Show from winter to summer has already set many restaurants and bars back. “January was a disastrous month because of that,” he says. Now, with the state advising people to avoid crowds of 100 people or more, he isn’t sure how the outbreak may impact other major upcoming events like Opening Day. “The economic spin-off for businesses is going to be astronomical,” he says. For now, he expects the Lager House will still open for regular opening hours on Sunday with brunch and limited standing room-only for eating. The Stone Clover are scheduled to perform at 1 p.m. (Closing time is still to be determined.)
Already, the Corktown Business Association is organizing a meeting to discuss how best to handle the decreased visitors to the neighborhood on Sunday. The group plans to meet at Nemo’s to discuss strategies, Buskard says. “We’re open for business. We want to have people come down,” he says, adding that the plan as of now is to treat the day like an informal bar crawl. Bars and restaurants will be offering shuttles throughout the neighborhood.
Still, Buskard is concerned it may not be enough.
Gerald Stevens, the owner of one of the oldest bars in the city Nancy Whiskey Pub, says the bar is forging ahead with its St. Patrick’s Day festivities despite the cancellation. “I expect at least a 50 percent negative impact, but we’ve got too much invested to turn back now,” he says, adding that it’s typically the bar’s biggest day of the year. “We’re still going to make the best of it.”
Update: This story has been updated with comments from Gerald Stevens at Nancy Whiskey Pub.
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