Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Restaurants to stay open for fests

By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        People attending the Ujima Cinci-Bration and Coors Light Festival next month might have trouble getting a table, but at least they'll be able to get in the door at most downtown restaurants.

        That wasn't the case last year when 14 of 34 high-end downtown restaurants that normally are open on weekend nights shut their doors during the festival weekend, which attracted a mostly black crowd of about 150,000.

        Last year's closings fueled accusations of racism, against white restaurateurs who kept their doors open during other mostly white-oriented downtown festivals, including the Taste of Cincinnati and Oktoberfest, but closed for Ujima and Coors Light.

        The grass-roots group Black United Front picketed several of the restaurants that closed. The protests ebbed after several prominent members of the Greater Cincinnati Restaurant Association issued a letter stating that they did not intend to offend anyone, and that race was not a factor in their decisions.

        Instead, the restaurant operators said they closed because business historically had been slow during the Ujima and Coors Light festivals, which will be held this year July 20-22.

        Despite such economic considerations, the restaurant association says it has received no notification that any of its downtown members plan to close during Ujima and Coors Light this year.

        “In light of all the controversy last year, and in light of all the concern, we will be open,” said Nat Comisar, co-owner of the Maisonette and the adjacent La Normandie, which both were closed last year. “I just hope that the trend that was exhibited in prior years will be reversed.”

        Mr. Comisar said his East Sixth Street restaurants historically do not attract many walk-in customers during the Ujima and Coors Light festivals, and that traffic congestion typically discourages many local guests from coming downtown during the festivals.

        Jeff Ruby, whose namesake steakhouse at 700 Walnut St. was one of the primary targets of the Black United Front protests, said he, too, would keep his restaurant open this year “even if I lose money.”

        But Jeffrey M. Humphrey, an economic forecaster at the University of Georgia's Selig Center For Economic Growth, said losing money should be no more of a concern for restaurant operators during the Ujima and Coors Light festivals than it is during any other event.

        In fact, Mr. Humphrey said, downtown restaurants typically thrive on the traffic generated by music festivals such as Ujima and Coors Light, which attract large numbers of visitors from out of town.

        “Out-of-town visitors will always spend more money in restaurants than local residents attending local festivals because out-of-town visitors have no other choice but to eat out,” he said.

        Pat Brennan, general manager of the Redfish Seafood Kitchen and Looziana Roadhouse, 700 Race St., said it will be business as usual at his restaurant during the Ujima and Coors Light festivals this year.

        “Last year, we closed an hour early one day because business was dead and our employees wanted to go home,” Mr. Brennan said. “But this year we probably won't because of all the controversy.

        “But we're really not making any changes for the festival,” he said. “We usually get a nice little bonus to sales during that weekend because there are so many people from out of town, so that's actually a great weekend for us.”

        Steve Gibson, a manager at Uno's Pizzeria, 627 Walnut St., said the restaurant typically does more business during the Ujima and Coors Light festivals than during the Taste of Cincinnati or Oktoberfest because the music festival fills up nearby hotels.

        “We were open last year, and we'll be open again this year because we usually get a big crowd that weekend,” Mr. Gibson said. “We're expecting a big crowd this year, and we'll keep our doors open for everybody.”


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