As University graduates move on, downtown restaurants cash inPosted: March 26, 2009
By: Whitney Skeeters
When Pomp and Circumstance plays in Sanford Stadium this May, you can hear a different tune in downtown Athens: cha-ching.
UGA’s graduation weekend provides a welcomed oasis to downtown restaurants, shops and hotels suffering a drought of home football games.
In 2008, between December and May commencement ceremonies, the University spit out almost 9,000 bachelor’s, master’s, first professional and doctoral degrees. During the weekend of May 8-10, thousands of students will don their caps and gowns and take their seat in the stadium. The even more intimidating number of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends invited by these graduates will descend upon the Classic City. Seasoned locals may groan at the traffic, but must keep in mind the money getting pumped into the Athens-Clarke County government. Athens citizens stand to benefit from the visitors due to various taxes, the hotel-motel tax in particular.
The Starbucks downtown is one popular hub for the graduation crowd. It is located on the corner of a historic building in the heart of downtown, and conveniently close to the Arch, a spot guaranteed to be swarmed by black robes and gushing parents clutching digital cameras. The familiar symbolic icon reassures visitors of a place to relax from the bustle, and the interior oozes of an artsy Athens culture parents and students want to be a part of.
Starbucks employee Sunny Sorrells said they are already planning for the weekend, making sure to staff up to accommodate the numbers.
Heery’s Clothes Closet also anticipates more sales. Manager Linda Rasch said foot traffic that weekend is almost comparable to that of home football games.
“The weekend is great,” Rasch said. “Parents come in here with their children – they love to come in the store.”
Rasch said not only are the families simply browsing what the town has to offer, they also seem more likely to make purchases that weekend.
“The parents are paying the bill,” Rasch said, explaining why students are likely to bring their parents to the store. “I also think parents love to see the different stores their kids have been involved in during the four years they’ve been here.”
Next door, Encore boasts more sales that weekend, but according to co-owner John Widmer, it isn’t much more.
“You’ll see a lot of parents in town and students in the graduation outfits, but as far as business I’d say it’s a little busier but nothing great,” Widmer said. “It’s a weekend and weekends in general are always good. There are always functions going on.”
Widmer predicts restaurants are the biggest benefactors from graduation, and restaurant employees whole-heartedly agree.
The Last Resort Grill is crowded with students on any given weekend, so it makes sense they would choose it to celebrate one of their last weekends here. Colorful, abstract paintings hang on bare, brick walls while water is delivered in rustic glass pitchers. The playfully elegant font on the menu seems indicative of the items on it: strange and creative combinations but always exquisite and superior quality. To graduates, it is the perfect way to celebrate the final chapter of their Athens story: a mix of culture and sophistication.
“Are we busy at graduation? Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely – incredibly,” said Last Resort employee Jeffrey Taylor. “It could be raining, snowing, or 150 degrees and we would still be incredibly busy.”
Although Last Resort does not accept reservations, it certainly doesn’t stop graduates from trying. Taylor said the calls began before Christmas.
East West Bistro is also a favorite that weekend. Long-time cook Chino Hathcodk said they are typically completely booked the month before graduation.
“Our Sunday brunch after graduation is one of our busiest brunches of the year,” Hathcodk said. “The whole weekend is busy. We’re pretty much booked Thursday through Sunday.”
Mama’s Boy feeds graduation crowds for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Known for its elaborate brunch and unique twist on down-home cooking, Mama’s Boy is ideal for family celebrations. Cooper Currin said they began taking reservations last month.
“We all stand around waiting and then they all come in at once. It’s been like that at every restaurant I’ve worked at in Athens during graduation,” Currin said.
She thinks all restaurants in Athens benefit from the weekend.
“Everyone wants to take their parents to their favorite restaurant, or at least a nicer restaurant,” Currin said. “But the truth is, you’ve got to eat, so a lot have to go wherever they get in.”
As openings for reservations rapidly dwindle, no industry in Athens can attest to the need to plan ahead more than the hotels. Most are already completely booked, especially ones located downtown.
A sales representative for all three Hilton hotels in downtown said many people make graduation reservations a year in advance. As of press time, they are 90 percent full, and employee Cassie Hayes said they are typically completely booked by the month before.
Each business agrees the weekend does not bring in quite as much money as gameday weekends they all look forward to seeing that familiar processional of spenders.