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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Before arena events, dinner will be a main concern

BY BILL WILSON
The Wichita Eagle

Mary Wright's decision this week to keep the Old Mill Tasty Shop open on event nights at Intrust Bank Arena surprised even her.

"We've been here for a while and I'm close to retirement age, so my first thought was to just see what happens with the businesses here on our block of Douglas," said Wright, owner of the Old Mill at 604 E. Douglas.

Instead, unexpected lines of enthusiastic diners during the arena open house last Saturday changed her mind.

"I think the excitement the public felt when they got their first look at the arena convinced me to open," Wright said.

Old Mill's longer hours are just one of many issues Old Town restaurateurs are sorting out as the arena opens Saturday with a sold-out concert by Brad Paisley.

Staffing and food orders are way up, menus are being tweaked and owners wonder whether regular customers will brave the arena crowds.

Wright said she was struck last week by the excitement her customers felt about the arena.

"We had such an incredible crowd of people," she said. "They were so happy, so excited about the arena. They wanted to talk about the arena, and they were so up about it.''

The evening hours are a huge leap for Wright, whose shop has failed to generate dinner traffic in the past.

She's going to trot out Old Mill's traditional menu Saturday night, along with chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes and hot apple bread pudding —"family-hearty foods," as she put it.

"I probably should have thought about this earlier," she said, chuckling. "I sit on several boards and I've had offers to go check out the arena early, and I should have, to feel the excitement.

"But Saturday, after I saw the crowd of people and how excited they were about it, I thought, 'What's two blocks?' Turns out, they were right."

Trying to plan

Old Town restaurateurs admit they don't know what to expect from the arena crowds and aren't sure how to plan for them:

How many servers to bring in Saturday night? How many chefs? Regular menu? A shorter event-day menu? Handling a regular night's crowd with all the concert-goers in the area?

Some plan to wing it; others have been researching the possibilities for weeks.

"I think that the first concert... will be a learning process, but it's not something that any of us aren't used to," said Matthew Rumsey, director of operations for Empire Restaurant Management, Melad Stephan's Wichita restaurant group.

Larkspur owner Ty Issa has been researching the impact of the arena.

"I've been talking to some operators in Oklahoma, and their advice is 'be ready,' " Issa said. "Ready means right at 5:30 on event nights you're going to have a massive army of people at your door wanting food."

Larkspur's normal Saturday night staff of 15 will be doubled to hit Issa's goal of getting concert-goers fed in an hour.

"This thing reminds me a little bit of when we had 'Wicked' in town," Issa said. "People will be in here at 5:30, and 6:30 they'll be gone."

It's what those early diners do with their cars that worries Issa.

"Your hope is the arena brings in new business," he said. "But will it?

"Our crowds start coming in at 7:30 on a regular night. I'm worried that the early arrivals will leave their cars here, take the shuttle and go to the arena, making parking impossible after the concert starts."

Making changes

The arena and its events will force downtown restaurateurs out of their longtime comfort zones, said Jeremy Hill, director of Wichita State's Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

But that's a good thing, Hill said.

"There may well be a need for these people to reposition themselves," he said, "figure out how to keep your loyal customers satisfied while at the same time taking the potential the arena generates and growing your market."

That means changes, Hill said, from raising prices when arena traffic is the highest to opening a second restaurant or even relocating to capture more available parking.

Others will rely on doing what they do best. It will be business as usual at Stephan's downtown Wichita restaurants, Rumsey said — Uptown Bistro Sabor Latin Bar and Grille, and Oeno Wine Bar — with increased staffing and regular menus.

Rumsey laughed at the idea of a shortened, quick menu.

"We're not into making people choose specific items off a shortened menu," he said. "It's limiting what you offer a guest, and we're not here to make them choose what we want."

Empire's corporate expertise will overcome any first-night problems, Rumsey said.

"We've got 14 managers who've seen most everything that can go wrong, so we're not concerned," he said. "We're looking forward to the arena opening tremendously and getting the excess business."

So is Wright, but she confesses to being caught up in the excitement of the arena.

"That kind of surprises me," she said. "I mean, our hours have always been breakfast and lunch.

"I guess that on Saturday I finally realized that we need to do something, to step up and show what can be done on this block, so we're going to serve until 7 on concert night and just see what happens."

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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