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Downtown businesses get creative to attract customers during summer

local College Park businesses like Beirgarten face slower summer hours

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Posted on: May 9, 2024

By ADELIA MCGUIRE and SHARON O’MALLEY

local College Park businesses like Beirgarten face slower summer hours
Eateries like Biergarten shorten their hours, offer sales and host events during summer in hopes of attracting more residents.
Photo credit: Adelia McGuire

As the University of Maryland’s academic year draws to a close, downtown stores and restaurants are gearing up for the seasonal downturn that kicks in when students leave for the summer.

Managers of businesses near the campus said they have to get creative during the summer to draw customers in after their regulars — tens of thousands of college students — temporarily move away.

“In the summer, business gets really slow,” Abrina Gutierrez, general manager at Cava, said.

Gutierrez estimated that more than 85% of the casual Mediterranean eatery’s customers are college students. Marathon Deli, a late-night favorite of students, put that number closer to 95%, while Ledo Pizza estimates that half of the restaurant’s business comes from students.

“That’s just what it is,” Michael Chmar, who works at The Board and Brew, said. “In the school year, it’s keep up if you can, and in the summer, it’s get ready for the fall.”

Chmar said the popular breakfast and lunch spot loses up to a quarter of its usual revenue during summer months and that up to 70% of its regulars are students.

To make up for the loss of revenue from student purchases — up to $50,000 a month at Nando’s PERi PERi, according to store manager India Johnston — retailers and restaurateurs will launch time-limited promotions, offer freebies at local farmers markets, feature brunches and happy hours, and even close up shop earlier in the evening.

“It’s a lot slower, but there are more local sales,” Bobby Welch, a year-round employee of One Stop Shop, a convenience store on College Avenue, said.

Welch, who estimated that up to half of the store’s customers are students, said the shop relies on student and resident foot traffic from nearby shops, like the ever-popular Insomnia Cookies, to keep the business afloat off-season.

Amy Bo, a supervisor at Dog Haus Biergarten, which opened in February and will face its first off-season in College Park this summer, said the gourmet hot dog restaurant aims to attract locals by hosting regular happy hours and  might introduce a trivia night.

“Happy hour is going to be a really big thing in the summer,” Bo said. “During the school year … we don’t really have it.”

Even with sparse evening crowds during summer, Bo said she expects daytime traffic to pick up as potential university students and their families will be in town.

Burtons Grill & Bar in Riverdale Park will promote its recently added Saturday brunches, Monday happy hours and Wine Wednesdays, when bottles are half price, General Manager Taneesha Johnson said. 

“Once students leave campus, there’s typically a noticeable shift in our business,” Johnson said. “There’s a seasonality to our business, and the summer gives us the opportunity to regroup as a team and focus on improving in any areas needed.”

Potbelly lures locals in with free samples during the summer but relies more heavily on its catering services to get it through the slow season, store manager James Taylor said.

Employees at national chains like &pizza, Cold Stone Creamery and Panda Express said their College Park stores will experiment with menu changes and schedule fewer employees during the summer.

The absence of the usual student crowds could dim the energy at some stores and restaurants, the managers said.

“During the school year, it’s pretty busy, which makes the time go by fast,” Leilani Blunt, an employee of Marathon Deli, said. “Over the summer, the pace relaxes. … It’s not a drastic change, but definitely slower than how it is during the school year.”

Some businesses cut services during the summer rather than adding new incentives.

Ledo Pizza, for example, shuts down its bar and does not serve alcohol once campus empties. The home of the square pizza operates on a reduced schedule and hires fewer servers, Ethan Schmiel, the restaurant’s counter supervisor, said.

At Cava, Gutierrez keeps idle staff busy during quiet stretches by assigning them extra cleaning chores, while other places hire fewer workers, partly because of a lack of students applying for summer jobs.

Some managers view the thinner summer crowds and lighter traffic as an opportunity to reach out to locals who might avoid downtown College Park during the bustling school year.

Blunt said partnering with delivery services such as Uber Eats has boosted business from city residents who want to avoid Baltimore Avenue traffic, and she anticipates retaining those customers through the summer. 

One store, Stripe 3 Adidas typically loses fewer sales from June through August than its neighbors, manager Zach Lee said. Lee noted that the store relies more on orders during sports seasons than from student walk-ins during the school year. He said fewer than 10% of the store’s customers are university students.

As with Ledo Pizza and a number of other establishments in the city, the largely empty campus means fewer available hires for Stripe 3 Adidas. “I have a lot of college employees, so in the summer, a lot of my employees are gone,” Lee said.

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