Restaurants underwhelmed following papal weekend

Despite the large influx of tourists, local restaurants reported slow business and financial losses during Pope Francis’ stay in Philadelphia.

Amanda Woodward, (right), dines with friends Thomas Krauss and Sean Cassidy at Café Lift, a brunch spot in Center City that expected more customers. | Patrick Clark TTN
Amanda Woodward, (right), dines with friends Thomas Krauss and Sean Cassidy at Café Lift, a brunch spot in Center City that expected more customers. | Patrick Clark TTN

Visitors who came to see the Pope Sept. 26 and 27 apparently weren’t interested in stopping for pancakes and scrapple before seeing him.

An expected crowd of more than 1 million people left Philadelphia restaurants scrambling to prepare—although some venues were left overstocked instead of overwhelmed.

“We did half the business that we normally do,” said Mounir Draissi, the general manager of brunch at Sabrina’s Café at 1804 Callowhill St. “The regulars were not here. And, we are a destination. People drive to get to us.”

Driving wasn’t a viable option throughout the papal weekend due to transportation and security restrictions that kept Philadelphia restaurant workers at the edges of bar stools and banquette seats throughout the summer.

In early August, the city announced the traffic box—later renamed the Francis Festival Grounds. Center City was closed to traffic from river to river, South Street to the north border that ran along Spring Garden until 12th Street, up Ridge Avenue, and continued along Girard Avenue to end in Fairmount Park.

Restrictions on roads and transportation left most restaurants inside the box asking a lot of questions about how they were going to stay open during the papal visit.

“Starting a support group for Philly restaurant operators freaking out about the Pope zone, Pope fence, getting deliveries, and sheltering staff,” Federal Donuts tweeted Aug. 5. One of their locations is in Center City.

The World Meeting of Families and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia promoted the hashtag #OpeninPHL and encouraged restaurants to promote their ability to feed, clothe and sell Pope-themed souvenirs to locals and visitors alike.

“I’ve never seen as many people as I saw over the weekend,” Draissi said. “There were a lot of people walking around, but nobody coming in. People are used to the freshness of Sabrina’s, so we threw out a lot of stuff. It definitely cost a lot of money.”

Sabrina’s Café is located two blocks north of Logan Square and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the location of Pope Francis’ Mass Sep. 27.

A block west of Sabrina’s is Pizzeria Vetri at 1939 Callowhill St., which experienced customers craving food different than the usual pies.

“We tried to make it a little more approachable,” said assistant general manager Suzanne Rossini. “We had more pepperoni pizza and we did sell a few more slices than we generally do. We had a lot of takeout sales. We expected that.”

Rossini said the pizzeria was busy over the weekend due to its proximity to the action.

On the other side of Broad Street, 20 pounds of leftover coffee signified a slow weekend for brunch hotspot Café Lift.

“The OpeninPHL hashtag on Instagram and Twitter has been pretty helpful,” general manager and former Temple student Julia Giardina said a couple days before the papal visit. “We’ve also had a lot of people calling here asking if we’re open. I think people are interested in coming out.”

After the weekend, Giardina said Café Lift had 30 percent of its usual business Saturday, but did manage to get slightly busier on Sunday.

“It was a huge bust,” Giardina said. “I think everyone who lives here and works here fled the city. It’s honestly a shame. I just wish that the city of Philadelphia engaged everyone here instead of scaring them all away.”

Madeline Presland can be reached at

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