NORFOLK, Va. – Norfolk’s massive First Fridays block party earlier this month brought throngs of folks downtown.
The Downtown Norfolk Council, which organized the event, roughly estimates 5,000 people walked in and out of restaurants in the event bubble on Friday, August 6, helping to give them a big boost in business.
“It was fantastic,” said Grace O’Malley’s owner Christy Marron. “Our sales were significantly higher.”
Marron said Grace O’Malley’s saw a 50% jump in sales compared to a typical Friday. She believes the new outdoor refreshment liquor law allowing people to walk around a designated area at special events with a drink in hand played a big role in attracting more people to the pub.
“That brought in more people than the typical First Fridays would when they were contained just a couple of blocks up the street,” Marron said. “A lot more people were coming in. They liked being able to get a drink to go, maybe some food to go and they could go out and roam through the streets.”
That Friday was the busiest day Hell’s Kitchen ever had in the 20 years it’s been open. Owner Kevin Blair said that day smashed records for his business with the help of the new ABC law.
“No question, the new liquor law helped,” Blair said. “It was one of the biggest contributors. It was our best day ever - better than New Year’s Eve and Halloween.”
Chicho’s Backstage also had a record-breaking day. Operating owner Rory Schindel said the restaurant saw a 100% spike in revenue.
“It was absolutely a record day for us, and it was awesome,” he said. “It doubled the sales for the weekend that night. It was is crazy.
Schindel said events like First Fridays coupled with the alcohol law will help to promote tourism downtown.
“I think it's a very good step that Virginia is taking,” he said. “There's a lot of people that wanted to come in, grab a drink and then go outside and enjoy the weather and enjoy the atmosphere out there.”
A huge concern that’s top of mind is rising COVID-19 cases and the possibility of sales dipping if restrictions are once again forced on businesses.
“Restaurants are definitely going to get hit hard again. It's almost inevitable,” said Schindel. “The initial lockdown really hurt us and probably every other restaurant around here. Nobody traveled downtown to visit us. It was a huge decline in sales.”
Both Chicho’s Backstage and Grace O’Malley’s owners said they’re ready if that day comes.
“We're prepared for it,” Marron said. “I am mentally prepared that probably by September, if the spike in the numbers keeps rising, that we're going to have some more restrictions, but we made it through the first round of restrictions.”
Restaurant owners are looking forward to the next two First Fridays coming up on September 3 and October 1, especially if new COVID mandates are put in place in the months ahead. They said they’re hoping to surpass sales numbers from the first event.
Meantime, some other Hampton Roads cities could be following Norfolk’s lead in applying for the outdoor refreshment liquor license. Williamsburg, Suffolk, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach city officials said they’re currently reviewing the law and how to implement it.
“The City of Chesapeake is reviewing this item; however, at this time a final decision has not yet been made regarding future actions,” said Chesapeake Public Communications Director Heath Covey.
Suffolk’s Media and Community Relations Director Diana Klink said, “The City is reviewing the new ABC law, its application, and logistics with respect to city-held events.”
In Williamsburg, the Economic Development Authority unanimously passed a resolution two weeks after the law went into effect on July 1. The resolution encourages city council and city staff to consider developing one or more outdoor refreshment areas to attract visitors, promote tourism, economic development, tax revenue and a sense of community.
“Our EDA has identified it as something that could work well in downtown Williamsburg and has asked city staff to look into it,” said PIO Nicole Trifone.
Virginia Beach’s Communications Director Julie Hill said, “Staff is developing a plan to bring to city leadership for how we can best implement and manage the process here.”
A spokeswoman for Portsmouth said the city council has not yet discussed applying for the outdoor refreshment liquor license.
Newport News and Hampton did not respond to requests for comment.