Small Businesses on the Primary Campaign Trail: How to Cash In

With the GOP presidential nomination race kicking into high gear across the country, small business owners that find themselves along the campaign trail face the challenge of catering to key political and media figures while keeping their regular customers happy.

Primary season brings an added boost to tourism—giving businesses owners the chance to cash in on the influx of attention, but experts warn they should avoid alienating regular clients that will remain once the fanfare dissolves.

Four New Hampshire small businesses reflect on what methods worked best for them, and what advice they have for other small business owners about to get bombarded by primary mayhem.

Jeremy Colby, owner of Colby’s Breakfast & Lunch in Portsmouth, N.H., doesn’t want anything to do with politics—not the attention or money. With only 10 tables, Colby posted the same sign he did in 2008 that reads: No politicians, no exceptions.

Colby, who has lived in New Hampshire for 15 years and has been running his business for the last eight, said election coverage interferes with business.

“The only way I make money at all, including paying my staff, is to the make the place run efficiently,” said Colby. “Politics brings all of that to a grinding halt.”

Colby advised owners to protect “what is yours” because candidates come in without warning and book up the entire space.

“Inside my restaurant, I am the man and the buck stops here. I am responsible for everything that goes wrong,” said Colby.

Unlike Colby who said the invasion of politics hurt his regular clients and profits, Thomas Alexander, co-owner of late-night lounge and restaurant Drynk, courted the attention.

In fact, Alexander said the primaries boosted his Manchester, N.H. business. Not even a year old, Drynk held a private event for NBC.

He advised other small business owners along the primary trail to get prepared and strategize how to aggressively market themselves to grab the business of the media and candidates.

Being a stomping ground for politicians in New Hampshire is old hat to Christina Andreoli, the general manager of MaryAnn’s Diner in Derry, N.H. MaryAnn’s has been in business for 22 years and with each primary, Andreoli sees the crowds at her establishment swell. This year, presidential hopefuls Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all stopped by for a meal.

“We don’t solicit [the candidates],” said Andreoli. “We have the option to refuse them, but we never have. It brings in crowds, and we let the customers know about it.”

Andreoli used Facebook to let customers know when a politician will be visiting. While the customers enjoy meeting key political figures, it doesn’t necessarily translate into an increase in profits for the diner. With that said, she does get the benefit of free advertising and media attention during the visit.

“The only thing we need to do is make sure our customers are well taken care of and still happy,” said Andreoli. “We shut down a whole area for the restaurant [for politicians]…because we don’t want it to be a hassle for our customers. We want to make sure they can still come in and get great service and not hinder their experience of the restaurant.”

Café Espresso in Portsmouth, N.H., was pushed into the media spotlight four years ago when now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously became emotional during speaking about her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination at the restaurant. Owner David Hadwen has been through three rounds of primaries, and said this year’s primary season didn’t draw as much traffic in the past because Portsmouth is primarily a Democratic town. However, Ron Paul did make an appearance.

Hadwen welcomes the press and politicians during primary seasons, and said the exposure lasts a week or two and then it’s business as usual. He added that even if your business is hurt on the day of a certain political event, it could bring back customers and their friends who have now discovered the restaurant.

“You never know if you are going to have a ‘Hillary moment’”, said Hadwen. “It gives exposure to your business, and I think that’s a good thing. You have to look at the big picture.”

Here are three tips small business owners should consider as primary season heats up:

1) Protect your profits. Make sure you will not lose money by hosting a big event for a candidate or the media and that your business has enough capacity to keep the entire day profitable.

2) Keep your customers happy. Media and political frenzies can easily overwhelm smaller venues and owners need to make sure regular clients feel at ease. MaryAnn’s ropes off an area of the restaurant to contain press and politicians, which helps keep the chaos at bay for customers.

3) Take Advantage of the Attention.  Getting exposure during this short window of time might not show a profit on the actual day, but it may help get publicity for years to come, said Hadwen, owner of Café Expresso.