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Empty Cash Registers: Businesses Struggle Through Pope Visit

"We set up tables outside with grab-and-go items like sandwiches and snacks. When they didn't sell, we started giving them to any homeless that would pass by," shop owner says.

With as many as 1.5 million people estimated to have passed through Philadelphia during the week-long World Meeting of Families conference and papal visit, one would expect business was booming.

But all types of businesses, from restaurants and bars to clothing shops and even dollar stores in the city say they found it hard to make a buck during the pope's visit.

"We have been suffering big time," said Dollar-o-Mart Plus Dollar Store owner Asghar Ansari. "We stocked an additional $4,000 to $5,000 in product, like chargers, batteries and food items; things we thought people would need. But the only thing selling is the pope stuff."

Several other business owners along Chestnut, Walnut and Samson Streets say they also stocked additional product in anticipation of large crowds of customers only to see it go to waste.

Mark DeNinno, owner of Chris' Jazz Cafe at 1421 Samson Street, said he was left with mounds of extra produce that he had to ask his business neighbor The Union League of Philadelphia to store in their refrigerators and freezers when he ran out of space.

"We did maybe 10 percent of the amount of business we would normally do on a weekend," DeNinno said. "There was a jumbotron right outside of our doors and thousands of people passed by but none of them came in. I think people just had an agenda to get from point A to point B without making stops."

Philly Cupcake sales associate Silvia Pulido said they baked a lot of extra cupcakes that weren't purchased. The store closed early Sunday after few customers stopped in.

Some stores like the CLC bookstore on Chestnut Street decided to close for the entire weekend. Others tried all sorts of measures, from making special orders to offering special menus and extended hours of operation — to no avail.

Nana Goldberg, owner of the I. Goldberg Army & Navy store, said her business placed special orders for additional Argentinian flags and ponchos, hoping visitors would need them, but it never rained and very few people stopped in to purchase flags or anything else.

"We did so many things to prepare and all of it seemed to go to waste," Goldberg said. "Our biggest disappointment was that the weather is perfect for people to buy the items we sell, like flannels and jackets. We even have all of the country flags, but once Friday came it was a ghost town and no one was shopping."

The Lucky Ducks?

Being close to the action is usually a guarantee for additional business during an event as large as the papal visit. But even businesses as close as Reading Terminal Market say there was nothing lucky about the weekend's events.

"It's been terrible," said Drew Shattuck, manager at Tommy DiNic's. "We saw very few regulars or tourists. It was definitely not what we were expecting after the mayor told us to prepare for an additional million people."

Michael Murray, co-owner of The Tubby Olive shop in Reading Terminal Market, called it a separation of business and church.

"I just don't think the people were here for shops like ours. They were here for the pope, and that's okay," he said.

There were a few businesses, like Fergie's Pub on Samson St., that said the papal visit didn't have a negative impact at all.

"We had a solid weekend of business," Fergie's bartender Jim McNamara said. "I can't complain."

Milkboy also fared well this weekend. Server Renee Blitman says the location of the cafe had a lot to do with it.

"Fortunately, we're in a good location because we're right across the street from Jefferson Hospital. They had a lot of staff stuck in there over the weekend so we opened up early to accommodate them and we were packed," Blitman said.

Who's At Fault?

The consensus among some business owners is that the city put too many restrictions in place and scared away most of the city's residents and businesses' regular customers. JP Boles, owner The Ugly Moose in Manayunk, called the papal visit an absolute disaster for business owners.

"I'm calling it the aPOPEalypse. It's not about making a profit off the pope, its really about maintaining your business and paying your bills. It certainly should not have been about scaring everybody away, but that's what the city did," Boles said.

Boles said there was nothing business owners could have done differently, but he did have a few recommendations for the city.

"I could have had Donald Trump bartending for me Friday and Saturday, it wouldn't have made a difference; the people just weren't there. If I were the city, I wouldn't have started this whole thing by telling people to stay home, not to drive their cars. I wouldn't have been as alarmist as they were, but it's too late now."

Stefan Sklaroff, owner of Cella Luxuria furniture store, mirrored Boles' opinion. He said he was sad that the papal visit didn't go as he expected.

"It's not to say that we're all about commerce, but you shouldn't scare off the population in the fifth largest city in the country. And it's sad because the pope and all of those people came here to see Philadelphia and I don't think they really got to see Philadelphia," he said.

"The pope's message was inspiring; it was all about family. But in Philadelphia, it was like the family got kicked out of the house this weekend."

Extra Extras

So, what will businesses do with all of that extra product?

Pulido said Philly Cupcake owners still haven't decided what to do with all of the leftover cupcakes that didn't sell.

McNamar said he's confident that the extra beer and bar food that Fergie's ordered will sell, eventually.

DeNinno decided to turn the business fail into a charity opportunity by giving sandwiches away to the homeless. He says, the most important part of this weekend was not business, but spreading Pope Francis' message of love and giving.

"We set up tables outside with grab-and-go items like sandwiches and snacks. When they didn't sell, we started giving them to any homeless that would pass by," he said.

"That's what it's all about. If just one percent of the people in the city pick up on the message of the pope, I'd say it'll all have been worth it."

NBC10 reached out to mayor's office spokesman Mark McDonald but he declined to comment.

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