Bars, restaurants near Principal Park relieved to have Iowa Cubs baseball again

El Bait Shop in Des Moines, Iowa. (Olivia Sun/The Register)

By Casey Drottar
Medill Reports

As locals embrace the long-awaited return of Iowa Cubs baseball, so, too, are the bars and restaurants surrounding Principal Park. Many of them spent last summer deprived of the fan revenue they typically depend on, which made an already arduous 2020 even more difficult.

“It was pretty tough,” said Zack McCuen, manager of nearby breakfast restaurant Mullets. “Those Cubs games really do help us. It took a lot of business away from our nights. We had to lay off some people. You had to close at nights and just cater to what we know is going to make us money.”

Mullets is one of several establishments that endured additional 2020 hardship brought on by the lack of Minor League Baseball. Battling COVID-19 restrictions made life tough enough for them. Adding the absence of Iowa Cubs baseball just felt like piling on.

“Not having the Cubs made a big impact,” said Laura Cateron, assistant bar manager of 300 Craft & Rooftop, which features a patio that overlooked an empty ballpark all last summer. “It’s a big part of our business. We lost a lot of our older crowd. I think this year will be better because everybody’s ready for sports.”

The patio at 300 Craft & Rooftop will finally overlook a crowded Principal Park this summer. (Casey Drottar/MEDILL)

While the return of Cubs baseball will bring revenue relief, life won’t fully return to normal for the stadium-adjacent establishments this year. Iowa will be hosting only 60 home games this summer instead of the originally planned 71, with capacity limits currently restricting the team to a maximum of just 3,000 fans per night.

It’s a far cry from the 10,000 Cubs supporters who populate the area for Friday and Saturday night games. Yet it represents much-needed baseball business for restaurants that lost so much last year.

This boost is a point of pride for an Iowa Cubs team that views itself as an important driver of Des Moines’ economic growth.

“We’ve seen a big resurgence and change in the neighborhood in the last 10 years,” said Cubs president and general manager Sam Bernabe. “There were probably, at best, 1,000 people living in downtown Des Moines 10 years ago. Now, there’s over 20,000 people. Soon, there will be as many as 30,000 people within a five-minute walk of the ballpark. We feel like we’ve been part of that for a long time.”

Though several nearby restaurants anticipate a much busier summer thanks to the Cubs, the initial surge in business hasn’t arrived just yet. Sales will heat up with the weather.

“We (had games) this week, but the weather turned cold, so the business kind of dropped off,” said Jeff Bruning, owner of El Bait Shop. “If it’s cold outside, people aren’t going to sit at a baseball game. If it’s 80 degrees out, a nice, sunny day, we’ll probably be very full.”

The warmup will come, and with it a boost in Cubs fans around the stadium. The people who run the nearby restaurants hope to remind fans why they offer the ideal place to visit before the game.

“We want people that go to those Cubs games to come here first,” McCuen said of Mullets. “It’s a really fun place to hang out and have a beer before you go and pay $8 for one.”

Casey Drottar is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @CDrottar19.