In less than a week, Henry Maier Festival Park will be transformed into Milwaukee's largest tavern.
Summerfest, which kicks off its 11-day run Thursday, routinely draws more than 70,000 people to the lakefront. When those people get hungry, they eat. A lot. When they get thirsty, they drink. A lot.
Along with corporate sponsorship and admission tickets, food and beverage sales are a pivotal part of Summerfest's financial picture. But, what impact do those plates of mozzarella marinara and beer cups have on establishments who sell food and beverages on a year-round basis?
Summerfest's impact on local tourism is both considerable and multifaceted. Hotels, both Downtown and in the suburbs, generally seek brisk business during the weekend. Parking lots near the festival grounds see huge spikes in revenue. Some bars Downtown and in the Third Ward see a slight to significant traffic increase as fest-goers meet before and after the Big Gig.
For many, though, the World's Largest Music Festival sounds a sour note.
"All we get during Summerfest are the pukers and pissers," said one area tavern owner, who asked not to be identified.
For many bars, the decrease in traffic around the Fourth of July holiday and other summer weekends is expected. Regular customers go out of town on vacation. They hit fireworks shows and family gatherings. They attend weddings and class reunions. Those events are summer fixtures, but they don't create the same vacuum as a certain 11-day extravaganza.
"I don't want to sound cynical because Summerfest is a great thing for this city but the fact of the matter is the festivals do detract from business," said Chris Leffler, who owns Leff's Lucky Town in Wauwatosa.
Leffler estimates that July sales drop 15 percent from May and June. Though he allows that some of that is due to the weather, the end of school and vacations, he knows that Summerfest probably hurts more than other events.
"Even our softball teams don't show up quite as much once Summerfest starts," Leffler said. "Most of these guys only get one or two nights out and if there is a festival going on they are going to save that night out to hit the Henry Maier Festival grounds rather than sit inside the same place they have been for the last eight weeks."
For bars that routinely book live music, competing against Summerfest is suicide.
"We usually go dark for the entire run," said Peter Jest, owner of Shank Hall. "This year, we have the Michael Schenker Group coming in July 5. But, that's kind of a different audience. Most of the time, we just close up."
A few years ago, Jest tried to book Summerfest staple Pat McCurdy for shows beginning after midnight. "We had a few people come in and it was good for our employees to get some hours," Jest said. "But, but the time people got here, we were making last call. There just wasn't enough time to make it worth it."
Art Bar owner Don Krause says he doesn't book bands at his Riverwest venue during Summerfest. "Traffic always drops off until after Bastille Days around here," says Krause.
Jo Anne Willow, co-owner of Riverwest's Bremen Café, says her café and music venue didn't hire bands last year during Summerfest, but they did for 2007. According to Willow, business is usually slow during Summerfest, but this year they chose to run business as usual during the 11-day Big Gig.
"We're staying consistent during Summerfest this year," says Willow. "We're not going to roll over and play dead."
Willow believes most Milwaukeeans who do not live in the Downtown area have the perception that all of the surrounding neighborhoods are crowded, so they stay away even though in reality a lot of nearby venues suffer during Summerfest.
"Maybe Summerfest is good for businesses on walking routes to and from Summerfest parking lots, but for us, it's really slow," she says.
John McCabe, general manager of the Milwaukee Ale House, says Summerfest changes his business, but doesn't slow it down in the least.
"We're very busy before and after Marcus Amphitheater shows," says McCabe. "In general, our volume is the same, but we're busy at different times."
The Ale House books bands five nights a week during the Big Gig, which is the same as the rest of the year, but the shows start later to attract festival goers.
Many bar owners cash in on the Summerfest hype by doing special ticket giveaways and running promotions in the weeks leading up to the Big Gig. Once the party starts at the Lakefront, though, things can be tough. Some bars run shuttle buses to and from the festival, hoping to catch customers coming and going. But, the liability concerns and cost can lead to diminishing returns.
"The problem is that they rarely eat and it's usually one beer or soda and they are gone," Leffler said. "They need to save every penny they have to buy the $6 beers. By the time we get them back, they cannot afford a $2 beer. Late-night, we spin out a few pizzas, but it always seems that after Summerfest the patrons forget to pay for them."
Some bars, such as Major Goolsby, Saz's and Water Street Brewery, have a presence on the Summerfest grounds that helps them grab a piece of the pie. That's something that Leffler and others may consider.
"Summerfest is a terrific event for southeastern Wisconsin," Leffler said. "It really is a great economic engine and a huge employer. It provides the some of the best exposure our community can ask for. What else drags that many people out of Illinois? I don't want to whine that Summerfest takes away from business. There is a much bigger picture and I need to do more to take advantage of the opportunity that Summerfest provides."