Over the past two weeks, Barb Ripani has seen a shift in the clientele strolling through Potato Valley on State Circle in Annapolis.
From January to April, Ripani gathers hordes of politicians, lobbyists and legislative aides who flock to the popular dining spot she has co-owned for 27 years. She knows about half of their commands by heart, she said. But after Monday, almost all of those regular customers will disappear when the 2022 Maryland General Assembly session adjourns.
Potato Valley patrons will turn into a line of strangers and passing visitors, many of whom are unfamiliar with the huge baked potatoes piled high with bacon, cheese, vegetables and other condiments.
“It’s funny. We try to give them samples and find out who they are,” Ripani said.
This summer will be the first full warm season since the coronavirus pandemic began more than two years ago where businesses won’t be crippled by mask mandates, seating limits and other restrictions. Ripani savors the opportunity.
“There will be excitement for the tourist season,” she said. “We will probably have more staff and consider rearranging our seats.”
Annapolis has started to return to normal in recent weeks with strong attendance at events such as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Maryland Day, the Annapolis Film Festival, said Erik Evans, executive director of Downtown Annapolis Partnership, a non-profit business organization.
Similar attendances are expected for spring boat shows this month and Naval Academy commissioning week in May.
“I’m happy to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Evans said.
The optimistic outlook for the next few months is shared by other business owners in the city, many of whom are excited to finally have the pandemic mostly in the rear view mirror. Last week, Maryland reported a test positivity rate of about 2%, up slightly from what it had been since early March.
In the first quarter of the year, attendance and revenue began to recover to pre-pandemic levels at Federal House on Market Space, owner Jeremy Black said.
Black is one of five restaurant owners from Iron Rooster, McGarvey’s, Middleton Tavern and Market House who have banded together to secure a multi-year lease with the city to provide outdoor seating around the historic Market House. These businesses, along with 1771 G&T, have caught the attention of visitors who now regard the area as a central gathering place, Black said.
Some businesses, however, will not benefit from the expanded outdoor dining space.
In November, the city removed other outdoor dining areas, called recovery areas, in the Historic District, Eastport and other locations. A state of emergency order issued by Mayor Gavin Buckley in December allowed some restaurants to continue serving food and drink in private parking lots.
On Monday, the city council will consider a resolution that would extend those outdoor dining permits for another 12 months.
As restaurants have begun to recover, it may take longer for hotels and similar businesses to return to pre-pandemic levels, said Kristen Pironis, executive director of Visit Annapolis and Anne County. Arundel.
The slower rebound is due in part to understaffing and hotels keeping rates lower to attract customers, Pironis said.
Lisa Consiglio-Ryan, owner of Rasa Juice Shop on Maryland Avenue, said her business has thrived over the past two years despite the pandemic and expects this summer to bring more luck.
Consiglio-Ryan will open a second location this summer a few blocks from the former City Dock Coffee location. In preparation, the company is hiring more employees, buying more products and “juicing more,” she said.
Days of the week
Update you on the biggest news of the day before the evening ride.
“I’m super excited and we’re extremely positive [about tourist season]said Consiglio-Ryan. “We have tons of energy to get everyone to come to town.”
Some business owners and residents, especially those who live in the historic district, have raised concerns that tourism could be disrupted by the impending demolition of the Noah Hillman Garage later this month. The construction project, which is expected to last until next summer, will remove 425 spaces from the downtown parking equation.
“This will be a devastating result for the downtown community,” said Kostas Alexakis, owner of O’Brien’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Tavern.
The city’s parking and transportation alternatives, including free rides on the Annapolis Circulator bus, streetcars and on-demand service, aren’t enough to accommodate visitors, Alexakis said. He and other business owners have asked the city to delay rebuilding the garage until later this year to minimize disruption to tourists.
Black isn’t worried about the potential impact of the lack of parking on his business and likened the situation to other cities like Baltimore where parking isn’t as convenient around popular destinations.
“If you want to watch an Orioles game, you can’t park right outside Camden Yards. You park in a garage at the Sheraton Hotel six blocks away,” Black said. “But that didn’t deter you from going to the O game.
“The proof will be in the numbers after [Hillman] goes down and during the construction process,” he added. “But I hope I’m right that the visitors are coming anyway. They will just have to find other places to park.