Carytown Watermelon Festival: Good for business?

How local businesses are affected by the annual festival which brings 115,000 people to Carytown in one day.

Maynee Cayton has been to all 30 Carytown Watermelon Festivals. The owner of Bygones at the edge of Carytown near the Byrd, Cayton opened her vintage clothing boutique in 1979, four years before the city’s first Watermelon Festival.

This year’s festival, which occurred last Sunday, was good for business.

“We did well,” Cayton said. “It really helped that the weather was a little bit cooler.” She said high temperatures during previous festivals have dissuaded customers from coming into her store. “People don’t want to try on clothing when they’re very hot.”

But last Sunday was a definite boon for Bygones’s bottom line. Not only did sales on indoor merchandise exceed typical Sunday business, but Sunday’s sidewalk sale–only one of two Bygones has annually–also proved fruitful.

Some of those sales are undoubtedly made to out-of-towners. It’s a demographic of the festival that Cayton has seen consistently grow over the years. “There are more people coming in from far away that have never been [in Richmond] before,” she said. “That’s good to help them discover your businesses…I hear feedback that it’s an introduction to all the businesses in Carytown.”

But not for one business. Down the block from Bygones is Mongrel, which opened 22 years ago.

Co-owner Stan McCulloch said that when Mongrel opened, the Watermelon Festival was a “huge help to us as a new businesses…half of Richmond found our store, found out what we we’re about.”

But the Watermelon Festival has grown a bit too much over the years, to the point where “we can’t provide for the sheer number of people.” Festival goers would often try to avoid the August heat by cooling off in Mongrel’s air conditioning. But the steady stream of foot traffic kept the door ajar, allowing cool air to escape, frustrating patrons. People became further restless when they discovered there were no public restrooms available.

“We just started to get concerned for people’s welfare in the store,” McCulloch said. He estimates that since 1995, four years after Mongrel opened, the store has shut its doors during the festival.

“Of course we miss the business,” he said. But he added: “We feel like a lot of core customers…just decide not to come to the Watermelon Festival because [it’s so large and difficult to traverse].”

Over at World of Mirth, 15 employees worked to deal with the large crowds.

“We have to hire extra staff just to manage people,” said Thea Brown, general manager of the 20-year-old toy store. “Overall, it’s a good, hectic day.” She said that the store no longer allows patrons to bring in watermelons after employees found rinds and seeds scattered among the merchandise in previous years.

But even with a no-food policy within the store, Brown said that business on Watermelon Festival days rank among the top 10 most lucrative for the toy store each year.

However, down at The Daily Kitchen and Bar, more could have been done to profit from Sunday’s crowds.

“We didn’t capitalize on it as much as we probably could,” said Ted Wallof, partner in the Richmond Restaurant Group, which owns the nearly one-month-old restaurant. “We weren’t quite ready to flex our muscles.” He said the restaurant hopes to soon offer lunch and weekend brunch, although he said that before a minivan careened into the restaurant.

Last Sunday was the first time The Daily opened its doors for Sunday dinner. “We really didn’t tell anyone that we’d be open,” Wallof said, in part to gauge how the Watermelon Festival would affect business.

“We were really busy from probably 4:00 – 6:30 PM,” Wallof said. “After that it kinda died down and they were cleaning the streets.” Without advertising being open, relying solely on Watermelon Festival crowds to fill its dining room, Wallof said the festival undoubtedly helped the restaurant.

“It was definitely worth being open for, and next year we’ll be prepared and open for brunch,” he said.

photo by Eli Christman

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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