Wandering through downtown Charleston on a recent weekday morning, Manfred Messner had his pick of more than four dozen nearby restaurants for lunch. But back on the Aida Luna, the ship which had brought Messner and 2,100 fellow vacationing Germans from New York City, gleaming buffets were set with pinwheels of cold cuts, baskets of warm dinner rolls, phalanxes of smoked fish and yawning bowls of vegetable salads. And just as the promotional literature had promised, the lavish culinary collage was accompanied by “wein, bier und softdrinks inklusive.”
Messner’s no fool. At around noon, the Black Forest native headed back to the boat.
“It’s a very nice town, but we walk three hours, and then we go back, and we have lunch and a lot of drinks,” Messner said before boarding. “This is holiday!”
Charleston yearly hosts 300,000 cruise passengers, but only a small percentage of them apparently get a taste of the gastronomic achievements that have become a central plank in the city’s promotional campaigns. Although neither the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau nor Carnival, the cruise line responsible for the bulk of passenger traffic, tracks how many cruisers choose to dine in town, restaurateurs around the port say they see only a minimal uptick in sales on days when a ship’s parked in the harbor.
“We don’t see a whole lot of people dining,” says 82 Queen’s Steve Kish, who estimates his sales volume increases about 10 percent on embarkation and port-of-call dates. “They go through the market and buy souvenirs. They might come in for a beer.”
Stacking the lido deck
Kish has tried to appeal to cruise passengers with targeted advertising fliers, but even the promise of a free, regionally representative dessert such as caramelized banana pudding can’t lure passengers away from on-board dining rooms, where it doesn’t cost an extra dime to gorge on cookies, cakes, puddings, pies and ice cream sundaes.
“We have a full lunch waiting for guests as soon as they board,” Carnival’s Vance Gulliksen says of food service on the Fantasy, which usually begins welcoming passengers around noon. “It’s a self-service luncheon with extensive hot and cold buffets; pasta- and meat-carving stations; a deli; a rotisserie; a grill with hamburgers and hot dogs and pizza.”
Yet many restaurant owners still consider cruise visits a boon, since passengers can’t help but be struck by the sheer number of eateries they pass while scurrying back to the boat for a prepaid buffet. While Carnival lists “low country-style shrimp and grits” as just one of the city’s many attractions — along with sweetgrass basket sales, carriage rides and the historically dubious opportunity to “set foot where English settlers first touched land” — Charleston Crab House owner John Keener says the culinary landscape makes a lasting impression.
“The big impact is the return business after the cruise,” says Keener, a member of the City Market Hospitality Association’s board. “People who have driven from Atlanta or Tennessee, they say ‘I’m coming back.’ ”
Keener, an unabashed cruise booster, also puts his downtown restaurant’s cruise-related sales increase at around 10 percent. But his James Island location is a much bigger beneficiary of the Carnival crowd, which tends to shy away from splurging on downtown accommodations the night before sailing. Many passengers book rooms at outlying budget motels, which put them in close proximity to the Charleston Crab House on Wappoo Creek Drive.
Cruisers in Charleston fall into two categories: Embarkers, or the Carnival passengers who use Charleston as a starting point for a Bahamas vacation, and port-of-callers, who are dropped off for a day on their way to another exotic destination. Ground transportation provider Kerey Green says the latter are notoriously stingy.
“People don’t really respect the drivers out here,” grumbles Green, who theorizes that cruise passengers are habituated not to reach for their wallets. “They don’t want to pay. They’re thinking it’s too much. But it’s ground transportation.”
Green says port-of-callers rarely ask to be taken to a restaurant. “They want to go shopping at Tanger Outlets,” he says.
The perception of cruise passengers as penny-pinching rubes may color some restaurant owners’ attitudes toward the thick of cruise season, now approaching: “There are a few restaurants that say, ‘Oh, that cruise business,’ ” Keener concedes.
With so many restaurants angling for the patronage of a group that represents a tiny proportion of the city’s annual visitation, the most cynical restaurateurs are apt to proverbially close the curtains when a cruise shop docks.
But Keener says cruise passengers have never caused any trouble at his restaurants.
“It’s a total fallacy that it’s a bunch of spring breakers,” Keener says, citing a study showing cruise passengers’ average household income is $75,000.
When the CVB stations a representative on ships operated by Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas, which each make two port-of-call visits a year, she commonly makes as many as 200 dinner reservations.
As for the embarkers, “(they) typically arrive a day or two before their cruise, so we know they are eating somewhere,” the CVB’s Perrin Lawson says.
The problem, Keener suspects, is their dining room behavior is so at odds with the nastiest stereotypes of cruisers that downtown restaurant staffers wouldn’t immediately guess what they’re doing in Charleston.
“Someone doesn’t walk in and say, ‘I’m with the cruise and I’m going to spend money with you,’ ” says Keener, who swears he recently saw a cruise passenger drop $275 on a pair of replacement sunglasses at Jackson Davenport.
Kish’s assessment of cruise passengers is slightly more reserved, but equally positive: “They’re not really a nuisance or anything,” he says. “I don’t see how they do any damage to the city. We enjoy them. We don’t dislike them.”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.