Iowa City bars, restaurants recover as students return

COVID-19 left Iowa City bars and restaurants with lower revenue in 2020, but the return of University of Iowa students is helping them get back on their feet.

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Roman Slabach

Empty drinks at the Sen. Kamala Harris, D-N.Y watch party in Studio 13 on July 31, 2019.

Sam Knupp, News Reporter


Iowa City bars and restaurant owners and managers are seeing increased revenue and restoration of the city’s vibrant downtown nightlife with the return of University of Iowa students.

Emily Grahek, assistant manager and social media coordinator of Short’s Burger and Shine, said in the earlier days of the pandemic, there were nights where they had to close early due to a lack of customers. Now, she said, that’s not the case.

“Our [revenue] numbers have been getting right back on target, if not higher,” she said. “Especially with students coming back this fall semester, we’re right back on par with where our numbers were prior to COVID.”

She said numbers were especially high two weeks ago for the Penn State vs. Iowa game.  Grahek added that the restaurant and bar stayed packed from the moment they opened at 8 a.m. to the moment they closed at 2 a.m.

On top of the influx of customers, Grahek said the sense of community was also back to where it was in the days before COVID-19.

“Iowa City was back in full swing,” Grahek said, “We had a mix of Penn State and Iowa fans, so everyone was just happy to be back in the bar, kind of joshing each other, and it was just wall to wall people.”

Bob Franklin, owner of Elray’s Live and Dive, said there has been a positive change in atmosphere downtown.

He said at this time in 2020, the bar was mandated to close at 10 p.m., customers had to stay seated, and there weren’t nearly as many students on campus.

Now with availability of COVID-19 vaccines, Franklin said people are able to go from bar to bar, dance, and socialize.

COVID-19 cases are falling again in Iowa and nationwide after a late summer spike, but Johnson County remains a high transmission area according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 tracker.

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Franklin said the lift of restrictions has also allowed Elray’s to charge cover fees on weekends, allowing them to pull in and pay music acts from outside the state — a rarity at the height of the pandemic.

He added that an addition of over 30,000 students to a city is good for any business.

“Summers are great in Iowa City, but the falls are fantastic,” he said.

Franklin was planning to open Elray’s in April 2020 but had to delay its opening because of the pandemic. Franklin, who owns multiple bars across the country, said this was a frightening time.

He added that on top of personal expenses, such as rent, food, and insurance, he also had to pay business expenses.

Brian Cummins, bar manager of Sanctuary Pub, said students now study in the bar and listen to its live music.

“It was great to have people back and we’re getting busy again,” Cummins said.

Jason Zeman, CEO of Corridor Entertainment Group — owner of Studio 13 — wrote in an email to *The Daily Iowan* that when COVID-19 hit, he wasn’t sure if the bar would be able to re-open.

“Obviously 2020 was a tough year,” he wrote, “with an almost 75 percent reduction in revenue.  2021 started slower but has improved throughout the year and we are hoping to see a full recovery as we move into 2022.”

Despite the issues raised by the pandemic, Zeman wrote that he couldn’t deny that there was at least some good to come out of it.

“People seem to have a stronger appreciation for the important part nightclubs, bars and restaurants play in our community,” he wrote. “The students and the university play a big part in the success of the businesses in our vibrant downtown district.”

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