CONNEAUT – Local restaurants are gearing up for the big – really big – crowds expected to attend this weekend's anniversary edition of D-Day Conneaut.
Pam Giganti, owner of Charlies's Deli and Catering, expects the event to be a real eye-opener. Her business opened earlier this year, so she has never experienced the crowds that attend what has been billed as the largest World War II re-enactment in the country.
“Everybody's been telling us it's going to be crazy,” Giganti said.
Shane Gelfer, co-owner of Sparky's Place, is a veteran of the event. He and his wife, Heather, opened their eatery in 2017. His advice? Relax and have fun.
“The town is about to be invaded, so everyone should enjoy it,” he said.
This year's edition is special for two reasons: it marks the 20th re-enactment held at Township Park and will also commemorate the 75th anniversary of the actual Normandy Invasion of June 6, 1944. The milestones are earning the event plenty of media attention, said Stephanie Siegel, executive director of the Ashtabula County Convention and Visitor Bureau.
“There's a lot more interest in (news) coverage,” she said. “There's a lot more calls to my office. The big anniversary is making (the event) bigger.”
Visitors who want to spend the night in town this weekend and haven't a reservation are – well, out of luck. Rooms at motels and bed/breakfasts traditionally are always gobbled up on D-Day weekend, but especially this anniversary year.
“We've been full (for the weekend) since February,” said Sharan Huskey, of Centennial Inn Bed and Breakfast in Conneaut.
The inn, which opened its doors three years ago, has never had trouble filling its rooms for D-Day Conneaut, Huskey said. “Last year we had someone from London,” she said.
Room availability is a common question – right behind “Where do I park” – this time of year, said Wendy DuBey, Conneaut Area Chamber of Commerce executive director. Invariably, DuBey has to deliver disappointing news.
“(Rooms) sell out every time this year,” she said. “People book their rooms now for (re-enactments) two or three years in the future.”
The space shortage isn't confined to Conneaut. Hotels surrounding the city enjoy full capacity this month, thanks in large part to D-Day Conneaut, Siegel said.
“August is the tightest month of the year,” she said.
All those guests want to be fed, and Conneaut restaurants are ready to fill the need. Pat's Lakeside Grill, managed by Pat Haas, has done business at the Township Park concession stand for 21 years, so her business has seen every re-enactment.
The growth of the event is amazing, Haas said. “You cannot imagine,” she said.
To handle demand, Haas sets up tents outside the stand that offers some of the basic menu items, Haas said. “It makes the line go faster,” she said.
Gelfer said he is again providing a shuttle bus that will link the park to the town's harbor district, home to many of the city's restaurants. The shuttle, which was well received last year, will run 5-10 p.m. over the weekend, he said.
“We had a good response and had a great time last year,” Gelfer said.
An assortment of German beers will also be available in honor of the affair, he said.
Breakwall BBQ, located at the edge of Conneaut Harbor, also expects a crowd – but primarily re-enactors, said co-owner Mike Morgan.
“Some of our regulars stay away (during D-Day), thinking we'll be too busy, so we actually see a little bit of a drop,” he said. “The last couple of years there has been a bit of a downtick (in business). But we will see a lot of re-enactors. We will still be very busy.”
Angela's Cafe, a few steps from the park, will have expanded hours, a special menu and overflow seating inside a big tent this weekend. Last year, plenty of re-enactors descended on the little eatery, said an employee, who declined to be identified.
“We were swamped,” the employee said, laughing.
Giganti said she will set up a food booth outside her eatery to provide express service to patrons.
Many of the restaurants are adding extra help for the weekend so service doesn't lag.
“All hands will be on deck,” Gelfer said. “Every employee will be here.”
Haas, too, has some helping hands lined up. “They're all my family,” she said, laughing