DNC Provides Boost For Enterprising Small Business Owners

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For entrepreneurs outside the Democratic National Convention, the easy part may be the hours of smoking meat, screen-printing T-shirts or pumping out pedicab rides.

Those small business owners have needed a balance of patience and scrappiness to negotiate a series of physical and bureaucratic barriers for a share of the $200 million visitors are expected to spend this week in Charlotte. But the hustle pays off when they're able to make a big score, such as selling $10,000 in barbecue sandwiches in one day.

"I never did as good as we did Monday. Everything came together just right," said Dan Huntley, who sold barbecue out of his "Dan the Pig Man" food truck.

Working the convention was a calculated risk for Huntley, who went full time into the catering and food truck business in 2009, when he was laid off from his job for 27 years as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer. He spent about $20,000 this year on upgrades to his truck, in no small part to prepare for the convention. It rained on the street party Charlotte threw to welcome the convention late in the afternoon Monday, just as Huntley sold his last sandwich.

"It's a crap shoot in the food business. I could have easily lost everything if it had rained in the morning," said Huntley, who prepared another batch of barbecue overnight Monday and will be selling sandwiches the rest of the week from a special lot set aside by convention organizers near Time Warner Cable Arena.

Huntley's truck was hard for passersby to miss, with its painting of the barbecue regions of the Carolinas (Charlotte is in the tomato sauce zone, vinegar is to the east and mustard to the south) and a caricature of him holding cleavers in both hands.

It was the truck and the name that stopped Rob Ryland, chairman of the Democratic Party in Bastrop County, Texas. The lines inside the arena that's hosting convention events were too long, and he was looking for some local flavor. The $12 sandwich with Huntley's Carolina Pig Pucker sauce hit the spot.

"I saw that truck and I figured, you can't go wrong with a guy with a name like Dan the Pig Man," Ryland said.

Huntley, like all the other vendors allowed inside the convention zone that includes areas outside where official events are taking place, had to go through a long and involved selection process with convention organizers. He estimates it took 75 emails, phone calls and meetings to earn a spot.

But that decision to become a vendor could also benefit him in the future. The convention published a list of all the businesses that passed its screening process, and that list will remain available for events big and small. It is not just sorted by service, but also by location and whether the business is minority-owned, Charlotte Chamber of Commerce spokesman Natalie Dick said.

The Chamber of Commerce helped small businesses get involved by inviting officials to answer questions about becoming vendors at chamber breakfasts and other functions.

"Is anybody going to make a fortune off this week alone? No. But there are a lot of good opportunities out there if you want to find them," Dick said.

Adrian Stone called organizers the day after they announced the convention was coming to Charlotte.

Even after getting his business approved, he spent six months in negotiations to make sure his individual T-shirt designs passed muster with officials so he could sell them outside convention events.

His T-shirt company, Route 74 Promotions, has several designs. One incorporates a picture of the ticket for President Barack Obama's acceptance speech Thursday. Another has a picture of Obama and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. digitally combined so it looks like they are sitting together with "The Audacity of a Dream" written above them.

Stone had a popular T-shirt booth at Carolina Fest, and said sales were better than the dozens of other events he's done in the past several years.

"You have to plan and you have to be relentless to make sure you get the best spot or the best terms," Stone said. "You have to be ready to work harder than anyone else."

Flexibility helps too. Kendall Taylor's company, Metro Transportation Services, was picked to be the official courier of the Democratic National Convention – which included delivering goods on short notice such as replacements for a delegate's lost credentials.

Taylor's company also delivered 23,000 goody bags to every hotel with delegates and special guests, spread across 50 miles in the Charlotte region.

Taylor, who hired about 15 additional workers for the convention, thinks he may expand his business when the Democrats leave town.

"You've got to be willing to do something you've never done before. We won the bid to be the courier, but we do whatever they need," Taylor said.

Not everyone had to wade through bureaucracy to make some extra money during the convention. A friend who knew Dervin Gilbert rides bicycles in races hooked him up with R&R Pedicabs. Gilbert is spending the week pedaling people around Uptown Charlotte in his blue spandex tights, white T-shirt and Uncle Sam style hat. He is making hundreds of dollars per eight-hour shift, which is good money to supplement his income as an actor.

Getting the job from his boss was a simple proposition.

"I just needed to show him my thighs – in a manly athletic kind of way – and he said we were good to go," Gilbert said.

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