How these business owners are cashing in on the Iowa Caucuses

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Election 2016: What Are the Iowa Caucuses?

Small-business owners in Iowa are used to the circuslike atmosphere that leads up to the state's caucuses. Here are the creative tactics that some are using to give their companies a boost.

Every four years, presidential hopefuls from around the country descend on Iowa like a Great Plains tornado: They strike with a sudden ferocity and then move off gustily, leaving a scatter of confetti, signage, and paper cups in their wake.

David Panther is well familiar with the crazy lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, the first in the long series of state contests, which this year take place on February 1. The owner of Hamburg Inn No. 2, a diner in Iowa City that has become one of the more famous political stopovers in the state, he says by now he has seen just about everything. That includes the man who arrived to make a case for gay rights while dressed as a silver spaceman. Or the time in 2012 there was nearly a brawl between Michelle Bachmann's camp and people protesting the Republican candidate. The incident featured Bachmann's campaign piping increasingly loud Christmas music into Panther's restaurant to silence the protests.

To cash in on the frenzy -- and to keep cashing in when things suddenly quiet down again -- Panther, like many business owners in the state, has had to get pretty creative. He has managed to parlay the caucuses into a thriving year-round trade by creating something he calls the Coffee Bean Caucus. Some might even say the event, which he has held for the past three presidential elections, now upstages the state's official caucus.

RELATED GALLERY: See photos of Hillary Clinton campaigning before the Iowa Caucuses

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Hillary Clinton campaigning before Iowa Caucus
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How these business owners are cashing in on the Iowa Caucuses
Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in Decorah, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Hoping to persuade undecided Democrats with just a week until the Iowa caucuses, Clinton and Bernie Sanders took on some of the questions that have most dogged their candidacies, from trustworthiness and e-mails to feasibility and socialism. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MARSHALLTOWN, IA - JANUARY 26: A supporter of democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds a campaign sign during a 'get out the caucus' event at BR Miller Middle School on January 26, 2016 in Marshalltown, Iowa. With less than a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton is campaigning throughout Iowa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton laughs during a rally at BR Miller Middle School in Marshalltown, Iowa, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
MARSHALLTOWN, IA - JANUARY 26: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a 'get out the caucus' event at BR Miller Middle School on January 26, 2016 in Marshalltown, Iowa. With less than a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton is campaigning throughout Iowa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in Decorah, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Hoping to persuade undecided Democrats with just a week until the Iowa caucuses, Clinton and Bernie Sanders took on some of the questions that have most dogged their candidacies, from trustworthiness and e-mails to feasibility and socialism. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MARSHALLTOWN, IA - JANUARY 26: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a 'get out the caucus' event at BR Miller Middle School on January 26, 2016 in Marshalltown, Iowa. With less than a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton is campaigning throughout Iowa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
MARSHALLTOWN, IA - JANUARY 26: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets supporters during a 'get out the caucus' event at BR Miller Middle School on January 26, 2016 in Marshalltown, Iowa. With less than a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton is campaigning throughout Iowa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
CEDAR FALLS, IA - JANUARY 26: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a 'get out the caucus' event at the University of Northern Iowa on January 26, 2016 in Cedar Falls, Iowa. With less than a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton is campaigning throughout Iowa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets a member of the audience after speaking at a rally at Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets members of the audience after speaking at a rally at BR Miller Middle School in Marshalltown, Iowa, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes a question from a member of the audience after speaking at a rally at Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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In brief, Panther arrays large mason jars in the windows of his restaurant, each labeled with the name of a candidate, and encourages patrons to vote by placing a coffee bean in one of the containers. The vote isn't scientific, and probably isn't an accurate reflection of the Iowa electorate, since anyone can add a bean. But over the years, it's predicted winners of the party nominationswith some success: In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney won on the Republican side, and in both 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama got the most beans.

(Spoiler alert: At last count this year, Bernie Sanders was ahead of Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump was edging Ted Cruz. The Coffee Bean Caucus wraps up on Sunday.)

Politicians have taken note, and Panther has hosted as many as two dozen presidential hopefuls eager to press the flesh with locals and consume one of his fresh-ground, locally sourced burgers or the house specialty, breaded pork tenderloin. In recent weeks, diners have include New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Vice President Joe Biden, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who stopped back in the kitchen to get a lesson on making omelets, Panther says.

In the long interim between caucuses, some of the buzz remains. Panther says it's impossible to tell how much lift the revenues for his 35-employee establishment have gotten from all the politicking over the years, but features in the food and travel sections of national newspapers and magazines have made it a frequent stop for tourists. And then there's this distinctive honor: The TV show The West Wing recreated the Hamburg Inn and its Coffee Bean Caucus in a 2005 episode, he says.

"It has been a win-win for whoever comes in here," Panther says. "It generates a good media presence."

Similarly, Mike Draper, the owner and founder of Raygun, a three-location retail store with headquarters in Des Moines, has built a quadrennial niche in provocative, caucus-themed buttons, mugs, and T-shirts (think plenty of puns using the word caucus). Unlike with Panther's business, Draper says no candidates from either party want to take the risk of coming into the store, which he describes as Iowa's alternative to Urban Outfitters.

Nevertheless, various celebrity supporters -- mostly Democrats -- have over the years wandered into Raygun to purchase candidate-themed items during the caucuses. The store's famous customers include Hillary Clinton supporters Lena Dunham and Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as Kal Penn, an advocate of Obama's.

"We like to joke that we are the liberal Pizza Ranch," says Draper, who founded the 42-employee company in 2005. Pizza Ranch, a restaurant franchise with 200 locations, is a favorite spot for Republicans. (The company declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Draper estimates his caucus trade gives his stores' $3 million annual revenue a 3 percent bump.

"It is not huge in terms of sales," he says. "But it is disproportionately big for attention."


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