How Drag Queens Are 'Werking' Into Restaurant Business Strategies
Brunch with a side of drag queens has been a Sunday staple for some members of the LGBT community for years. But more recently, it has become a booming business fueling weekend sales at restaurants around the world.
Drag queens like RuPaul and Lady Bunny have made headlines for years with their gender-bending performances that offer social commentary and plenty of high-heeled entertainment. But thanks to mainstream acceptance of the performance art, largely tied to the Emmy-winning reality series “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on VH1 (contestants compete to be that season's top "queen"), the drag net is cast over a wider audience than ever, and retailers can’t ignore its camp allure.
“You have this population that has been primed because of ‘Drag Race’ that want to see this kind of performance, but there are a few roadblocks,” said Joe Jeffreys, a New York University theater professor who has previously taught a class on the impact of RuPaul and drag culture. “Drag brunch solves this problem.”
Drag brunches are showing up in restaurants both in and beyond major cities’ traditional “gayborhoods” and appealing to mainstream audiences around the world. While Jeffreys said the drag community’s newer mainstream fans might have reservations about going to a late-night drag show at a gay bar, a brunch with drag queens is a more convenient way to spend time with the queens.
“They especially appeal to the audience who has wanted to see this type of performance but needed the time and space,” Jeffreys said. “For the owner, it’s great because it’s a way to increase the Sunday matinee crowd with a hot new gimmick.”
From San Diego to London’s Shoreditch neighborhood, restaurateurs have added drag brunches to their weekend menu, and it is no wonder: Drag has become its own micro-economy.
DragCon, an annual convention in Los Angeles and New York where drag queens meet fans and sell merchandise, made $9M in retail sales in 2017 on top of the estimated $1.6M in ticket sales, according to the BBC.
Voss Events, an entertainment company that partners with the “Drag Race” production team, puts on global tours with cast members from the reality series that cost between $10M and $20M to produce, according to Voss Events founder Brandon Voss.
“It used to be drag queens would get a couple hundred dollars performing in a nightclub,” Voss said. “Now we have them on a tour performing at places like Wembley in London, which is where Madonna performed.”
While exact financial figures for drag brunch were not made available to Bisnow for this story, Voss said his company’s 200-seat Las Vegas drag brunch events cost $60/person to attend. The company does two shows a day on weekends and routinely sells out.
Boston’s Bell in Hand Tavern, which bills itself as America’s oldest tavern, hosts a monthly “Brunch of Queens” and charges $25 for the show plus a brunch buffet. Charlotte entertainer Buff Faye hosts $30 drag brunches at various restaurants around the Queen City.
“These performers are going from their most lucrative time of the week, Saturday nights, and then doing it all again now at Sunday brunch,” Jeffreys said. “It really shows how hard-working they are.”
There’s Never Too Much Glitter To Go With An Entrée
With so much interest pouring into the drag scene, it is easy to worry about market saturation, especially during the brunch hour. But one longtime restaurant owner is confident business will continue to blossom.
“In a way, we are somewhat recession-proof in the sense that it’s entertainment,” said New York City-based Lips owner Mark Zschiesche, who goes by the stage name Yvonne Lamé. “People want to escape and have a good time even during hard times.”
Zschiesche opened Lips, a restaurant akin to drag dinner and brunch theater, in New York’s West Village 23 years ago. The restaurant has since moved to East 56th Street in Midtown Manhattan, where it has a bigger stage conducive to the nightly and brunch performances that bring in crowds and keep the reservation list filled. Last year was one of Lips’ best years in business, Zschiesche said.
His drag brunch and dinner theater concept has expanded over the years to include restaurants in Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and San Diego. The largest Lips to date is expected to open on Michigan Avenue in Chicago later this year.
“A lot of us in the restaurant industry don’t make it two years let alone 23 and see a surge in business,” Zschiesche said.
South Beach knows all too well how drag queens can bring in profits to a dining room.
When Palace Bar opened 31 years ago, owner Thomas Donall said its original owners didn’t expect it to become the drag dining mecca that it is today. The LGBT community eventually started frequenting the original Palace, which became known for its lively drag shows that drew in crowds of all backgrounds to enjoy a meal and a show.
Performers are even known to vogue onto Ocean Drive and stop traffic, either with a dance move or a wig reveal.
“It’s a very mixed crowd, from families to bachelorette parties to the gay community,” Donall said. “They all see the fun and energy here.”
The longevity of that fun energy was in question in 2017 after Infinity Real Estate acquired the mixed-use building that housed the original Palace for $15.25M. That location closed, and Donall said it wasn’t the easiest of transitions finding a new home for his lively restaurant.
But Palace 2.0 at 1052 Ocean Drive has a 20-year lease, and it continues to pair drag queen performance art with what is cooked up in the kitchen. That is what has made business work just as well at the new location as at its former home, Donall said.
Business may boom, but the pop culture phenomenon opening more eyes to drag culture isn’t immune to criticism.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” finished its 11th season in April, and some television critics have cautioned the show’s two seasons-per-year format is running the risk of oversaturation.
Fewer back-to-back seasons would protect the brand, and those interviewed for this story echoed a similar fear when it comes to drag performances at brunch becoming too widespread and less of a novelty.
But Voss, Donall and Zschiesche each told Bisnow they aren’t concerned with their own concepts getting overexposed.
“My personal feeling is any large city where there’s a man willing to put on a dress, we could put a location,” Zschiesche said with a laugh. “There’s a Starbucks on every corner, but there’s not a Lips on every corner … yet.”