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News Relays Edition

Drake Relays: boost or flop for local businesses?

Photo by Parker Wright | Staff Writer

Drake Relays brings thousands of people from all over to the Drake Stadium to watch and cheer on their favorite athletes. 

Among the many festivities sponsored by Drake University for locals and Relays-goers to enjoy, the surrounding Drake Neighborhood also provides an array of dining and entertainment options for everyone to enjoy.

With the anticipated surplus of people on or around Drake’s campus, many of the businesses hope this can be a time for a business boost or simply spread the word about their establishment.

The first popular spot and longtime staple of the Drake Neighborhood is the Drake Diner, located off 25th Street. It has been a local favorite since it first opened its doors in 1987.

“The Drake Diner was built as part of an effort to revitalize the Drake Neighborhood,” said Shannon Vilmain, the co-owner of the restaurant. “We are a classic, traditional diner.”

Shannon owns the Diner alongside her husband, Steve Vilmain. Shannon has been a co-owner since she married Steve in 1998, while Steve has owned the place since they first opened.

“We are special compared to other diners because, essentially, we are the only real traditional diner around,” Shannon said. “We pride ourselves in our homemade comfort food and our staff that has been with us for a very long time.”

The Drake Relays doesn’t necessarily help the restaurant as much as people may assume, Shannon added. They get some crowds from the stadium, but the locals or regulars typically avoid the restaurant because they assume it will be packed.

“Basically, it’s a wash, if not a little slower than a normal weekend,” Shannon said.

Drake Diner will be open normal hours during the Relays – she said she hopes that the weather will permit them to also open up their patio for seating. The Diner serves all-day breakfast, burgers, chicken and an assortment of other specialties – including malts and shakes.

Another popular spot for Drake students and Des Moines locals is Dough Co. Pizza, located two blocks east of campus on University Avenue. Dough Co. Pizza first opened in 2018.

“We’re New York-style pizza with a Midwest twist,” said Alec Davis, owner of Dough Co. Pizza. “We do hand-tossed dough by the slice or whole pie. Classic toppings as well as some more funky combinations we encourage people to try.”

Even though this will be Dough Co.’s fifth Drake Relays, three of those years were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, so they have yet to experience a normal Relay’s crowd.

“Last year was about the closest we got to seeing the impact [of the Relays],” Davis said. “We had a really strong sales day. It tends to be a more steady flow of business throughout the day as opposed to a huge overwhelming crowd all at once.”

Davis said he believes they get more business because Dough Co. Pizza is quick, tasty and allows customers to order at the counter. He said they are planning on over staffing for the weekend as well as ordering extra ingredients. He said they anticipate an even bigger turnout than last year.

Dough Co. Pizza also offers sandwiches, salads, wings and vegan options. All dough is made fresh daily as well as ingredients prepared – as opposed to other stores that might freeze or reuse old ingredients. 

Davis also encourages people to check out everything both the neighborhood and the rest of Des Moines has to offer.

“If you haven’t been back to the Drake neighborhood in four to five years, it’s changed a lot,” Davis said. “A lot of the businesses that are here weren’t here before. It’s really exciting. Hopefully, people take time to explore the neighborhood.”

For people looking for local coffee and pastry options, Mars Cafe is located right next door to Dough Co. Pizza.

“We’ve got higher quality [coffee], anyone is welcome here [and] this is a safe and welcoming place,” said Elliot Barker, a manager at Mars Cafe. 

He said the Drake Relays usually doubles the cafe’s normal business, and even with extra preparations, they sometimes struggle to keep up. This year they will have all hands on deck and will prepare extra food and coffee.

They offer a special called Space Juice – a nutty floral espresso blend made with drip coffee. Space Juice is a staple of Mars offered year-round.

“I also encourage everyone to support the local businesses and come explore Des Moines. It’s a lot more interesting than you would think it is,” Barker said.

A final popular Dogtown spot is Lucky Horse Beer and Burgers. Lucky Horse opened the summer of 2020 and also has yet to experience a full Relays.

“Even during COVID, our Relays crowd was nuts,” said Daisy Miller, a manager at Lucky Horse.

Miller said they will have extra training sessions for all their staff in order to prepare for the anticipated larger crowds coming to Drake this year.

She said they will still offer the Wilkins Burger special as well as introduce a blue raspberry lemonade slushy titled the Blue Bulldog, which will be available as both an alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink.

These are just four of many options the Drake Neighborhood and Des Moines have to offer. Relays goers are encouraged to check out the community and give back to all the small and local businesses.

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