Fans visiting 'Stranger Things' sets bring boon to business
In this Tuesday, July 23, 2019 photo, Brinley Rawson, a 17-year-old Stranger Things fan from Gwinnett County, snaps a photo of Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, Ga. Stranger Things filmed much of season three at the mall, which was called Starcourt Mall in the show. (AP Photo/Andrea Smith)
Andrea Smith, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, August 21, 2019 9:35AM EDT
PALMETTO, Ga. -- Soon after Netflix released "Stranger Things," fans of all ages came into Bradley's Big Buy grocery store in Palmetto, Georgia, dressed like characters from the show, and wandered toward the Eggo waffles aisle, cameras in hand.
They sought out the exact spot where "Stranger Things" star Millie Bobby Brown filmed a scene as the character Eleven, and they're still coming three years later, even after the store changed its name and became part of the Piggly Wiggly franchise.
Palmetto is a town of barely 5,000 people about 25 miles (40 kilometres) southwest of Atlanta where the grocery store cashiers greet customers by name. But after "Stranger Things" premiered in 2016, it became routine for employees to also welcome fans from around the globe. Fans have visited daily since the store reappeared in the third season on July 4, said Piggly Wiggly manager David Johnston. About 50 fans showed up on one particularly busy Saturday in mid-July, he said.
"You can spot them in the crowd when they come in here," Johnston said. "The girl the other day was dressed like Eleven, all the way to the blood running down her nose."
Eleven is a main character of the series known for her mysterious mind powers and the subtle nosebleed she gets after activating those powers.
The nostalgic '80s sci-fi series broke Netflix records with its third season. Within four days of release, 40.7 million accounts had started watching it and 18.2 million had already finished it entirely, Netflix announced on Twitter.
Creators Matt and Ross Duffer set the series in fictional Hawkins, Indiana, but filmed in Georgia, which offers tax breaks and other incentives to moviemakers and whose economy in return reaps $9.5 billion annually from the film industry, according to a 2018 Georgia Department of Economic Development report.
A building on Emory University's Briarcliff Campus in Atlanta served as the show's Hawkins Laboratory, where all sorts of suspicious activity occur. In Duluth, crew transformed a vacant wing and food court in Gwinnett Place Mall into Starcourt Mall, a bustling hangout where much of the third season takes place.
The mall remains open to shoppers but has disappointed fans who visit for a "Stranger Things" experience: A guard posted outside the wing used in filming shoos away anyone who attempts to enter or take a photo. Fans can take photos of the exterior, which looks similar to the building that appears in the show.
Johnston said he's happy to give quick tours of Piggly Wiggly and explain where fictional events took place. He'll point out the path Eleven took through the store when she stole a few boxes of Eggo waffles and recall how she strutted away from the refrigerator aisle, ignoring the employee chasing after her.
Fans like to re-create this scene onsite, and some ask Johnston to play the baffled employee and chase them out of the store, he said. He usually obliges.
"We've had a ball with it overall," Johnston said. "Everybody here goes out of their way to accommodate them."
Employees started encouraging fans to write about their experience in a notebook they keep at the store.
"Loved coming here to get some Eggos and Coke," said one note signed by Julia, Mike and Danielle from New York.
Johnston said the store's Eggo waffles sales have tripled. Employees don't require visitors to make a purchase, but most buy something anyway, including themed T-shirts with the phrase, "The strangest things happen at Bradley's Big Buy."
Businesses in Jackson are also benefiting from new customers in town. Throughout the series, downtown Jackson was portrayed as the town of Hawkins, where key characters played by Winona Ryder and Sean Astin worked.
Lucy Lu's Coffee Cafe opened downtown in 2017, about a year after the first season's release. Within months, the cafe had created a "Stranger Drinks" menu. Popular beverages include the Sheriff Hopper, a hazelnut and vanilla coffee drink, and the Demogorgon, a frappe with blood-red food coloring named after the monster that rampages through Hawkins.
Head barista Jayci Fitzmayer said the menu has been a hit with visiting fans and locals.
"A lot of our regulars get the Stranger Drinks too," Fitzmayer said. "They love that they can be a part of that too because, just like us, they didn't think that our town was anything special until this came out."
Lucy Lu's had one of its best days a couple weeks after the third season came out, Fitzmayer said. The shop brought in $1,200 in net sales July 19, doubling its daily average.
"It's always hard to tell when anybody starts a business if it'll do good or not, but I think this has definitely helped us out," Fitzmayer said.
Employees said they plan to update the show-themed menu to reflect the novelties of the latest season.