Pity the poor sports bar operator of the late 1990s. No sooner does he cram his establishment chock full of computer games, satellite hook-ups, sports simulators, and nationally beamed trivia contests, then his patrons want…something more.
But the something else they apparently want is only what they’ve always had.
When all of the games have been played, the trivia questions answered, simulators simulated, channels surfed, worldwide web crawled, and athletic contests contested, what remains is what those friendly folks had in that sitcom about the bar with the catchy name “where everybody knows your name.”
It’s called community.
Sports bars with lots of flash and sizzle are fun, but interest in the same games can wane quickly. To generate long-term repeat business, operators need to provide what consumers want more–a place to call their home away from home. Sports bar must be good foodservice establishments first, which means creating an environment to which people want to come and stay.
Need For Community
Veteran restaurant consultant Thomas MacDermott, FCSI, president of The Clarion Group in Kingston, NH, sees expensive simulators, interactive trivia contests, and video arcades as a sports bar’s means, but not its end. “And those things had best change from time to time to they’ll simply not be used.”
Far from being the center of attraction, he adds, the sports paraphernalia serves as “the device that draws in people who are going to have some common interests. You’re probably going to get very few philosophers. But a group of people who live in the same community and have an interest in the same sports, whether it’s golf or Monday Night Football, are going to naturally become friendly, and the bar is going to naturally become the social center for them. That’s what’s going to make the place rise or fall.”
It is for that reason, says MacDermott, the need for community, that “you can’t replicate a real sports bar in, say, an airport–a bunch of strangers sitting there watching the tube, waiting for the next plane. What makes a sports bar go, in my opinion, is the fact that… sports gives them a certain common element that makes them enjoy being in the place and meeting with friends. It becomes a center. I don’t think a sports bar is going to work well roadside or in any transient location. It’s basically more of a neighborhood or community-type of place.”
Community will always be the bedrock of any successful sports bar “because sports is usually a team-building experience,” says consultant and operator Arlene Spiegel, president of Market Discoveries Inc., in Hollis Hills, NY.
“There’s an intrinsic sense of brotherhood and sharing in the whole concept of sports,” she points out. “By participating in an entertainment venue that has sports as a theme, even though the guests themselves are not physically doing the sport, they’re having all those good feelings that came from that. It’s reminiscent of everything from little league to the company bowling league. It’s good, warm feelings. So yes, the high-tech stuff has lots of big-bang impact. But without the warmth and the environment conducive to hugging and patting and giving a little shout now and then, it won’t work.”
The recently published book, America’s Best Sports Bars (Masters Press), contains accounts of sports writers in 48 cities of their favorite local sports bars. What editor Mike Lessiter found most vital after multiple game broadcasts and food was the bar’s hominess and comfort level. “I’m a Packers fan living in Chicago. I go to a place across from Wrigley Field called the Cubby Bear, and I see the same faces there every night. It does become a kind of camaraderie, a special thing when you know you’re around people who are cheering for the same team. You know who you’re high-fivin’, is what it is.”
As for the sophisticated electronics, he adds, “I don’t consider that critical to the equation. Some people like that. Myself, I go to these places to see the games.”
Independents Over Franchises?
“People today are a little bit more discerning In the way they shop sports bars,” says Tim Higdon, owner of Cleats Club Seat Grille in North Royalton, OH. “Personally speaking, I think the independents have a lot more to offer than the franchises.” His reasoning? “I just think that the ambiance surrounding a neighborhood tavern, the closeness, the proximity of the locale to neighborhoods does a lot of good. People have a tendency to know the people who’ve worked here for long periods of time, and the customers who come in on a regular basis. A lot of our people come in four, five times a week.”
Lessiter agrees. “In terms of putting together a quality atmosphere, I’d rather go to a smaller spot. They’re trying to take care of the hometown crowd, and they’re putting their heroes up on the wall. They don’t care much about the guy who’s coming in from Detroit here in Chicago. They’re taking care of that Chicago crowd.” He says he finds chain sports bars “less interesting then the smaller ones, who kind of put together their own winning recipe.”
With franchised sports bar concepts, says Higdon, “you’re looking at a bigger price tag and an antiseptic, rote presentation of the menu and so forth. I just think the charm of a neighborhood sports bar can’t be replicated in a franchise.”
Cleats clearly reflects its community, one that is upscale but only one generation removed from blue collar backgrounds. “They’re always aware of prices and the value, or perceived value, of products you’re offering. A lot of our people are in the same financial boat. Yes, they’ve got the big house payments and so forth, but they’re more than aware of the prices we charge.” The average per-person check at dinner is $25.
The 150-seat establishment’s menu also reflects the blue-collar values of its guests. Pierogies are popular on Friday nights, “which is kind of unique to our area.” Another hot item is fish fries, a long-standing tradition in the Cleveland area. Tall draft beers are offered at discounted prices each day during Happy Hour. “So yes, we make it real attractive to come here.” Cleats offers 23 brands of beer, including seven on tap, as well as wine and spirits. About 51% of total sales come from alcohol, and 60% of that is beer.
Servers also know their customers’ names. “Most of my girls have been with me four or five years, which is kind of unique in this business. So naturally, they get to know our customers, who’ve also been with us for four or five years, on a first-name basis. As a matter of fact, most of the time guests hit the door and their drink is being poured. By the time they have a seat the drink is sweating already.”
Cleats offers guests entertainment like Mega Touch, a computer-based, multi-faceted game that includes cards, gambling, and trivia. There is also a driving machine, a pistol shooting game, and an old-fashioned mechanical bowling device, “which was a fixture in bars when we were growing up.”
Shoal Creek Saloon and Sports Parlor, a 14-year-old combination Cajun restaurant and sports bar located in Austin, TX, features a satellite dish and five TV monitors carrying all New Orleans Saints football games, as well as those of the NBA’s Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, and college sports from the University of Texas, and Louisiana State. The reason is a large enclave of fans who, like owner Bud George, are originally from Louisiana.
“There’s a fair amount of clientele from that area living over here now,” says George, who bought the 60-seat establishment four years ago. “There has been a group of these people in Austin for about 10 years who are Saints fans. They’re pretty loyal, and because the guys show up we’ll go on and put it on. On Sundays everybody knows each other. Guys come in from Georgetown, TX, 30 miles away, to watch the Saints games.” Other places in town also cater to followers of specific sports teams, such as one nearby that roots for the Green Bay Packers.
Shoal Creek offers other entertainment venues too, including a popular shuffleboard game built in 1947 that had once belonged to the now-defunct but well remembered Jake’s. Instead of video games, there are pool tables.
A large Cajun-oriented menu features entrees like fried catfish, fried oysters, and smoked duck and sausage gumbo. “In this area of town you’d call it Bubba Food,” says George. “We don’t apologize for having fried catfish and that kind of thing. You come in, get a good greasy burger or a fried catfish, a po’ boy, gumbo as it gets cooler, crawfish etouffee, knock down a few beers, and that’s about how we operate. It’s what it is.”
One of the two beers on tap is Shiner Bock, a local brew. Shiner Blonde, a lighter version, is available in bottles, as are Lone Star, Dixie, and a couple of Mexican brands. The average check at lunch is $8 to $9.
Legends All Star Cafe, a four-and-a-half year old independent in Reno, NV, features 15 TVs tuned to sporting events and a gaming area with 10 multi-game bar machines. Each allows patrons to play 10 video games, such as video poker, slots, and blackjack. There is also a darts machine and electronic shuffleboard.
The 90-seat establishment has 16 beers on tap, including local microbrews, and six more in bottles. There are also three house wines and half a dozen more available by the glass or bottle. All told, alcohol comprises 45% of total sales.
Legends does “all the traditional things that sports bars do–Monday Night Football parties and things of that nature,” says owner Joe Lawrence. “We show fights and pay per views occasionally.” Also available is Web TV, with which customers can get on the Internet. A strong emphasis is placed on food. “People don’t think of us as ‘a place to watch sports, and while we’re here we’ll grab a dog or something.’ We sell a lot of food.” The average tab is $25.
Regular customers “like to be noticed and recognized,” stresses Lawrence. “Neighborhood marketing is probably the way for us to go. A lot of places are going towards neighborhood marketing, even the chains, and away from mass media. They’re trying to develop their markets within a 10-minute drive of their location.”
Over and above that neighborhood approach, says Lawrence, Legends continues to look for “more gimmicks and gadgetry also because everybody and his brother thinks they can open a sports bar and be competitive.” He says he is “looking at” NTN and five more TVs as possible additions. The bar already has one large satellite dish and four mini-dishes.
Marilee Mancuso, owner of the Sports Page Pub, a lesbian sports bar in Largo, FL, agrees with Lawrence about the neighborhood appeal. “My clientele likes it better that way. It’s like a neighborhood-type bar, and they’re really not into hi-tech stuff. We don’t have room for hi-tech stuff anyway.”
The 50-seat establishment offers guests three regular and one big-screen TVs turned to ESPN “on most nights, and then any other sporting event going on.” Also available are darts, video games, and pool tables.
Like Someone’s Basement
During its previous incarnation as The Huddle, Gary Barnett’s Sports Bar inside the Omni Orrington Hotel in Evanston, IL, was “a very relaxed, not as upscale looking as we are now,” says manager Sara Dolan. “It was more of a cozier place, like someone’s basement; just a comfortable place to go and hang out, with very few TVs.”
The bar, which opened in September, is named for the coach of Northwestern University’s football team, the Wildcats. Photos, primarily of the Wildcats but increasingly of other Northwestern sports teams, are everywhere. A full satellite system brings sporting events to patrons through eight TVs in the 70-seat bar alone. The bar also subscribes to NTN, whose programming includes interactive entertainment, broadcasts 24 hours a day. A separate dining room seats close to 100, and features a menu that includes chicken sandwiches, half-pound burgers, pastas, steaks, large salads, and sandwiches like roasted eggplant and pepper or ahi tuna. The average check at dinner is $20.
Management has tried hard not to lose that “basement” ambiance, she adds, “and we have retained it. There’s lots of woodwork in here. Things like that make it feel very cozy.” Servers add to the coziness by being “extremely friendly. A lot of them have been here for a while. They were here through The Huddle, so they know a lot of our regulars, and a lot about Northwestern.”
Warm and friendly, homey, a neighborhood place–those may well be the hallmarks of cutting-edge sports bars in the next century, as Americans overdosed to the point of being bored with expensive entertainment technology look for someplace to unwind.
“To our way of thinking,” says Cleats’ Higdon, “in our little corner of the world here, if we can make it comfortable and your people can present themselves and your facility in a friendly, outgoing service-oriented way, I’ll kill the franchises. As a matter of fact, I wish one would open up next to me so I could do even better.”