Segment Spotlight, December 2009; Sports Bars Score Big

Upscale menus, high end décor and a focus on quality and service have become common sports bar attributes.

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Sometimes it pays to set the bar higher, especially when the economy is less than stellar. To better compete in the foodservice segment, a number of sports bar operators are upping the ante and redefining their segment.

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Their customers are more likely to be greeted with high-definition televisions and comfortable booths, as opposed to more traditional wooden bar stools and beer signs. An extensive menu with gourmet fare compliments the requisite roster of fried appetizers. Chefs, not just cooks, head the state-of-the-art kitchens.

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"Everyone wants to open a sports bar, because they think it's an easy way to make money," says Walter Hill, owner of the Press Box Sports Emporium in Tampa, Fla. When the city was chosen as host of the 2008 Super Bowl, more than two dozen sports bars popped up in the area. Now, most of these operations are no longer running. "I've been in this business 22 years. Operating a successful sports bar, and cultivating a loyal clientele, is a lot of work."

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A Unique Segment

Sports bar business is largely dependent on the success of local sports teams. When home teams are doing well, these establishments are busier. "If teams aren't winning, people don't want to celebrate," Hill says.

For the last 33 years, major sporting events have helped Press Box Sports Emporium establish a loyal customer base. Its more than 30 high definition televisions are able to simultaneously show all NFL games during the football season. Although it is sometimes a juggling act to accommodate customers' specific game viewing requests, the managers tend to be successful in seating patrons by their requested game.

There is no doubt that Press Box is a sports bar. The windowless dining room provides optimal viewing of sporting events. Autographed photos of athletes, jerseys and sports memorabilia adorn the cedar walls. Even the large rectangular bar contains old sports tickets shellacked onto its top, which Hill says is a popular conversation piece.

The Press Box's menu emphasizes homemade fare, including its Buffalo-style chicken wings. "We are known for our Buffalo section, which includes a Buffalo chicken sandwich, Buffalo salad, Buffalo melt, Buffalo quesadillas, Buffalo shrimp and Buffalo burgers," Hill says.

Both the sauce and blue cheese dressing are made in-house. More than 20 burgers and chicken sandwiches also are available. Staff prepare these items in a 200-sq.-ft. kitchen that contains a small amount of equipment. The cook line consists of four fryers, a griddle, a 60" flat top stove with two burners and a convection oven. "Still, people come in here wanting 50 wings prepared five different ways, and we have the capability to do that," Hill says.

Unlike Press Box, Starters Pub Sports Bar & Grille, which has three locations in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, does not have a sports bar theme. Yet, its Bethlehem site feeds athletes and staff participating in the Philadelphia Eagles training camp as well as the fans who come to watch the team work out. The restaurant also partners with professional sports teams, local colleges and area athletic clubs for promotions.

"For us, it's the people and atmosphere that set the tone, which is different from other restaurants," says Lee Hildebeitel, Starter Pub's kitchen manager. "We can be slow one day and then packed solid the next when a game is on television. Our business changes, depending on what's going on in the area and which team is playing."

While most traditional sports bar offerings consist of no more than a few fried appetizers, Starter Pub's menu is more extensive and refined. Although known for its wings, Starter Pub offers a full menu that includes barbecue chicken, ribs, pasta and fish. The restaurant also added a private beef line from New Jersey, and staff now hand-cut steaks on-site.

"When it comes to foodservice equipment, efficiency is the most important consideration," Hildebeitel says. He describes the Riverport location's four-year-old kitchen, its newest, as state-of-the-art. Equipment includes an infrared broiler, a combi-oven, flat top grill, convection ovens, deep fryers, a 15" x 12" walk-in cooler, a 10" x 12" walk-in freezer and reach-in refrigerators and freezers.

Crossing the Line

Rather than a bar focusing on sports and alcohol, many operators are creating gathering spots that are more family friendly with larger, upscale menus.

Location also can be a factor. Operating across the street from Madison Square Garden, home to New York's Knicks and Rangers, Café 31 is busiest during the basketball and hockey seasons. Although this operation is positioned more as a restaurant than a sports bar, the addition of more televisions is proof of its commitment to sports viewing.

"We're busiest from mid-September to May. When our teams win, we do better," says Paul Bellios, co-owner.

Café 31 dishes include a variety of brick oven pizza; veal dishes, including veal parmigiana and piccata; jumbo shrimp scampi; and chicken cutlets. Even though the sports bar downsized its menu due to rising food costs, it still offers 20 soups a day.

"We make the extra effort to know our customers and cater to their requests whenever possible," Bellios says.

The 1,500-sq.-ft. kitchen was renovated in 2006 with all new equipment. The cook line includes bain maries, a flat top grill, fryers, four six-burner stoves and a char grill. A wood-burning pizza oven is situated in the center of the bar.

"With equipment, efficiency and flexibility are always most important," Bellios says. The dining room overhaul included moving the bar, making the kitchen more accessible and adding more televisions.

Fox Sports Grill, based in Westlake Village, Calif., with locations in Seattle, San Diego, Texas, Atlanta and Arizona, also is positioned as a restaurant with sports viewing. "We don't like the sports bar moniker, even though we are a bar that shows sports," says Mark Bailey, director of operations.

Touted as offering "the ultimate in dining and sports viewing," Fox Sports Grill has taken aspects from different restaurant segments and melded them with sports entertainment. "As a result, ours is not a typical sports bar crowd," Bailey says.

Because most customers come in with specific game viewing requests, Bailey says preferred seating desires and television management are critical. Consequently, dining room hosts must take part in what is sometimes a complicated seating scenario. These staff members write out which games patrons would like to view and place them in the appropriate section whenever possible. "It's a matter of pleasing guests, while still maintaining a semblance of control," Bailey says.

With chefs and sous chefs staffing its kitchens, the chain conducts menu reviews annually. "We make a concerted effort to stay on top of the different menu trends happening in dining," Bailey says.

Fox Grill's signature dishes include jambalaya with andouille sausage, Angus beef burgers, homemade blue cheese potato chips and wings. "Rather than using frozen chicken wings that are cooked in the fryer and covered with sauce out of a bottle, our premium-sized wings are hickory smoked on site for six hours, topped off in the fryer and covered with house-made sauce," Bailey says.

Chefs at each Fox location also create their own dishes using local ingredients, while taking regional taste preferences into account. The Plano, Texas, location features a 4,000-sq.-ft. kitchen that regularly serves up custom menus for private events. It's not unusual for the bar to host a Bloody Mary Brunch or corporate dinner with carving stations, for example.

"Our high volume requires that we have one or two expediters that pull orders together from the different stations," Bailey says.

Fox's back of the house features a large grill station, fry station, sauté station and separate pantry for salads, desserts and pizza. Main equipment includes a smoker, convection ovens, grill and kettle. The sites are integrating point of sale video monitors into the kitchen, which will eliminate paper tickets.

"The biggest factor with our equipment is reliability. It has to work," Bailey says. "Energy efficiency also is important for a restaurant of our size, because every penny adds up."

Service is casual, but upscale, according to Bailey. Fox Grill trains its servers to guide guests through the dining experience. This includes educating customers on the extensive signature drink menu, which was created by mixologists it commissioned from across the country. Fox Grill also incorporates beer pairings with its dishes, in addition to its wine pairing suggestions.

Family Friendly

Fox Sports Grill makes the effort to integrate its sites into the neighborhoods they serve by sponsoring high school football teams and local athletics. "We're not a rowdy drinking house," Bailey says. "We have many regular customers and not everyone is sports oriented. Our concept is more about the overall dining experience, which includes food and entertainment."

With two locations in Chicago's northwest suburbs, Wool Street Grill and Sports Bar also caters to area families as well as sports fans. The Barrington location, which opened in 2005, is in the midst of a 1,000-sq.-ft. expansion that will add 80 seats to its 240-seat dining room. The two-month project also will expand a multi-purpose room used for live entertainment, banquets and overflow sports viewing seating.

"The demographic in the suburbs we serve is very family focused," says owner Mark Green. "Most of our customers have young children."

As a result, along with kids' menus, the restaurants contain video game rooms with close circuit televisions, so parents can keep an eye on their children from the bar or dining room.

Though the operation caters to kids, Wool Street takes its sports bar status seriously. Its Cary location has a separate dining room with televisions at almost every booth. The bar area includes a projection screen and numerous televisions broadcasting sporting events.

"Many of the kids that come in with their families are involved in sports and like to watch sporting events on television," Green says.

Wool Street's furnishings are locally inspired by area sports clubs, articles on community athletic events and yearbooks from local schools.

"Parents can come in here and see their child's team on the wall or kids may spot a photo of their parent's sports team. We want the décor to show that we're part of the community," Green says.

Although Wool Street sets itself apart from traditional sports bars, Green says business is affected by the success or failure of local college and pro teams. "When the Chicago Blackhawks NHL team started winning last year, it gave us a big boost," Green says.

Unlike a traditional sports bar's offerings, Wool Street's menu theme emphasizes upscale family dining. Pizza, burgers, sandwiches, wraps and salads are offered, along with lighter, healthier fare including veggie and turkey burgers.

The extensive appetizer menu includes wings, nachos and other traditional sports bar offerings.

Wool Street's fine dining options include salmon, ribs and filet mignon.

"The main objective with our kitchen equipment is efficiency," Green says. We keep our ticket times to less than 15 minutes. Our design elements help ensure we provide fast service."

Its 2,600-sq.-ft. kitchen is designed to handle banquets, which are hosted as often as five times a week.

The traditional line set up includes a charbroiler, stove, fryers and stacked convection ovens. A prep station includes two walk ins.

The secret to success in the sports bar segment may lie, not in the bar, but in the menu. By crossing the line to become more of a restaurant than a bar, operators can create a destination for sports fans.

"We want customers to not realize that they are in a sports bar, yet be able to watch their favorite teams play," Bailey says. "It's about offering a higher standard for a dining and viewing experience."

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