Fabulous Fan Fare

Bars Go Upscale — Yet Easy — with Food to Court Sports Fanatics on Game Day

Rockit Burger

When it comes to food, sports bars — and those bars simply courting fans on game day — are now playing in a different ballpark. With customers craving more sophisticated options, owners need to offer more than just flat-screen TVs, an upgraded cable package, surround sound and plenty of beer; they also need to offer bar food that not only tastes great but also is easily and quickly prepared. “There’s definitely more of a demand for homemade, fresh, natural foods,” says Eric Tschetter, owner of Pour House in Fort Worth, Texas. “You wouldn’t think that customers at a sports bar would be that way, but in fact, they come in expecting better quality food.”

A  high-quality, interesting and versatile menu enables sports bar owners to compete with restaurants that might otherwise grab these crowds’ attentions and their wallets. So how can you stand out?

First, forget the fried cheese, mealy chicken fingers and dry, hockey-pucks-for-burgers. While they’re still a staple at some bars, sports fans want the same sophisticated foods they seek from their favorite restaurants, but in simpler, more sharable and value-added versions.

David Maini, director of culinary operations and executive chef for the Fox Sports Grill chain (with locations in California, Seattle, Arizona, Texas and Atlanta), agrees. A chef by training who has cooked all around the world, Maini says his customers demand the same homemade, all-natural and even local and sustainable foods they do when dining at a traditional restaurant.

“We’re trying to create a really cool food atmosphere, not just one centered around sports,” he says. “We want to be the type of place where you would come in to have [bar snacks], lunch or dinner, without even thinking about sports. But we also want to be a great place to come for the Super Bowl.”

That means not just offering a diverse menu to fit different customer demographics, but also balancing the food items so they’re simple. Simple food means better speed of service, but it doesn’t mean you have to skimp on top-quality items. In a complete 45-item menu overhaul this summer, Maini took menu items as simple as nachos and dressed them up with homemade tortilla chips and guacamole using fresh Mexican hass avocados, topped with crumbled, authentic Mexican queso. Fox Sports Grill also features higher-quality items by offering hand-sliced potatoes for chips topped with applewood-smoked bacon and a strong Maytag blue cheese, and when it comes to burgers, Fox Sports Grill uses all-natural Black Angus and Kobe beef served on local bakery buns. In fact, they’ve diversified by including a vegan-friendly option with seasonal veggies and exotic spices.

“The landscape is truly changing,” Maini says. “Our customers don’t just want a chicken sandwich or wings. It’s very common to get asked, ‘What type of beef is this?’ Do you have anything free-range? Is the fish wild, or is it farm-raised? This is the 21st century – we see much more sophisticated diners, regardless if they’re spending $10 or $100.”

Seasonal Sports and Food

Traditional burgers are beefed up at Rockit Bar & Grill in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood, where owner Billy Dec (who also runs the celebrity-driven Underground nightclub), takes his food as seriously as the sporty atmosphere, by tweeting about his farmer’s market finds and working with local farms, bakeries and producers to create easy yet delicious sports dishes.

“We’ve taken the quintessential, all-American sandwich to a whole other level,” he explains, crediting Executive Chef James Gottwald. The popular Rockit Burger (pictured at top), a half-pound Kobe beef patty on top of fried shallots and topped with melted brie, medjool date aioli and a red onion brioche bun, was rated the best burger in the nation by “Good Morning America.” Even the accompanying truffle or sweet potato fries dusted with brown sugar and spices can stand alone as popular items.

This past summer, Dec’s team experimented with slow-smoked ribs with a molasses-bourbon sauce, and because of their successful run, the ribs will be featured during football season. Dec also “miniaturized” a wildly successful pulled pork sandwich that fans enjoy while watching Chicago Cubs games in the summer.

Pairing Up the Parties

While Rockit Bar & Grill may not offer “crazy deals,” such as 10-cent wings or other heavily discounted items, special menus are created for specific sporting events in order to bring in just as many crowds without sacrificing profit margins. During “WingIT,” which corresponds with the kickoff of football season in September, the Rockit Bar team offers five different types of gourmet buffalo wings. And, in March, to kick-off March Madness, they run “Mac Madness” promotions, offering different types of macaroni and cheese each day.

At the Waxy O’Connors location in Miami, a 7,000-square-foot space with a 2,000-square-foot patio, the World Cup games this year drew in enormous crowds that blew away owner Adrian Najara.

“We tried to cater to whichever sports team was playing that day in terms of our food and drink specials,” he says. The bar ran rum and Brazilian food appetizers when Brazil played, and played up its pubby dishes for England’s games.

Louis Fayetteville, Ark., pizza

The World Cup was a financial coup for Louie’s Grill & Bar in Fayetteville, Ark., a central viewing point for University of Arkansas sports watching. The husband-wife team of Mark and Alex Martinez also saw plenty of guests come out for the World Cup matches, so they took advantage by opening during breakfast hours for the United States versus England game, pushing their appetizers and pizzas (including a breakfast pizza) in the morning — in addition to during prime sports-viewing hours. Pour House did the same, opening for breakfast-time World Cup games with a lineup of breakfast taquitos and sliders with eggs, bacon and sausage.

When pairing food with special events it’s important to make note of your location and play to your clientele. At the University of Southern California, where Trojan football is more than just a casual pastime, McKay’s, a bar and restaurant operated by campus dining, takes advantage of college students, parents and alumni coming out for USC games by setting up a tailgating spot with flat-screen TVs in its parking lot and introducing a game-day menu, says Kris Klinger, director of USC hospitality. That means playing up traditional burgers with unique condiments like pickled onions and market vegetables, or even creating interesting sauces for wings.

A Changing Audience

To develop the perfect menu, you must first understand the customers. The old image of men sitting around obsessing over a sports game isn’t the picture of the modern-day sports bar at all. In fact, some bars report they see more women than men, and many say they get an almost equal mix of younger 20-somethings and middle-aged individuals.

Women make up a surprising 70 percent of the customer base at Waxy O’Connors in Miami, the most recently opened location out of five in the Florida-based operating group. As a result, Najara says seafood reigns over traditional pub food, though the Shepherd’s pie and fish and chips still are popular.

“People are getting trendier with their tastes, even at sports bars,” he says. “Because we’re in Miami and right on the river, a lot of our customers really enjoy our seafood-focused dishes.”

For that reason, conch fritters, not the ever-popular chicken fingers, sell the most at Waxy O’Connor’s, and Najara plans to open up a raw bar featuring oysters and crab legs in the future.

McKays USC

At McKay’s (above), students and their parents along with 30- and 40-something alumni create a diverse atmosphere. Because of this variety in clientele, a typical pepperoni pizza has morphed into a flatbread topped with arugula, pancetta and parmesan cheese, for example.

Louie’s Grill & Bar faces a similar situation. “We’re in the same town as the University (Arkansas), but just far enough away so we’re not just a huge college bar,” says Alex Martinez. As a result, they’ve had to create a versatile menu with simple favorites like buffalo wings, but bump these items up a notch to meet older crowds’ desires.

Sporty Social Marketing

Once you have a menu that targets your audience’s cravings, then you need to make sure people know about it. You should use all the tools available to you, especially digital marketing to announce food specials, from website updates to e-mail blasts, texting campaigns and social media outreach.

“We attacked social media to get the word out about our World Cup specials and updated our website every day,” says Najara. Facebook fan pages allow bar owners to post special menus and deals and connect with customers for feedback. Many sports bars also tweet menu updates that link back to their websites.

Pour House uses both a heavy texting and e-mail marketing campaign to announce game-day specials. “We have a Constant Contact list of about 2,000 that’s been growing every day,” says Tschetter. For the texting campaign, he puts up an in-store ad or table tent telling customers to text the word “wing,” for example, to a certain number to win prizes, coupons and free parties.

And then there are the more traditional forms of marketing and signage, from table tents to banners, and even in-house “commercials” advertising food and drink specials using the bar’s flat-screen TVs. Louie’s found success doing just these tricks, especially during Arkansas Razorback games when football fans are the most distracted.

With sophisticated menus, sports game packages and smart marketing, sports bars now can compete with the big guns, from upscale restaurants to loungy-bars — as long as management understands its customers’ needs. And with a growing demand for artisan-quality foods, this segment’s primed for even more opportunities to score big. NCB

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