14 Chains Shattering the Sports Bar Status Quo

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Duffy's
Wings at Duffy's restaurant.
A shifting customer

There are a host of studies and data that back a changing TV consumer. A 2018 article by The New York Times was bluntly headlined, “Why Traditional TV Is in Trouble.” It explores something we’ve seen coming for some time. Americans, millennials and younger viewers especially, rely less on network TV than past generations, electing instead for streaming services and other, more-curated packages. Even TV itself isn’t a couch-exclusive activity anymore. TV can be consumed from computers, smart phones, and other mobile platforms.

So how has all of this affected bar and grill restaurants? Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of Westport, Connecticut-based New England Consulting Group, told FSR earlier that, “It’s hard to walk into a restaurant, even a white tablecloth one, and not see a TV at the bar.”

That’s a reflection of the competitive times. But, also, as Kevin Moll, president of Denver, Colorado-based Restaurant Consulting Services, explained, many customers are confused about the identity of sports bars. “Are they a bar that serves food, or do they specialize in alcohol? Is it a place to drink and watch sports or a place to get a meal?” he said.

To develop its competitive edge, every sports bar has to conduct “specific market research of what they can offer that other eateries don’t,” Moll said.

And there’s where the issue and opportunity lies. If fewer customers are heading to restaurants to watch sports, what other differentiators are present? Or if guests are, in fact, looking for a sports-viewing experience, what does the restaurants tout that its competitors don’t?

Glory Days Grill, a growing brand out of Maryland, always has a TV tuned to Cartoon Network. At each table, there’s a speaker where customers tap into one of the 40–50 TVs of their choice. However, they can control the volume and listen to whatever they want, free of their neighbor’s pick. Customers can also flick the volume off and enjoy a quiet meal. This has helped the 34-unit brand appeal to families and females, two demographics often left behind in this segment.

"Although the casual-dining segment is facing challenges we haven’t seen in decades, this is a great time for Glory Days Grill," Gary Cohen, the chain's EVP says. "We are in a robust period of growth in terms of franchising, and we are honored to have such experienced franchise partners including Bob Basham and CPFG on board to grow with us. The next few years are going to be extremely exciting.”

Stibel added that the prime audience of millennials has matured into the marketplace. They’re having kids now, and their “wives don’t want to go to a sports bar,” he said.

Joked Moll, “If a sports bar wants to be busy, it should market itself exclusively to female clientele. You’ll get guys automatically.”

While a quip, it speaks to a real challenge. Sports bars need to adapt their menus to strike out veto votes wherever possible. Just look at what Buffalo Wild Wings is doing lately. The competitive set is too saturated to simply pour domestic beer and hope people show up with their favorite jerseys on game day. It’s not as though customers don’t have big-screen TVs at home.

Concepts like Hickory Tavern, Cajun-focused Walk-On’s, and Arooga’s offer broad and specialized menus that encourage repeat visits. Arooga’s serves wagyu beef burgers, Impossible meat items, and chicken raised without antibiotics. And like Glory Days Grill, the concept—at most stores—splits its space between eatery and sports bar, each with a different sound system. That’s something Boston’s does, too—a sports bar for a livelier experience on one side and a warm, friendly atmosphere for families on the other, so customers can access the brand according to their own needs.

And it’s important to go deeper than event-based traffic. Glory Days Grill looks to “glory moments” to think beyond that sports-centric box. It requires operators to sponsor a minimum of 10 local sports teams a year. Additionally, locations are designed with a separated section for event occasions, an ideal fit for local teams to come and hand out awards, or anything else that fits this community vibe.

Tom’s Urban touts what it calls “screen play,” to create an atmosphere that makes putting on jeans worth the effort. In this case, live, interactive screens, like trivia, that give guests a chance to interact via mobile devices. “TomTV” offers personalized, hand-curated content exclusive to the concept. And it gives guests a reason to show up beyond Sunday in football season.

It comes down to experience, as always. The definition, for sports and grill chains, simply isn’t so static anymore.

Here are 14 upstart concepts standing out from the pack.

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Duffy's
Duffy’s

Units: 34

Units to be added in 2019: one

Planned for 2020: three

Total company sales in 2018: $135 million

Average-unit volume: $4.1 million

Average check: $20.55

Duffy’s has always courted a personal touch. The first store opened in 1985 as a tiny, window-less restaurant near a railroad track in Lake Park, Florida, proclaiming “COLD BEER” and “BEST BURGERS IN TOWN” on a faded sign affixed to the building’s brick exterior. When Paul Emmett got involved in 2001, Duffy’s four stores served draft beer and just four menu items. Following Emmett’s passing in 2015, the chain is run by his son, Jason Emmett. Duffy’s has grown not just in unit count, but in offerings, ambiance, and food choices as well. But the local feel hasn’t left. Duffy’s has had an “MVP” loyalty program since the 2000s, well before they were commonplace.

“The original menu was basic as it could be, but they were just great, well done items,” Emmett told FSR earlier. “So the menu has drastically expanded, but still today, that killer Duffy’s burger remains our biggest item.” The brand said it sells more than a million burgers annually.

And retention and culture has played a leading role—70 percent of the chain’s managers started as hourly employees. Guests will find more than 80 than TVs at each location of the family-owned brand.

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Pinstripes Bistro Bowling Bocce
Pinstripes Bistro Bowling Bocce

Units: 10

Units to be added in 2019: Two

Planned for 2020: Three

Total company sales in 2018: $60 million

Average-unit volume: $8.5 million

Average check: $45

“Eatertainment” brands have found ample room to grow in today’s experience-driven landscape. Pinstripes CEO Dale Schwartz opened the first location in Northbrook, Illinois, in 2007. He went about hiring a powerhouse team from day one. One of its early board members was the founder of Maggiano’s. Another was the ex-chairman of McDonald’s. Chris Soukup, its chief operations officer, started as the first GM. Linda Ahn, hired three weeks after Soukup, is now the company’s chief training officer. This blend of experience and longevity has fueled Pinstripes growth. A big key was also to add bocce in addition to bowling. This differentiated the chain from typical bowling alleys. It brought an Italian element, too. “Bocce allowed us to accentuate that Italian-American duality,” Schwartz said. “We have bocce along with Italian-American cuisine and Italian-American wines.”

Another separator: On average, Pinstripes hosts more than 1,500 events per location annually. On some Saturdays, there will be more than 30 at a single store. It can serve corporate events from 20–600 people, as well as family gatherings, like weddings. Schwartz said Pinstripes has plans to open 100 more units all around the U.S., as well as an equal amount with partners overseas. International sites on the radar for Pinstripes include London, Germany, Prague, Mexico City, and Canada.

 

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Glory Days Grill
Glory Days Grill

Units: 34

Units to be added in 2019: 3-4

Planned for2020: 2-3

Total company sales in 2018: $93 million

Average-unit volume: 3.1 million

Average check: $16.43

Glory Days Grill recently inked a development deal with Carolina Performance Food Group, LLC to open eight restaurants in the North Carolina Triangle area (plus Fayetteville) over the next several years. CPFG is co-owned by Robert R. Stafford and King Hospitality Inc. Stafford was among the first multi-unit franchisees of Jiffy Lube, operating 35 locations and five surrounding states before he sold to Pennzoil. He’s then became an IHOP operator, with stores in Holly Springs and Spring Lake, North Carolina. Kathleen Huff, an employee of Glory Days Grill for 15 years (from hostess to managing partner), is relocating from Northern Virginia to Raleigh to assist CPFG with their rollout. As mentioned in the intro, Glory Days has no shortage of differentiators.

"Although the casual dining segment is facing challenges we haven’t seen in decades, this is a great time for Glory Days Grill," Gary Cohen, the chain's EVP says. "We are in a robust period of growth in terms of franchising, and we are honored to have such experienced franchise partners including Bob Basham and CPFG on board to grow with us. The next few years are going to be extremely exciting.”

The brand was created in 1996 and its three founders, Richard Danker, Robert Garner, and Jeffrey Newman remain intimately involved. Of the chain’s franchise partners is also a group directed by Bob Basham, co-founder of Outback Steakhouse. Glory Days Grill is working with Franchise Freeway to ignite growth. Mike Halpern, formerly VP of Franchise Sales with Fransmart, the company that helped scale Five Guys and Qdoba into industry giants, is the CEO of the Franchise Freeway.

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Cody's Original Roadhouse
Cody’s Original Roadhouse

Units: 16

Units to be added in 2019: zero

Planned for 2020: five

Total company sales in 2018: $38 million

Average-unit volume: $3.3 million

Cody’s has been building its way to growth and is ready to kick up expansion. The eclectic brand is focused on saturating Florida before opening up the Southeast. It courts an unchained-chain look with local decorations, peanut shells, open kitchens, large portions, and diverse food offerings. It brings to life the roadhouse restaurants popularized in rural settings during the 1940s and 1950s. Founded in Tarpon Springs in 1994, the brand was sold five years ago to sold to Shane Morrison Companies, a commercial real estate firm owned by Louisiana entrepreneur Shane Morrison. Since then, the group has opened a third of the brand’s total locations. The brand is known for its fresh cut, USDA prime and choice steaks and chickens turning on the rotisserie. Tubs of roasted peanuts are also available throughout the restaurant.

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Sedona Taphouse
Sedona Taphouse

Units: 12

Units to be added in 2019: Two

Planned for 2020: Zero

Total company sales in 2018: $29.4 million

Average-unit volume: $3.7 million

Average check: $37.70

Sedona Taphouse touts a robust craft-beer program as well as hand-crafted cocktails curated by its beverage manager. The choices vary across locations and use fresh-squeezed juices and natural ingredients. And to split from the crowd, Sedona Taphouse leans on well-publicized Happy Hour promotions. It also offers Braveheart Choice Black Angus Beef and gluten-free selections. The growing franchise has locations in Virginia, New Jersey, Kentucky, New York, Tennessee, Connecticut, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, DJB Hospitality LLC/Sedona Taphouse CEO Dennis Barbaro founded the company in 2011. Sedona Taphouse also plays an active role in its communities. The chain has donated almost $1 million to local charities and causes, mainly through its ‘Steak Out for Charity’ initiatives.

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Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill
Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill

Units: Eight

Units to be added in 2019: three

Planned for 2020: Three

Total company sales in 2018: $35 million

Average-unit volume: $5.1 million

Average check: $23.50

Thirsty Lion founder and CEO John Plew sold seven of his concepts to focus on the gastropub’s expansion. Two years ago, Plew brought on Marcie Rude as chief development officer to research potential markets and see where the brand could scale. Rude, who previously helped grow P.F. Chang’s from 30 to 150 restaurants, helped define the expansion strategy. Plew said the brand wants to double in size over the next five years, or scale at a rate of 28 percent, year-over-year.

“We're just trying to be a holistic about how we expand,” he told FSR. “With the workforce that's out there we’re trying to pick emerging markets that are up and coming and have really great food, great craft cocktails, and great craft beer, because that's what our brand's about.”

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THE AINSWORTH
The Ainsworth

Units: Seven

Units to be added in 2019: four

Planned for 2020: One

Average-unit volume: $4 million

Average check: $30

Paige Hospitality Group’s expanding brand has begun exploring markets outside of New York City. CEO Matt Shendell told FSR they looked for three things when growing: a loyal sports fan base, an emerging food and beverage scene, and a location with plenty of New York transplants, “because then you have brand recognition,” he said. There are now stores in Kansas City and Nashville to join the Big Apple-area spots. Each unit offers a multi-purpose space with a variety of elements—full-service dining, bar, lounge, and event area. The food spins new takes on American fare favorites across 60-plus items. The elevated décor features 40-plus TVs and there’s a full in-house catering corporate menu as well.

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OGGI'S
Oggi's Sports Brewhouse

Units: 16

Units to be added in 2019: Zero

Planned for 2020: Three

Total company sales in 2018: $38 million

Average-unit volume: $2.4 million

Average check: $20

The pizza-forward franchise was created by two brothers, George and John Hadjus, who began serving up their own in August 1991. They opened a restaurant in Del Mar, California, as a franchisee of an existing local chain. Over time, it evolved from a pizzeria style to a sports-themed restaurant with TVs across the walls. Then came delivery, followed by the concept’s evolution into the brewing industry. With microbreweries booming, the brothers decided it was a prime time to complement the existing restaurant concept with a suds-focus. It broadened Oggi’s (which stands for today in Italian) customer base and matured into the all-in-one brand seen today.

The chain has picked up awards, including being named the Champion Small Brewing Company at the World Beer Cup in 2004. It has earned more than 50 medals in international, national, and regional beer competitions. The brand has expanded to Apple Valley, Barstow, Carmel Mountain Ranch, Del Mar, Eastlake, Encinitas, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Liberty Station/Point Loma, Mission Valley, Mission Viejo, Santa Clarita, Santee, Upland, Vista, and Glendale (Arizona). It has also negotiated partnerships with five professional sports teams.

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Public School on Tap
Public School on Tap

Units: 9

Units to be added in 2019: Zero

Planned for 2020: One

Total company sales in 2018: $26.6 million

Average-unit volume: $3 million

Average check: $42.81

The cool-school themed restaurant lives by its tagline “an education in the art of food and beer.” The name of each restaurant is localized with historical codes, like PS213 (LA), and PS303 (Colorado). Public School has grown to stores in Dallas, Denver, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Addison (Texas), Sherman Oaks (California), and Culver City (California). The chef-driven gastropub pours exclusively craft beers and sources ingredients from local farmer’s markets whenever possible. Some seasonal favorites included the PB&J Burger, Roasted Beet & Goat Cheese Salad, and the Bacon Cheddar Tots. It also plays on the name with “Recess” (happy hour) and seasonal artisanal cocktails and sommelier selected wines.

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Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern
Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern

Units: 23

Units to be added in 2019: Zero

Planned for 2020: Zero

Total company sales in 2018: $60 million

Average-unit volume: $2.6 million

Average check: $23.50

The sister company of Cameron Mitchel Restaurants was founded in 2002 and has always leaned on its beverage program. In 2017, the brand was honored with two VIBE Vista Awards in the multi-unit chain segment in two categories: Best Spirits and Best Overall program. In March, Rusty Bucket promoted Josh Yosick from regional chef to corporate chef. A recent innovative change was offering two exclusive bourbons, Woodford Reserve Personal Selection Gary’s Blend No. 14 and Old Forester Single Barrel. The Rusty Bucket leadership team visited the Woodford Reserve distillery and the Old Forester distillery to create custom blend bourbon barrels that are exclusively served at Rusty Bucket locations in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Colorado, and Florida. Rusty Bucket also offers weekly happy hour deals from 3–6 p.m., Monday to Friday. In addition to its daily drink features, which includes Whiskey Wednesday, the brand offers $1 off all beer, wine, and cocktails. Guests can also enjoy half-priced artisan pizzas and appetizers and $5 Juicy Lucy Burgers.

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Flickr: Yelp Inc.
Carolina Ale House

Units: 30

Units to be added in 2019: One

Planned for 2020: Zero

Total company sales in 2018: $56 million

Average-unit volume: $3.5 million

Average check: $24.82

Carolina Ale House is another concept that stresses community involvement. That was a vision of founder Papa Lou in 1999, and has stayed consistent over the years. Locations host regular fundraisers, sponsor teams, donate food, and dedicate time to charitable causes. Carolina Ale House also features a from-scratch kitchen that pulses LTOs like its “Summer Adventures,” which features a Southwest Beyond Burger, Blackened Chicken Sandwich, and three sangrias—Rose Sangria, Sparkling Paradise Sangria, and Southern Belle Sangria.

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flickr: fauxto_digit
The Greene Turtle

Units: 44

The classic brand, founded 1976 on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, scored a blockbuster hire in May when it tapped Geovannie Concepcion, formerly COO at Famous Dave’s, as it new CEO. He replaced Bob Barry, who stepped down after 12 years and remained a shareholder. Concepcion was the driving force behind many of barbecue brand’s technology-forward changes in recent years. He’s been a member of the brand’s management team since April 2016, tasked mainly with store optimization and aiding Famous Dave’s refranchising efforts, as well as implementing online ordering and delivery. Before Famous Dave’s, Concepcion held a variety of roles with Greenwich, Connecticut-based Wexford Capital LP in the private equity group and global macro hedge funds. The Greene Turtle has slowed its growth lately as it focuses on some of its core traits. The brand is looking beyond TV to deliver broader experiences, with food that highlights its Maryland heritage and proprietary offerings, like its Shell Raiser beer line, Mug Club, and retail presences. Need proof of the concept’s strong equity with consumers? In 2018, the company sold more than 250,000 shirts systemwide. It has a store on 116th Street and Coastal Highway in Ocean City that has been open 25 years. A 6th Street and Boardwalk location has stood for more than a decade.

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Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant
Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant

Units: 16

The brand was founded by homebrewers Kevin Finn, Mark Edelson, and restaurateur Kevin Davies in Newark, Delaware, in 1996. Each unit has its own scratch kitchen and on-site craft brewery, which allows individual chefs and brewers the creativity to pair fresh ingredients with high-quality grains and hops. Iron Hill has been beer-focused since day one. Recently, the company signed a lease in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta. This is part of Iron Hill’s “20 by 20” initiative, which calls fro 20 locations by 2020. This unit would be the 18th overall to build on a Newtown, Pennsylvania, spot planned for spring 2020.

“We have established ourselves in the Northeast,” said Finn, chairman of the board and director of development, in a statement. “After we were welcomed in South Carolina with open arms, we knew it was time to explore more of the south, and we have been eyeing Atlanta for some time, waiting for the right opportunity and location. Buckhead is a major commercial and financial center in Atlanta, and given its residential appeal, we knew this neighborhood was a perfect next step.”

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PJW Restaurant Group
P.J. Whelihan’s

Units: 17

Part of the PJW Restaurant Group family, which includes The Pour House, The Chophouse, Treno Pizza Bar, Central Taco, and Chophouse Grille, P.J. Whelihan’s has spread to South Jersey and Pennsylvania with a wing and beer focus that isn’t short on volume. This past year, the brand sold 10.9 million wings. It dished out 106,893 on Super Bowl Sunday alone. It also moved 72,000 wings every Tuesday night during half-price wing night. The brand, opened in 1993, offers up 12 signature sauces, including Wing of the Month: Psychedelic Heat, Hot N’ Honey, Mild, Hot, Honey BBQ, Sweet Chili, Garlic Parm, Chipotle BBQ, Kickin’ Korean, Inferno, Mexican Garlic, and Old Bay.