Sports Bar 2.0

Television, beer and a modern spin

Back Article Aug 1, 2012 By Laura Coyne Steel

Failing in the restaurant business is a great way to go broke. The risks are huge, and the collapse rate is high yet there’s always the chance you’ll hit the sweet spot. And with an oh-so-fickle consumer population, finding the perfect niche in a saturated market is akin to a gladiator receiving the thumbs-up.

Capital Region restaurateurs are banking on a new breed of hybrid sports bars that offer the trappings of traditional waterholes with the finery and gourmet grub demanded by a food-centric populace. Increased competition challenges business owners to distinguish themselves and provide an experience that meets sports fans’ demands without alienating the rest of the population.

“The traditional sports bar might have featured a lot of themed merchandise, such as uniforms, bats and jerseys,” says Mason Wong, a managing member of Firestone Public House on Sacramento’s 16th Street. “We took the sports bar concept and put a spin on it to create something a little different.”

That spin includes state-of-the-art technology and televisions and 60 types of bottled and draft beers, including a broad selection of craft brews, giving Firestone the distinction of doubling as an alehouse.

Instead of Hooter’s-esque bar fare, Wong and his partners, the de Vere White brothers, owners of de Vere’s Irish Pub on L Street, scoured restaurants nationwide for creative bar munchies such as soft-shell crab tacos and avocado egg rolls. Lunch and dinner menu items range from $10 to $22 and include sweet pork pizza, lobster stir-fry and a muffaletta sandwich.

The key to success with an expensive, extensive menu is consistency. Drop the ball, and customers bounce. “When you order a cheeseburger at a chain eatery, it’s the same each and every time,” Wong says. “And that product consistency is what makes a restaurant successful and profitable.”

In addition to its varied menu, Firestone has a diverse demographic. Its target audience ranges from ages 28 to 60. To attract more customers, Wong plans to customize music and play “retro” tunes until 9 p.m. He also sets high standards for his staff.

“A majority of our workers have two to three years experience from other food and bar establishments,” he says.

Wong and his partners self-financed the Firestone and hope for a five-year return, which is customary in the restaurant business.

Blocks away, owners of Republic Bar & Grill opted for a breezy, open-air establishment on 15th Street with outdoor seating, video arcade and pool hall. Its owners are banking on a classic, greasy-spoon business model with a draw: Andrew Blaskovich, the man behind Drewski’s Hot Rod Kitchen, Sacramento’s cult-followed food truck. Burgers are big, messy and affordable.

The high-top booths and tables are designed to foster a social environment, says owner-operator Jesse Barns. Republic opened earlier this year and features 15 flat-screen TVs, Skee-Ball and live music.

Republic hopes to capitalize on Blaskovich’s culinary skills and popularity as a food truck vendor. His followers will find a menu that is an expanded version of his mobile fare. In addition to hearty burgers, customers can try the chicken-and-waffle sandwich, sweet potato fries and a “luau” quesadilla.

Offering weekend brunch and pet-friendly, outdoor seating are two ways Barwest on J Street hopes to attract customers. It’s been open about a year, supported by a young, dynamic generation of patrons, co-owner Trevor Shults says.

Barwest offers six burger options, eight flavors of chicken wings, sandwiches and salads. Its trendiness factor is a kitchen that sources local produce and meats. It has 14 beers on tap plus a selection of alcoholic slushies. Barwest has 19 televisions tuned to sporting events, including European soccer and fight nights. They also hope to attract info buffs with their weekly trivia nights.

Barwest seeks a simplified approach. Its motto is, “My burger, my beer, my Barwest.” It strives to be the place to meet and greet while noshing, drinking and watching sports.

But if the new-look approach is too much for your taste, MVP Sports Grill on L Street is an option. Billing itself as the only “real” sports bar in town, it aims to attract die-hard sports fans.

“Our biggest goal is to bring an exciting sport bar to midtown,” says co-owner Art Aguilar. Twenty-one high-definition flat screens show big events in surround sound. Plus, MVP boasts breakfast and pool plus Golden Tee and Buck Hunter video games.

Nonetheless, bells, whistles and Skee-Ball make little difference in the long-term viability of these establishments, considering that sports bars are beloved for three reasons: televisions tuned to the right events, tasty food and good beer. Miss that, and you miss the whole show.

Because Sacramento’s downtown and midtown are saturated with restaurants, Wong and his partners traveled to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and Washington, D.C., to perfect their menu. They hope that attention to detail will satisfy a niche demographic willing to spend money on good food at a trendy establishment in a tight economy.

More sports bars are rumored to be in the works, including a new venture by San Francisco nightclub owner George Karpaty, the man behind K Street’s Dive Bar, Pizza Rock and District 30.

With all the new start-ups, the key will be attracting loyal new customers and keep them coming back.

“We wanted to build a place that is comfortable and unique with a dynamic atmosphere,” Wong says. “Hopefully, we will realize our goal.”

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