Summer of Sport

How to run a sports bar: learning from the leaders

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

Bring the best of the nation's sports bars into your pub
Bring the best of the nation's sports bars into your pub

Related tags: Sports bar, Food, Alcoholic beverage, Rugby

Getting your food and drink offer right during this summer’s big sporting events could mean bumper profits. Michelle Perrett talks to some top sports bar operators to discover more

Whatever sport they may be watching, consumers are becoming more sophisticated about what they want to eat and drink. It has been a long time since a simple offering of beer and crisps during a match has been able to hit the spot.

With Euro 2016 just weeks away and a range of other sporting events set for the summer, pubs need to be able to cater for the wide spectrum of customers who will be attracted by different sporting fixtures.

Top tips on catering for fans

Special food options

This will keep regular and new customers interested.
Handheld snacks, such as burgers and hot-dogs, are ideal for match days. Customers need less room to eat and they can be easily pre-prepared

Experiment

Experiment with classic dishes from participating countries.
Operators should look at dishes that add authenticity to their offering and command higher price points.

Table service and pre-ordering

To minimise crowding at the bar during sporting events and to help prevent the familiar half-time rush, operators should consider using table-service or pre-ordering options.

Wet-led pubs

If your bar is wet-led and you haven’t got the resources or facilities to offer food, you can still focus on bar snacks. They require very little preparation and can provide customers with enough sustenance to keep them in the pub for longer.

Pitchers

The same goes for pitchers, if your customers prefer to drink draught beers or ciders, ensure you are offering pitchers.

Ice buckets

Offer your customers the chance to buy multiple bottled drinks served in an ice bucket. This makes it more convenient for them not to be forced to keep returning to the bar, and can help encourage a higher spend per person.

Outdoor space

Consider putting on a barbecue for customers before or after the big events. This encourages them to stay longer and spend more.

  • Advice from James Armitage, director of sales and marketing at Enterprise Inns, and Sky Business

So, should licensees tailor their food and drink offer to the type of event? And if that is the route to take, then what can they learn from successful operators who are used to catering for these high-footfall events? 

Walkabout, the 24-strong chain owned by Intertain, is recognised as one of the places to watch sporting action. Customer experience manager Andrew Dean says it’s important to recognise the importance of an event before deciding what food and drink offer will work. Walkabout looks closely at what the potential of an event could be to its venues and plans for it accordingly.

“The food offer is dictated by the category of the sport to determine the level of activation,” he says. The chain broadcasts a range of sports, with football being its most popular. However, rugby is more important for some sites, especially in the south and Wales, than others. “We show everything and if it is sport and it’s on TV, you can find it in a Walkabout,” says Dean.

Walkabout recently reopened its Birmingham site with a special ‘Pie Shack’ offering Pieminster pies to keep sports fans fed on match days. The venue still offers its core menu, but with the Pie Shack it can deal with a higher volume of customers, many of whom will be standing during the match.

“We run it in very high volume food sites, where we get really busy for key sports events and need a fast ready-to-serve food solution where people can just get up and grab a pie and not miss any of the action,” Dean says. “It also takes pressure off the kitchen and front of house team.” Walkabout is planning a similar handheld offer during the summer football action.

“We are doing five different burgers all based on teams participating. They will be served directly for people to takeaway and eat while enjoying the game,” he says. Sharing platters are “cumbersome” during these high footfall events as men “don’t like to share”, he claims.

For sports such as tennis, cricket and golf, Walkabout recognises these as lower footfall events and considers them ‘grazing occasions’. People tend to pop in for lunch to catch up on the action and tend to eat from the core menu.

The chain has a similar approach to its drinks offer, ensuring it can cater for high numbers of people while ensuring speedy service.

Unsurprisingly, lager is the top seller, but Walkabout also has to accommodate consumers’ increasing demands for choice. “We are seeing a broadening of what lager they drink and more premiumisation. People are trading up into more premium, world-style lagers,” Dean says.

The venues do offer beer pitchers for large groups, but Walkabout prefers to focus on quality and speed at the bar.

“We try to manage ergonomically. By not putting screens showing the sport near the bar, that keeps the flow of traffic around the bar free,” he says. “We obviously ramp up the number of servers we have on the bar and we have been using pop-up bars with brands like Heineken and Molson Coors.”

Innovation in pubs

He says innovation is at the forefront of the Walkabout offer and it will be trialling ‘beer backpacks’, with staff filling up customers’ drinks around the premises, during the Euro football action.

Each bar will continue to offer its core cocktail menu. During the World Cup two years ago, it extended the offer to encourage a different mix of clients. But the menu had little effect, he admits.

However, one initiative that continues to work well is allowing groups of people to pre-book seating and food and drink. “We offer a range of sports packages targeted with beer and a burger, or a case of beers with your party. If you know how many people are coming and what they want to eat it is much easier to cater for them,” he says.

Group bookings also work well for Bar Sport, the US-style sports bar chain. Founder and managing director Scott Murray says each site ensures groups are catered for, with venues even offering private booths with their own TVs. Food is also an important element of the offer.

“Our biggest seller is burgers. We hand-make them on site. They are served in a brioche bun with a choice of sweet potato, American fries or twister fries,” says Murray.

“The other one that sells well is the sharing platters and we sell buckets of wings, so customers can choose between 10, 25 and 50 wings in a bucket.”

Keeping the quality of the food to a high standard while serving large volumes comes down to preparation and ensuring the chefs are in early, he says. To help with the busy sessions the chain has invested in holding ovens, which are imported

Walky
Have food runners dedicated to getting dishes out to table on time

from America and cost about £5,000 each.

He concedes it is hard to keep margins up with the costs of ingredients going up, but the team works hard to ensure the GPs on every item work.

“Some items we work to a lower GP if there is a good cash margin. The GP on a platter is 50% as there is a good cash margin of £15 in it. On the burgers we do almost 70% GP,” he says.

However, the amount of food each site sells during screening football can be different depending on the customers. “The chefs will tell you that when there are Premier League games, certain team supporters spend more money on food than others. For some reason they say Liverpool fans spend more on food than Manchester United fans,” Murray says.

The venues also offer a range of specials for certain events and offer some theatre to the customer, which has proven successful. “We had a Rugby World Cup-themed menu with themed burgers such as the Haka Burger or the Kiwi Burger,” he says. He takes this theatre through to the drinks offer in sites that serve a ‘Booze Tube’. There are four, five and six pint tubes, which are taken over to group tables.

As well as adding to the customer experience it helps to take pressure off the bar during busy times.

The venues can also plan for beer sales, as there is a correlation between the types of drinks sold and the sport being screened. When the football is on, lager sales are usually high, but when it is rugby, the top sellers are craft ales and bitters.

But it is not just beer that’s focused on, as the bars offer a wider range of drinks made with premium spirits that sell well. They also offer Prosecco specials, Champagne and strawberries and long mixed drinks depending on the season. 

Sports Bar and Grill, which runs five venues at London train stations and was the winner of Best Concept at this year’s Publican Awards, prides itself on being a family-friendly business. Due to its locations customers encompass families, commuters and tourists.

They also open at 7.30am for breakfast, which enables them to show a wider range of sport.

Football, rugby, golf…

Operations director Jane White says: “We show as much sport as we can. We show football, rugby, cricket, golf, snooker, European handball and American sports such as the NFL.” The venues have a wide-ranging menu to ensure they can cater for everybody, she says.

The venues are also well-known for their BeerDogs, which are hot dogs served with a range of toppings, such as the California dog, which features cheese and coleslaw. White says it launched hot dogs thinking it would be a bit ‘quirky’, but found they were ‘flying out’. It has now broadened the range and has a beef dog and a vegetarian dog, which are also popular.

For major sporting events the venues offer inclusive packages, where food and drink can be laid out as a buffet. This is beneficial for customers, who can pre-order, as well as helping venues to plan.

PIe
Keep the menu simple and make a theme of it, such as Walkabout's 'Live & Eat Pie' initiative

Outlets also nominate food runners who ensure that orders make it to the tables on time. In addition, staff are trained to manage the flow of bookings to ensure that customers are not all clamouring for food at the same time.

The venues do not offer jugs of beer as it affects the quality of the serve. Instead it provides waitress service for each table, which enables upselling and the serving of fresh drinks.

Lager and bottled ciders sell well and sales of wine are also strong, White says. In addition venues serve Champagne cocktails, such as Kir Royale and jugs of Pimm’s, to ensure there is something for everyone.

Punch’s Champs Sports Bar & Grill concept also steers clear of pitchers, claiming they do not work operationally and impact the quality of the beer. Instead, it offers an ice bucket filled with bottles of beer, which is very popular.

International beers work well with international events, and provide outlets with a good opportunity for special offers.

“But you need to make sure not to overdo it,” says Andy Wilkinson, concept development manager for Punch. “We don’t believe you need to change your drinks offer with every sporting event.

“We’ve carried out a lot of research into this and found the most popular sports at Champs sites are football and rugby, with boxing on the increase. These all tend to be very male driven, and the drinks offer can stay the same.”

Burgers are its top food seller, followed by chicken wings and hot dogs. “However, we don’t find that sharing platters are particularly popular, mainly because these tend to appeal more to a female customer base, and those who attend sporting events are predominantly male,” he says.

He agrees that planning is key to ensuring the quality of food is kept high during high-footfall events, as is having the right team in place in the kitchen and on the floor are essential requirements.

It is also crucial to manage customer expectations by letting them know the food might take a little longer than expected. “Our Ainsdale and Waterloo Champs, in Liverpool, give customers free nachos to enjoy if they feel the wait for food is beyond the normal service time frames, when busy,” he says.

Whatever offer you’re planning over the summer months, pubgoers’ desire to eat and drink while watching sport is a great opportunity to keep those tills ringing.

Case study: tackling the rugby fanatics

Fuller’s west London managed house the Turks Head is situated close to Twickenham Stadium, the home of rugby.

While the pub focuses on rugby, it does broadcast other sports and has plans for strawberry and cream offers for Wimbledon and themed burgers during Euro 2016.

When an international rugby game is held at the stadium, the pub makes the most of its function room for corporate events, serving up to 280-covers before a match.

The meal, priced at £55, includes items such as smoked salmon for starters, lamb shank for mains and a cheese board for desserts.

The main pub offers barbecued food, including its top-selling burgers, hot dogs and pulled pork baps. It charges £5 per burger to keep the pricing simple.

On less busy days, such as Rugby Sevens weekend, the pub offers a barbecue and also a reduced menu in the dining area. The same approach is taken with the drinks.

“On an international day we go down to one ale – which is Fuller’s London Pride. We even reduce our lager range from five or six to two or three,” says manager Kate Ross. “It is easier for ordering purposes as well as speed of service.”

Sharing platters work well in the venue because there are a lot of female rugby fans and wine sales are also strong on match days.

“If England is playing we have a lot of female locals who are big fans and they happily come down and share a couple of bottles of Prosecco while the match is on,” Ross says.

Interestingly, what teams are playing can affect what is the top selling beer on the day, she adds.

“If it is Wales v England, then the top seller would be London Pride. If it is England v Ireland, then Guinness and if it is Southern Hemisphere v England it tends to be lager.

“It depends on the nationality as they have different preferences,” Ross says.

Related topics: Beer, Cider, Menu Ideas, Events & Occasions

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