Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. You can’t say the same these days about another uncontrollable factor in casual dining’s sales.
Never have sports been so intertwined with the fortunes of the sluggish segment, for worse and decidedly better. Years ago, executives blamed a sales slowdown on the “Olympic effect,” a propensity during the Games for patrons to park in front of their home TVs instead of venturing out for a burger and brew.
Then a fleet of Best Buy trucks pulled up outside the likes of BJ’s, Yard House and Brick House to unload flat screen after flat screen. The segment was recast as America’s living room, the place to munch wings and gulp cold beers while catching whatever the big game happened to be in a given market.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Buffalo Wild Wings named its new design “stadia” and recast its tagline to read, “Wings. Beer. Sports.” More units operate in Ohio than in any other state. Broadcasts of Ohio State games have become so crucial that the Buckeyes’ elimination from the playoffs has to be reported to BWW shareholders as a material event.
And that’s where the ball might be bobbled. The chains can control neither big-sports programming nor how local teams fare. The Brick House “man cave” concept felt the loss of guests who filled the chain’s recliner chairs last year to watch men’s World Cup soccer. The chain’s main state of Texas also had a stronger Dallas Mavericks NBA team to watch. BWW had to slog through a second quarter with 14 fewer NBA and NHL playoff games in the areas it served. And how do you compensate for a year of rebuilding by the hometown teams that guests want to watch?
There’s a consensus building, in and out of casual dining, that the solution is to focus hyperlocally. Noodles & Company is planning to connect with local school squads and other kids’ teams, a complement to the rollout of the chain’s first children’s menu.
Buffalo Wild Wings is outfitting 300 company-run restaurants with a new in-store entertainment network called B-Dubs TV. In addition to featuring vendor-supplied content, the proprietary network will invite guests to record video highlights of local games, presumably from Little League through the minor leagues, and submit the videos to their local unit. The 10 best submissions will be aired on the store’s TVs.
It’s also offering a Fantasy Football Draft Kit, an enticement for football fanatics to have a few brews and bar snacks as they conduct their fantasy league’s annual preseason draft.
Those grassroots draws are intended to pull sports fans off the bench without walloping restaurants with the nosebleed costs of adding more pro contests. Financial analysts pressed BWW executives for any regrets they had after passing on the May pay-to-air title fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
“There are a lot of complications that come with a fight of that nature,” not the least of them being the need to offset the cost by levying a cover charge, said BWW COO Jim Schmidt. He didn’t rule out a future big-ticket event, but noted “it’d be more [likely] we air it at certain locations, not at all locations.”
Meanwhile, casual brands are looking at everything from high school football games to regional cheerleading competitions. If only they could keep the rain away on a Friday night.