The NCAA college basketball tournament starts this week, and restaurants are luring customers with special menus, viewing parties and bracket activities. The multi-week sports craze known as March Madness goes until the championship game is played on April 3, so there’s lots of opportunity to catch the fever and entice fans with food, drink and interactive promotions. Here’s what some of the competition is doing to feed the hungry watching the games at home or in their restaurants.
1. Pizza Hut
Pizza Hutgot a jump start on March Madness by releasing Pie Tops, its limited-edition tech-enabled sneakers, at the very beginning of the month. The 64 recipients of the shoes—one for each team participating in the tournament—can push a red button on the sneakers’ tongue and order up a pie. Since the Pie Tops are giveaways primarily to media influencers, they are serving as more of a publicity stunt to build awareness for Pizza Hut’s second NCAA promotion—delivery customers can order a large two-topping pizza online for $7.99 or any specialty pie for just $3 more.
2. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
For game watchers who crave meat while routing for their teams, Dickey's Barbecue Pit is offering up double the number of sides for $5 extra when customers purchase a Family Pack. The packs feed four to six and include the choice of two pounds of meat (brisket, ribs, pulled pork, chicken and sausage) and three medium sides, such as mac ’n cheese, cabbage slaw, fried okra, creamed spinach and barbecue beans. With the March Madness deal, available to eat in or take out, customers can get six sides or double portions.
March 12 was Selection Sunday, the day when the NCAA brackets were set and Wendy’s—the official burger of the tournament—kicked off its Drive to the Final Four promotion. Celebrating NCAA fans who go to great lengths to cheer on their teams, Wendy’s is driving hundreds of miles to support their dedication, all the way to the Final Four contest in Phoenix with stops along the way at colleges participating in the games. At each stop, Wendy’s food truck is serving up free samples of cheeseburgers and customers will have the chance to win ticket upgrades and gift cards.
4. Buffalo Wild Wings
Since 2013, BWW has claimed to be the “official hangout for NCAA sports.” This year, the chain renewed its sponsorship of the tournament, which includes the men’s and women’s Final Four and all individual college basketball championships. BWW’s motivation is to get fans into restaurant locations to watch the games and eat, but also share their bracket wins and losses by posting a tweet on the chain’s Twitter feed with the hashtag #HitTheButton. The Twitter feed is live on BWW’s site along with a tourney tracker.
5. Taco Mac
With a deadline of March 16, Taco Mac is inviting basketball watchers to submit their bracket predictions on the chain’s website. Following the end of the men’s tournament, the grand prizewinner with the highest number of fantasy points chainwide will win a car. Local customers can also benefit—the person with the most points at select units will receive a $100 gift card. Taco Mac boasts 50-plus HDTVs for customers to catch the games while chugging down from a choice of over 100 craft and local beers and ordering from a menu heavy on wings, burgers, tacos and flatbreads.
6. BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse
This casual-dining chain acknowledges that some college b-ball fans will be drowning their sorrows if their team is eliminated before the finals or their brackets fall apart. Instead of March Madness, BJ’s is declaring March a month of sadness, encouraging sports enthusiasts to post their disappointments with the hashtag #basketballblues. Between March 14 and April 3, customers also are incentivized to watch the games at BJ’s and go through what the chain is calling the “five stages of basketball grief” with special food and drink promotions. These include $10 off a food purchase of $35 or more, half-price large pizzas, $5 margaritas, $10 loaded burgers and $4 signature beers.
7. Ruby Tuesday
To encourage fans to order takeout during the NCAA tourney, Ruby Tuesday is offering gameday bundles of to-go meals. Guests can choose from family-size bundles feeding four to six ($47.99) or party-size packages for 10 to 12 ($79.99). Both include two entrees (barbecue baby back ribs, popcorn shrimp, chicken tenders or fire wings), two sides and lemonade or iced tea.
The multiunit dessert concept known as Cream (Cookies Rule Everything Around Me) is offering a towering sundae of champions in honor of the NCAA playoffs. Available from March 1 through April 4, the sundae-for-two features two scoops of vanilla ice cream and a crumbled brownie, topped with Cream’s take on the Cronut (the doughnut-croissant hybrid) formed into an ice cream sandwich, along with a chocolate chip cookie, whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles.
Some of the more senior members of the team smile at the junior staff who are excited to uncover an interesting trend in “eatertainment” or the latest single-ingredient concept. We try not to be condescending when we suggest they do some research by looking at past issues of Restaurant Business or old Technomic top chain reports before calling it the next big thing.