As the Boston Red Sox prepared to face the despised New York Yankees in last fall's historic American League Championship Series, Red Sox fans started queuing up outside the Riviera Cafe, a local eatery with TVs all over the room, more than five hours before game time. Knowing the place would be full hours before the first pitch, guests would arrive around 3 p.m. and stand in line discussing the latest Sox scoop with fellow fans until the restaurant opened at 5. Then they'd settle in for $9 burgers or $15 steaks and, of course, some pints. Suitably fed, they'd have good seats (and a few more pints) when the game started a little after 8.
Undoubtedly, the post-season—especially an emotionally and historically charged matchup such as Sox vs. Yanks—makes die-hards out of many otherwise casual fans. But the crowd at the Riviera, a 32-year-old restaurant/sports bar, had been jamming the restaurant all season. Wearing the jerseys and hats of their Sox heroes, fans were there to watch the seemingly meaningless games back in the spring, whooping it up and chowing down on nights when the Riviera would otherwise be mellow.
Stranger still, the Riviera isn't located in Boston, or anywhere else in Massachusetts—or even in New England at all, for that matter. In fact, the "Riv" is located in downtown Manhattan —which is another way of saying, Yankees territory.
The season before, the story goes, a bartender obliged when a small handful of New York-based Bostonians asked if he'd put the Sox game on. Then they came back with a few friends for the next game, and the game after that, the group getting bigger each time. Before long, Red Sox fans had an unlikely sanctuary in the middle of enemy turf.
"It was kind of by accident and kind of by design," says owner Steve Sertell, who happens to be a lifelong Yankee fan. "Our bartender nurtured the crowd at first, and then it just took off. And it's been very good for business."
Rooting for the home team at the local tavern is a pastime that dates back to the times when drinkers made do with tube radios and a nickel was a lot to charge for a beer. And the practice, with some modern revisions, holds to this day. But some operators have taken the idea and given it a twist: if every place in town is showing the home team on the tube, they've discovered that there's also a crowd to be drawn by showing the out-of-town team. They've also found that with a little word of mouth and a few promos thrown in, they can fashion their restaurants as clubhouses for displaced fans. Once those fans discover a sanctuary in the middle of otherwise hostile territory, they tend to be very loyal, and it shows in the receipts, operators say.
With so many Americans having settled far away from where they grew up, yet keeping their home-town sports loyalties, it's an idea whose simplicity is matched only by its potential. As a result, Chicago-based fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers can root with fellow "Chicago Steelers" at Joe's Bar in the Windy City. Green Bay Packers fans can be with their own kind on game day in New York City, thanks to the bar Kettle of Fish, and Red Sox fans can find Sox-friendly faux-Fenways in any number of cities not called Boston.
"People might be able to watch the game at home, but they want to wear their team colors out and be with their core group," explains Carol Neatherton, manager at SRO Sports Bar & Cafe in Houston. SRO is a welcoming place devoted to their team(s), and a haven where they can feel comfortable rooting for a team that the majority of Houstonians either don't care about, or don't care for at all.
In fact, if they poke around a little, fans of most any team can find restaurants and bars far and wide that fly their colors, not unlike a secret society. One need only click onto various Red Sox discussion groups to find such bars and restaurants from California to Florida. One young woman enjoyed a Sox game last summer at Des Moines pizza pub Felix & Oscar's, and mentioned it on a site popular with Sox fans. Word spread nearly overnight. "The phone calls just started pouring in," says owner Mark Zingerman.
In Felix & Oscar's case, Zingerman never set out to create a haven for Sox fans, but once they started showing up he knew a good thing when he saw it. Other operators will often choose to bill their places as a sanctuary for a certain group of fans. This requires luring them in to begin with, of course, and there are various tactics that work. SRO's operators find that advertising in alumni magazines and working with alumni chapters of certain schools has helped to attract large groups of college-athletic fans on designated nights. Seamus Flynn, owner of Manhattan pub/restaurant Hairy Monk, advertised the Monk as Sox-friendly on a popular internet search engine after doing booming Boston business in 2003. (He's also decorated the dining room in an assortment of Beantown sports regalia, just so fans know they've come to the right place.)
Others have found that the way to win sports-fan allegiance isn't just about drawing them in, but making them feel preferred—as opposed to just tolerated—once they're there. Patrick Daley, the Wisconsin-reared owner of New York watering hole Kettle of Fish, found that laying out a cheddar and summer sausage spread made the 100-plus Green Bay Packer fans that turn out to watch the team's games feel right at home. At Joe's Bar, members of the Chicago Steelers Club, as its known, enjoy the Pittsburgh beers the operators have trucked in for Steeler games. Steve Nicoli, owner of year-old bar and grill Nic & Dino's in Chicago, satiated displaced Bostonians with New England grub like lobster rolls, stuffed quahogs, and clam chowder, and Boston brews to wash it down. (And, like Flynn, Nicoli's hung up a Red Sox flag out front so fans have no trouble finding the place.)
For the owner saddled with enough to do, such efforts can only add to the burden—but operators say they're well worth the bump in business. Thanks to his friendly attitude toward Bostonians, Nicoli (a Massachusetts native) gets four times his normal traffic when the Red Sox are on—and it's been critical to his survival. "Any first-year business is tough," says Nicoli. "We didn't set out to be a Boston bar, but it's given us an incredible boost."
At Foxboro Sports Tavern, a Florida hangout that gets its name from the New England Patriots' stadium, owner Rob Popoli says there are an extra 30-40 guests when the Sox are on, and some 300 extra "screaming idiots" for Patriot games. Neatherton says the alumni groups—some who might have 200 people showing up as early as 10:30 in the morning—have come to represent about 10% of SRO's $1.5 annual revenue. "Considering it's only 12 days out of the year," she points out, "that's not too bad."
But the advantages go beyond just a sales boost on popular nights. Hosting out-of-town fans can fill a place on a night it would otherwise be empty. "October is our slowest month down here, because the snowbirds haven't arrived," Popoli says. "But thanks to the Red Sox and the Patriots games, October was our best month of the year. You can't get in the door when the games are on."
And as many can attest, what's known as a baseball hangout for displaced locals during spring and summer can transform into a football hangout for that same clientele in the fall, and even a basketball and hockey (when they're not striking, that is) hangout in winter. Flynn was pleasantly surprised when his Sox-cheering patrons started showing up at the Hairy Monk for the Patriots in September, and he scrambled to hang some Tom Brady jerseys on the wall. Speaking a few days before the Super Bowl, Popoli was figuring out ways to accommodate an expected 500 Patriot fans for the big game.
"We're putting a tent over the parking lot, with big-screen TVs inside," he says.
Yet showing these events isn't all fun and games. For starters, as any operator will tell you, catering too carefully to one group risks alienating another—and who can afford to turn anyone out these days? With this in mind, Sertell has purposely refrained from hanging Red Sox—or any team's—paraphernalia on the wall. Some also question the logic of catering to a potential guest pool in the thousands (New York-based Sox fans), while essentially shutting the door to a faction that might number in the millions (New York-based Yankee fans).
And while he was jazzed to have a full house at Riviera every time the Sox were on, Sertell says he and his staff were "fried" by the time the World Series ended. Maybe it's having to deal with the odd Yankee fans who show up to stir up trouble (similarly, Neatherton says the University of Texas and Texas A&M factions hate each other, though it's not yet presented a problem at SRO). Or maybe it's the season-long regulars who can't get in the door because some guy who just heard about the Riviera got there earlier (Sertell has a VIP list to prevent true regulars from being locked out, while Daley found himself out on the sidewalk in front of Kettle of Fish during the World Series, apologizing to his regulars who'd been turned away).
There's also the issue of turning tables—or, more commonly, not turning tables—as guests show up early and stay late for the big game, but don't always eat and drink for the duration. "If you get there at 4 p.m. and leave at 11, there's only so much you're gonna spend," says Sertell. "We turn tables quicker when those games aren't on."
But fortunately for him, and for other operators who roll out the red carpet to a specific team's crowd, not every night is game night, so they can easily return to being all things to everyone when the team is taking a break.
And as a new baseball season kicks off, the Riviera—which the entire nation became privy to through a live remote feed from the cafe during the World Series—becomes the home away from home for more and more citizens of Red Sox Nation.
"People routinely pop in and say, 'we're here from Boston, and just wanted to see what the place looks like,' " Sertell says. "When I tried to disperse the crowd out on the sidewalk during the World Series, one guy said, 'You don't understand. This place is Mecca!' "