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Smashburger founders try a new sports bar concept

In the latest test of a new entertainment draw, Tom's Watch Bar will feature the stadium-sized Megatron screen and 154 other HDTVs.
Photograph courtesy of Tom's Watch Bar

The sports bar concept hatched by founders of the Smashburger fast-casual chain is trying a new format, the latest effort by players in the crowded sector to develop an entertainment package that better fits the times. 

In the case of Tom’s Watch Bar, the new customer draws include what’s boasted to be the largest TV screen in downtown Los Angeles, a 13-foot-by-23-foot behemoth called the Megatron. It’s one of 155 HDTVs that will be packed this fall into the 20,000-square-foot facility that’s currently operating as a unit of parent chain Tom’s Urban. Five Tom's Urbans are currently open, all in or near a highly trafficked facility such as a casino, airport or sports arena. 

Tom's Urban has bragged that customers can see a TV from any seat in its cavernous restaurants. Tom’s Watch Bar will aim to deliver on that promise with TVs that wrap around the 400-seat dining areas. Customers can check an online schedule to see what content will be featured on the screens up to 14 days in advance. 

The new concept will also feature foods and cocktails not found in the five current Tom’s Urban locations, according to the chain. It did not reveal what those alternate options would be, but stressed that customers would still find the two-handled 40-ounce beer steins that have been a signature of the mother chain. The new format will also retain the U-Pour Floor, a second level where patrons can draw their own drinks—beer, wine and cocktails—from about 50 self-service taps. 

“In the ever-changing world of sports and customer’s increasing demand for interactive, engaging experiences, it’s only natural for us to relaunch as Tom’s Watch Bar to set the trend for the next generation,” Tom’s Urban CMO Dan Holm said in a statement. 

Additional units are expected, the statement indicated, but did not reveal the future sites or development schedule. It also did not say whether expansion of Tom’s Urban would be halted.

Tom’s Urban is not alone in the quest to find the next generation of sports bar. Buffalo Wild Wings, a leader in the segment, is rolling out a new tech-packed format with lighting that adjusts to guests’ noise level. When a roar signals an extraordinary play during a televised sporting event, a light show is automatically triggered.

The new layout also features areas where patrons can watch or participate in esports. It, too, sports an oversized, Jumbotron-sized TV screen, along with self-service beer taps that promise to cut the wait time for a fresh brew.

A Buffalo Wild Wings planned for the Dallas-Fort Worth airport features a golf simulator marketed by the golf-themed concept Topgolf.

Buffalo Wild Wings has also experimented with sports betting through an arrangement with DraftKings, a leader in that field. 

Other operations, including Topgolf and eatertainment concept GameWorks, are similarly featuring esports.  

Meanwhile, food-and-fun chains such as Dave & Buster’s and eMain Event are trying virtual reality games. 

A number of expanding chain concepts are built on games of skill, including Flight Club (darts), Spin (pingpong) and Punch Bowl Social (a variety). 

The driver is what appears to be rising interest in interactive games and in-restaurant entertainment. Thirty percent of adults prefer a nighttime gathering place that combines food, drinks and activities under one roof, according to YouGov research that was conducted for technology supplier SevenRooms.  

Tom’s Urban was launched in 2012 by Tom Ryan, a co-founder of Smashburger and an alumnus of chains such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, and Rick Shaden, another godfather of Smashburger and the onetime leader of Quiznos. 

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