Football season drives business to local restaurants

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 10, 2011

By Hugh Fisher
SALISBURY — The letters on the door of Baylee’s Steakhouse and Sports Theatre at Salisbury Mall read, “We Close When The Football Games End!”
It’s Thursday night, and the first regular-season NFL games of the year are about to begin.
Bartenders are getting their supplies in order. Waitresses and hostesses are standing by.
For manager Dennis Everhart, a Catawba College graduate with ten years in restaurant management, this is not a game.
Football game nights help keep the business running smoothly.
“NFL alone increases sales by 25 percent,” Everhart said. “We also employ 50 percent more staff during the season.”
Not just waitstaff, but positions all across the board.
At Christo’s Family Restaurant on East Innes Street, football game days mean food of all kinds, but especially Buffalo wings.
“There are actually people who buy food trays they can share,” co-owner Sophia Talarantas said.
Spicy chicken wings are the biggest seller. “We can cook 800 wings every 15 minutes,” she said.
Still, all that business can’t be taken for granted.
Just a few weeks ago, there were doubts whether there would be a pro football season.
Players and owners in the National Football League locked horns for 18 weeks before coming to a new revenue-sharing agreement.
While they debated, billions in NFL revenues weren’t the only money hanging in the balance.
Football season means money spent in waves all around the country.
Players and owners each put out their own sets of figures, but published reports estimate $20 million to $40 million is spent each game day in every NFL team’s home city.
That’s money spent on food and drinks, lodging and shopping.
Not to mention the cash spent nationwide on team merchandise, such as jerseys and posters.
And, of course, the money fans spend to go out to restaurants and bars on game day.
For Amy Nicholson, that spending is financing the future.
Nicholson is a bartender at Baylee’s. Thursday, she wore a New Orleans Saints jersey as she got ready for the football crowd.
When she’s not working, she’s raising a child and attending Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
She said the threat of a lockout was talked about among staff.
“The thought of it kind of scared me,” Nicholson said. “It wouldn’t be Baylee’s without football.”
Everhart said the threat of a lockout meant not only waiting to hire staff, but debating whether to make any improvements to the 200-seat restaurant and bar.
“It was actually at the point where any of the upgrades around the restaurant were being put on hold until confirmation that the season was on,” Everhart said.
As for staff: “You have to be training them months in advance,” he said.
“In this business, you have to invest so much time in the people that represent you.”
When the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified on Aug. 4, they swung into action.
“It was a little rushed, but yes, we did it,” Everhart said.
“It was tough,” Baylee’s owner Andy Douglas said.
“We had these (improvements) in place or being considered. We didn’t pull the trigger on them because we didn’t know football was going to happen.”
Now that the season has started, Douglas said, some projects — like updates to sound and video equipment — will have to wait.
Douglas said that football season has a big impact, even though he doesn’t see Baylee’s as strictly a “sports bar.”
He said he wants the restaurant to be known for its quality of food, especially steaks.
But the sports bar is a major year-round draw, and especially during football season, he said.
“Because football is just one of those sports that’s followed by groups of people,” Douglas said.
“We don’t get groups of people to watch baseball.”
Everhart said that groups of regulars will sit on opposite sides of the long bar, surrounded by big projection screens, and banter back and forth about the games.
One of those regulars got to Baylee’s early to stake out a spot.
Bob Smith, originally of Canton, Ohio, says he enjoys pulling for “the northern teams” there.
Not only does he pull for the Cleveland Browns, but Smith said he comes in to watch Ohio State football.
Scott Catteau just moved to Salisbury from Florida this year.
He’s also a Saints fan.
“When you live up in the panhandle of Florida, you kind of stick with that whole conference area,” Catteau said.
Both he and Smith said they were “disgusted” by millionaire team owners and pro football players arguing over how to split billions.
“So many businesses thrive as a result of providing places for people to go watch games,” Catteau said.
“When they start arguing, and so many people are out of work, it doesn’t sit well.”
Now that the season is under way, they’re glad to sit back and watch the action unfold around them.
Everhart said the wall-to-wall screens help draw in more fans.
“You got 10 games going, you’ve got 20 different teams and people here rooting for them,” Everhart said.
Being able to offer those games is an investment itself.
Everhart said the restaurant spends about $5,000 a year for the rights to show NFL games, especially out-of-market games not carried on local broadcast TV.
It’s an investment that pays off, Everhart said.
Many out-of-state natives come to Baylee’s to see their favorite teams play.
Douglas, who lives in Asheville, is retired from the construction industry.
His purchase of Baylee’s in 2008 was his first foray into the restaurant business.
Among the lessons he’s learned are that football fans are fickle.
“How good your local teams are doing influences your turnout,” Douglas said.
The Carolina Panthers’ recent losing seasons had an impact on business.
“Cam Newton will be huge for this year,” Douglas predicted. “He’ll draw people in just to see him.”
At Christo’s, Talarantas said game days generate a strictly carry-out business.
Although garlic bread and other appetizers are also big sellers, Buffalo wings with celery and dressings are the most-requested product.
Orders of 300 to 500 wings are not uncommon.
And, she said, there is some talk of installing TV sets in the dining room to draw even more customers.
If there had been a lockout, Talarantas said, “We would have felt it.”
So would have many local employees.
Football season is a welcome break after the relatively slow summer months, Baylee’s waitress Lydia Price said.
“People come in, they want to take a break from their lives and have some entertainment,” she said. “It’s guaranteed business.”
When an NFL lockout was a possibility, Everhart said, customers asked if he was worried. “We did breathe a sigh of relief” after the agreement was reached, he said.
For the next 15 weeks, employees at Baylee’s, Christo’s and many other restaurants will celebrate as hard as any football fan.
In a negative economy, theirs is an industry that is at least holding its own.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.