For area bar owners, game-day promotions pose a Double-edged dilemma

Share this:
April 12, 2010 // UPDATED 8:48 am - April 12, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
Let’s say you own a bar in the Warehouse District. And for two days in a row, you’re going to have 40,000 people flood into your neighborhood for a huge, beer drinker-friendly event. Like a pro baseball game, let’s say.

Do you lure these folks in with some killer promotions? Or do you cash in on the easy business with full-price food and drinks?

During the final week of March, these questions loomed large for every bar within walking distance of Target Field. With the first two Twins exhibitions games at the new stadium long sold out — tickets for both the April 2 and 3 exhibition contests against the St. Louis Cardinals disappeared in 20 minutes — pint pourers could officially count on a weekend influx of some 80,000 potential customers, many of whom are projected to be first-time visitors to the Warehouse District.

The two-game series was a dress rehearsal for a baseball season projected to have a huge impact on the neighborhood’s business landscape.

Already, almost a dozen new bars and restaurants have flocked to the Target Field vicinity. In addition to the recent moves made by Kieran’s Irish Pub, to Block E, and Hubert’s, to the Target Center, Roy Smalley’s 87 Club has taken over the old Champps in Butler Square; Jeff Johnson has announced he’s converting his JJ’s Dry Dock Café into a new beefed-up bar called Darby O’Ragen’s; Jim Ringo is opening the Forum restaurant in City Center; and Stadium Pizza has taken over a former adult magazine shop on Washington Ave. between Sex World and the Déjà Vu strip club.

With such an influx of new businesses, it was clear that the bars and restaurants already in the neighborhood needed to have a plan.

Offer a cheap game-day menu, and you might make a great first impression. But you might also miss out on an easy revenue grab — or worse, alienate your pre-stadium customer base.

It was a double-edged dilemma. And each bar owner’s decision seemed weighted with the pressure to make a statement: on authenticity vs. gimmicks, on quick gain vs. longevity and on “infrastructure,” that big time buzzword that stakeholders use whenever they discuss the area surrounding Target Field. The Warehouse District, it has been promised, comes with a matrix of local amenities that were here long before the stadium was built. And these amenities, the argument goes, ensure that the neighborhood will avoid the fate suffered by Elliot Park, which never reaped the rejuvenating benefits promised by the Metrodome.

“Our goal is the status quo,” said Tim Mahoney, who owns the Loon Café, which sits just a few blocks from the stadium. “Sticking to what we do best.”

For Mahoney, and for many other independently owned bars and restaurants in the area, the option to keep prices steady is a hard-won right, a reward for weathering the bumpy years leading up to opening day. All of the neighborhood businesses, Mahoney said, have fought hard to arrive at this position, hanging on through the shaky economy of the last two years, and before that the construction hassles from the ballpark and the light rail.

Plus, if you’ve been in business for decades, Mahoney said, it’s not easy to simply plug in a game-day gimmick. “I have customers who expect to have the Loon Addict [one of the Loon’s specialty sandwiches]. They’ve been having that sandwich for 28 years. I certainly can’t just substitute it out for some game-day menu.”

Longevity, and looking beyond the immediacy of the baseball season, seemed to be the party line for the Warehouse District Business Association, which represents some three dozen bars and restaurants in the area.

“First Ave is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The Loon is almost at 30. J.D. Hoyt’s just celebrated their 25th anniversary,” Joanne Kaufman, executive director of the WDBA, said. “We’re looking at this as hey, we’re still here. We’ve always been here. We’ll always be here.” It’s not like at the Metrodome she added, where “it was Hubert’s, and that’s it.”

Still, WDBA bars aren’t above hitching their business to the baseball cart. The Loon and J.D. Hoyt’s are just two bars that have contracted to have their specialties served at food stands inside Target Field, the Loon contributing their trademarked chili and J.D. Hoyt’s offering a pork-chop-on-a-stick.

Amongst the bigger national chains, opinions were split.

Melania Campo, spokeswoman for Hard Rock Café, said the music-themed restaurant didn’t ever really consider home game-specific promotions. According to Campo, the owners are simply looking forward to being busy.

“I guess they have a point,” said Brittany Garcia, who served as director of sales for Sega GameWorks before the venue closed on March 29. But she worried about the risks of not courting new customers early.

“I see it more as a strategy of creating a party-type atmosphere for the long term. Yeah, you’re going to be busy [on the first game day], but people are going to go back to where they got a good deal, where they had the most fun and got the best service.”

But whether you achieve that bounce-back business through warm game-day welcomes or veteran nonchalance remains anyone’s guess.

Joe Wilke, marketing and sales manager for the Shout House, said the piano bar’s owners initially thought, “What are you crazy? We’re not going to offer any specials. We’re going to be packed.” But they ultimately settled on a more nuanced strategy, making slight tweaks to the bar’s normal mode of business. The Shout House will open early for afternoon games, Wilke said, and the standard daily specials will simply expand into those extended hours.

Seven appears to be the most eager to get in the baseball spirit. To anyone that presents a Target Field ticket stub, the sushi-and-steak joint is offering free valet service for dining before or after a game as well as a complimentary drink. The bar has instituted deep game day discounts on drinks, including a “Seventh Inning Stretch” promotion that promises $2 beers and shots between the sixth and seventh inning, as well as a new “Seventh Inning specialty cocktail” each week.

Chef Nick Rancone even mentioned the possibility of rolling in a hot dog cart on occasion, to bring a bit of ballpark flavor into the restaurant.

“It’s not that we’re trying to cash in,” Rancone said. It’s more that they “want to get involved in the excitement” that has gripped the neighborhood.

And then there’s Hubert’s. The longest running of any Twins bars is, ironically, new to the neighborhood. And so owners Steve Anderly and Bob Jones have had to play the role of the new kids on the block, unveiling a blanket happy hour special to get people to stop in and check out the new space.

The happy hour at the new location, from 11 a.m.–6 p.m., though, is offered everyday, regardless of whether there’s a baseball game.

Anderly also hinted at some “creative pricing” at the old Hubert’s, which continues to operate near the Metrodome. The idea is to give fans an extra enticement to park on the east end of Downtown and walk to Target Field.

“A definite part of my customer base is people from outside the seven county metro, all the way from the Dakotas to Iowa,” he said. “And a lot of them have told me that they’re coming up for the Twins, but that they’re still coming in [to the original Hubert’s] because they want to avoid the hassle of parking on the other end of Downtown.”

In the end, game day promotions remain a gamble. And area bars, like every other resident, business and city service near Target Field, are going to have to stay flexible, feeling out the first few games and adjusting accordingly.

“Well, in some ways, aren’t all of the bars offering discounts?,” one savvy Warehouse District resident commented. “Because what’s the price of a beer at Target Field? Eight bucks?”

Reach Gregory J. Scott at gscott@mnpubs.com.