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Sports Bars in San Francisco Are Drafting New Game Plans

Sports bars are considering expanded outdoor dining, food partnerships, and private club models as ways to stay in business

As bars and restaurants across California begin to slowly reopen, sports bars remain sidelined: Unlike other drinking establishments, many of which are generating (some) income with to-go drinks, the business model for sports-specific spots is predicated on the camaraderie that comes with the shared experience of a live sporting event — and with those on hold, so are the futures of many sports bars.

Sports seasons, tournaments, and events have been canceled, paused, or cut short, with this year’s Major League Baseball season still in question and the 2020 Olympics pushed to next summer, limiting sports broadcasts to documentaries like The Last Dance or repeats of long-ago games, neither of which are the bread-and-butter of sports bar culture, with its unadulterated shouts of surprise, raucous crowds, and high-fives with strangers. Recent polls also suggest that fans won’t feel safe congregating until after a vaccine for COVID-19 is available anyway.

It’s been a two-and-a-half-month timeout for the Bay Area’s bars and restaurants, so Eater SF checked in with some of the city’s most popular sports bars to see how they’re weathering the coronavirus crisis. There was mingled frustration, optimism, and worry — as well as ideas about what new business models could look like, from private clubs to outdoor broadcasts.

Trademark Sports Bar (SoMa)

It’s been three months since SoMa was last teeming with busy professionals, inundating local eateries at lunch hour and flooding the neighborhood’s bars after work. But for Jerremi Clark, the operating partner at Trademark, a neighborhood-y, no-frills sports bar, it feels longer, especially when it comes time pay his $11,000 rent each month.

Clark owns five businesses, including two cafes, Trademark, and Westwood, the Marina’s honky-tonk western-themed bar. He and his business partners were approved for three different grants and loans, but they’re still waiting for funds to be distributed. In the meantime, Trademark is leasing out its kitchen to fried chicken spot SF Chickenbox, and although it doesn’t get any profits from food, the two split any profits on beer and liquor sales. In addition to to-go drink sales, Trademark has been selling gift cards, with 100 percent of the proceeds going directly to its 16 staff members, who have all been laid off, with the exception of the bar manager, who is now working part-time. To date, patrons have purchased roughly $1,500 worth of gift cards.

Whenever bars reopen, Clark knows that just a fraction of the 150 people Trademark can hold will be allowed inside, so he’s hoping to be able to use his patio, which has space for an additional 46 people. “We’re okay adjusting to reduced capacity inside,” he says, “but it’s gonna hurt us, and we would love to open the patio. We reached out to ask the city for a conditional use permit, but they said as of now, it’s a no-go. We have to make adjustments to the space we have inside, but if the city can’t help us open that patio, the business might not survive.”

According to Clark, when Trademark and Copyright, the swanky cocktail bar next door, opened up in March of 2017, patrons were allowed out on the spacious patio; by August, the city shut it down because of noise complaints. Clark and his team applied for a Conditional Use Authorization (CUA), but to no avail.

Even if Trademark can get approval to use its patio for patrons, Clark is equally concerned with what’s going on out front of his sports bar — or rather, what’s not. With more and more companies like Square, Twitter, and Google telling their employees to stay at home, either permanently or through the end of 2020, Clark worries that his clientele will vanish from the neighborhood. He says the new norm of slow foot traffic is the “scariest thing about this whole [pandemic].”

As Clark continues to take things one day at a time, he’s confident in two things: First, with no fans allowed in stadiums, people are going to want to come watch their favorite teams in sports bars. Second, he’ll do what it takes to remain open. “We’ve been optimistic thinking about it,” Clark says. “If we need to pivot and switch up the concept — whatever we need to do to be profitable or survive — we’re down to do that.”

The Boardroom SF (North Beach)

Keith Wilson, the owner of the Boardroom SF, a North Beach sports bar known for its oft-crowded outdoor patio, says that he’s struggling to stay positive, even after receiving a Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan and a $5,000 grant. Although the city has done a good job keeping the number of coronavirus cases down, he says, the realities of owning and operating a sports bar in San Francisco aren’t going to disappear whenever a COVID-19 vaccine is available to the masses.

“Rent and insurance and minimum wage aren’t going to go down,” he says, “and the costs of doing business are only going to go up. Every cost is a lot. My landlord still expects their money. We’re trying to pay rent as best we can, but that’s about to be a problem.”

Wilson, who also owns Tope Lounge, a dimly lit nightclub located just down Grant Avenue, says it’s unlikely that that spot will ever reopen. “At Tope, we rely on packing people in and we have a DJ,” Wilson says, “so people have to yell to be heard,” he says. “I just don’t think that that business model is going to work again.”

“I do think we can get this sports bar going again, just in a different way,” Wilson says. One option he’s considering is based around the idea of Shared Streets, a newly announced city program that would allow bars and restaurants to expand into nearby sidewalk space. He already has permits to put tables outside, he says, but he’s looking into hanging TVs outside and installing gas heaters around the building so people can still watch their favorite teams, once they return to action.

Another model Wilson is considering, albeit less seriously, is to pivot the Boardroom into a private club. With a membership model, he says that patrons would have to agree to follow a set of pre-determined rules to keep everyone safe. Such rules would include wearing masks, signing in, committing to social distancing, self-policing, and resisting the urge to high five. He also says that membership could be generated from a mix of the bar’s already established fan bases and social networks, as well as referrals, and members would be charged something like $20 a month.

“It’s not perfect, and there are holes in it, but I think it could be a safer way,” Wilson says. “It’s not a long-term or sustainable business model, but it might help us get to a break-even place.”

In either case, Wilson foresees a precarious future for bars like his. “We won’t be able to afford any missteps,” he says. “No one on your staff can get sick or you’ll be publicly shamed, and you’ll be that bar that didn’t take care of your staff. No one will ever come.”

Underdogs Too (Outer Sunset/Parkside)

There’s no good moment for a global pandemic to strike, but for Outer Sunset sports bar-taqueria Underdogs Too, the timing couldn’t have been worse. “We got hit with the shelter-in-place order during a peak time in sports,” says owner Doug Marschke, who also owns the Taco Shop at Underdogs, in the Central Sunset, and Cow Hollow’s Tacko. “March Madness, the NBA Playoffs, the start of the Giants’ season — those really drive our revenues for the year, and that’s never coming back.”

Besides Bay Area teams’ supporters, Underdogs Too attracts a large University of Michigan crowd, as well as a smattering of Boston fans. With those fans stuck at home, Marschke has pivoted to fulfilling takeout and delivery orders. “We do mainly tacos and burritos,” he says, “and we already had a takeout business setup, so we had to change some of our operations, but it wasn’t that tough of a pivot.” Like many San Francisco restaurants though, Marschke says he’s still losing money — $1,000 a week.

Marschke is more fortunate than some owners though, noting that he has a good relationship with his landlord, and that he received a $200,000 PPP loan, although he’s not sure how beneficial it will be in the long run given that some of the forgiveness rules are “pretty hard.”

With a timeline now available for sit-down dining, Marschke and his team are trying to figure out what makes sense for their space. Given Underdogs’s small dining room, for instance, it might be best to temporarily shift to outdoor seating and takeout service only. Regardless of where Underdogs Too seats customers, Marschke says, tables will be allotted via electronic waitlist to keep people from standing around in hopes of a seat. “It’ll be safer for everyone,” Marschke said. “They can wait in their car or go for a walk on the beach and they’ll get a text when we’re ready to seat them.”

Even once Marschke has seating figured out, there’s a bigger problem, he admits.“It definitely looks like a year-plus recovery to get to the point where we were before, even during a slow year,” he says. “The sports part of our culture is why customers come in, and it’s a part of who we are, so it’s a big hit to lose that.”

Final Final (The Marina/Cow Hollow)

Arnold Prien bought Baker Street sports bar Final Final in 1978, and continues to run it today alongside his wife, Linda, and their three sons.

Michael, Arnold’s oldest son and Final Final’s general manager, says that despite the shelter-in-place order that has shuttered the family business for more than two months, getting to spend quality time with his loved ones — away from the bar — has been the positive side effect that’s kept him going throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Michael they’re “fortunate enough to be in a good financial situation to handle this.”

Because Final Final isn’t categorized as a restaurant by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agency, the sports bar shut down operations when the stay-in-place order went into effect in mid-March. However, just this week, Final Final received the greenlight to team up with Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza, allowing it to reopen. Patrons still aren’t allowed inside the sports bar, but the Priens can now fulfill walk-up pizza orders and sell sealed containers of beer and wine.

Though the Priens are confident that their family business will persist, they’re not sure what the immediate future has in store for Final Final’s day-to-day operations. “We’re looking at what other bars are doing on Chestnut Street,” Prien says. “We don’t want to rush it and be left with a lot of stuff that we can’t sell or use, and we don’t want to waste.”

Although all of Final Final’s 10 employees were laid off when the bar closed, everyone will be offered their jobs back as operations resume, Prien says. He also says that being able to offer outdoor seating would “be a 10 out of 10.” According to him, the family is waiting for city officials to set clear guidelines that they can then follow.

Reduced capacity is definitely on the Priens’ minds, as during last year’s March Madness tournament and NBA Finals, Final Final “was packed,” with a line that ran out the door and down the block. “Once people get in, they don’t want to leave,” Prien says. “We’re first come, first serve to get a table, and we get people showing up several hours early for a game to get a seat.”

Prien says Final Final has a big enough footprint to allow them to spread out tables and still hold “a decent capacity,” if six feet of spacing between tables ends up being the adopted standard. Still, given that leagues like Major League Baseball want to host games in fan-less stadiums, Prien thinks his family will need to maximize every square inch of space to capitalize on what’s likely to be a different viewing experience for sports enthusiasts.

“Slowly but surely, sports will start back up,” he says. “With the limited ability to get people back in stadiums, I think it will be great for restaurants and sports bars.”

The Kezar Pub (Haight-Ashbury)

Not everybody shares Michael Prien’s optimism about what empty stadiums means for sports bars. “I have watched a few games without fans in the stadium,” says Cyril Hackett, owner of the Haight’s Kezar Pub. “I believe you need that energy from the fans in the stadium that transfers to people in bars. I don’t see an effect where people will want to come out to bars to watch games with no fans in stadiums, and I can’t see it increasing our attendance.”

Stanyan Street’s Kezar Pub (not to be confused with the Cole Valley spot with a similar name) is both sports bar and Irish pub, regularly opening at 6 a.m. to broadcast live games and matches from every corner of the world, from New Zealand to Europe to South America. The pub is a home base for Liverpool FC supporters, and during one of the final English Premier League matches before the season was halted, fans from 21 different countries flooded the bar.

Hackett’s pub has been shuttered since the stay-in-place order went into effect in March. He briefly considered opening up for takeout service, but because the Kezar was never “properly set up for to-go orders,” Hackett said he and his team weren’t in a position to reopen just to serve food.

“We are already in the hole with having to close and having no income,” Hackett says. “To compound that by opening and not being in a good place with to-go orders didn’t make sense. It’s a crapshoot, and we erred on the side of caution. I didn’t want to throw away money.”

Hackett says he’s avoided the PPP loans because of “the horror stories” he’s heard from other small business owners and because of the “small print.” He set up a GoFundMe campaign to support his 23 employees, and he’s raised nearly $8,000 of his $20,000 goal. Still, he’s unsure how he’ll make ends meet when the city gives him the thumbs up to reopen.

“We’re hearing that there will be less capacity in bars and restaurants,” Hackett said. “So we’ll have 100 percent of the costs but only 30 percent of the revenue. That is gonna make it hard to balance the budget. I will weather this as the owner, but I get concerned about my staff, both mentally and financially.”

Years ago, Hackett’s landlord worked at the Kezar — when she was in high school, her parents actually owned the bar, selling the business to Hackett years later. She now lives in Germany, but Hackett says she’s been very helpful, cooperative, and “in touch with what’s going on here.”

However, he remains worried about other small bars in the city, particularly because he believes a certain percentage of the general public will “shun” restaurants, bars, and outdoor activities until a vaccine is released.

“It’ll be very difficult for bars and restaurants to survive and make a go of it,” Hackett says, “especially with reduced capacity. We might be able to get by because we serve food, but I’m concerned about bars that just serve drinks.”

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