Without a victory in three games, the Chicago Bears haven’t exactly played like the “pride and joy of Illinois” this season, and that has the potential to sting sports bar owners and pizzerias who benefit from happy fans enjoying food and drink.
While some may have good chicken wings, but fans don’t expect much from sports bar menus beyond testing a cook’s ability to properly deep-fry frozen cheese sticks or fries. There are exceptions, but the spiciest thing on most sports bar menus is the nachos. And that’s usually served with mild salsa — out of a jar.
An emerging trend this NFL season has been sports bars promising free food for fans depending if the awful team they root for wins or loses. Last week, a 33-year-old bar in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, Claddagh Ring Pub, reportedly served $5,000 in free drinks to customers after the Bears blew a three-touchdown lead and the Denver Broncos defeated the home team. The bar was confident that the Bears would beat the Broncos. If the Bears beat Washington on Thursday, October 5, the bar is offering half-off customer tabs.
The pub’s owner says he was inspired by news stories covering a similar gimmick at a Milwaukee sports bar. That bar, Jack’s American Pub, promised to pay for all open drink tabs in the event of a New York Jets’ loss. This is some local sports fan passion, as the caveat is former Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers has to start the game for New York to validate the bet.
Not that Jets fans have a patent on misery. The whole city of Chicago is going through a sports rut, especially that sorry South Side squad. Local pizzeria Stix N Brix is giving out 100 pizzas to commemorate the Chicago White Sox’s pathetic 101-loss season that concluded over the weekend.
Free food and drink has always been one of the favorite ways restaurants and bars garner buzz. In the short term, these promotions seem to bring business to bars and restaurants: “I think it’s nice advertising,” says restaurant owner Scott Weiner.
Weiner’s company, Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, includes sports bars like Fifty/50 in Wicker Park and four Roots Pizza locations. He says Bears games have the potential to triple sales. If depressed fans stay away from bars and restaurants due to the team’s performance, that will impact the bottom line.
Another restaurant owner, Bill Jacobs of Piece Pizza, is encouraged by the gimmicks: “Here’s hoping the experience was so great that they will come back when the drinks are not free,” he says.
One of the first budget cuts for restaurants is often marketing, and if they’re not utilizing a public relations firm, they often resort to promotions like giveaways.
Eater spoke with two PR reps about the impact of free food and drink. They didn’t want their names published so they could speak more freely. But to put it in perspective, one said their PR services could range between $2,000 to $10,000 a month depending on the contract and if the restaurant or bar was independently or corporate-owned. So, a $5,000 spend, like the free food purchased last week at the Claddagh Ring Pub, fits neatly into that range.
One publicist says they often hear bar owners tell them that “nobody knows we exist — if only people knew, we’d be busy and successful.”
But that’s not always the case. For example, the publicist says the Claddagh Ring Pub is now on people’s radars, but no one knows what makes the bar special: “Is the food good? Is the service on point? Solid beer list? Friendly pricing? Clean bathrooms?… Now the real work starts.” (Note: The bar doesn’t serve food)
Not every restaurant or bar needs to retain a publicist long term, but the other publicist believes that it takes a strong publicist to “better guide the message.”
There’s a desperation for many sports bar owners to get customers through the door, especially after health experts warned the public to stay out of bars at the height of the COVID pandemic. Sports bars are trying to survive instead of being relegated as dinosaurs in a world of fancy home AV set-ups and food delivery apps that will bring nearly any type of cuisine to a fan’s door.
It’s not as if Instagram and TikTok food influencers are lining up to make videos featuring free tater tots. These free food gimmicks are like influencer previews. Fans of sports teams, especially ones in Chicago, may not have much hope in watching a victory, but at least they can gamble on free beer.