Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Lockout tough to chew
Here's how downtown restaurants, bars hope to cope while waiting for the NHL season to start
What a difference a lockout makes.
Pick your over-the-top noun: pandemonium, bedlam, madhouse -- they all fit in describing the atmosphere in restaurants, pubs and bars in and around the MTS Centre at the start of hockey season last year.
If you wanted to get a seat in a lounge a stone's throw away from the home of the Winnipeg Jets on a game day, you often had to skip out of work early or risk being left out in the cold.
"We had a phenomenal year last year," said Scott Jocelyn, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association. "The thing we loved the best about hockey is it happens in some of the months (January and February) when we're not busy. When you've got games on a Tuesday night in February and you give people a reason to get out of the house, that's awesome."
This year, downtown eateries and watering holes won't be hearing crickets when they throw open their doors today -- the day the Jets should have been hosting the Carolina Hurricanes in their home opener -- but the atmosphere will be a far cry from the euphoria that gripped their patrons 52 weeks ago.
There's no way downtown bars and restaurants can replace 15,003 hockey-crazed fans descending upon downtown 41 nights a year as they did last season. And how many of those same fans came back to their favourite bar stool when the Jets were on the road?
Of course, other sports can help fill the void, such as the NFL, the NBA, ultimate fighting or the World Series. And Kevin Donnelly, True North's senior vice-president and the man in charge of booking the MTS Centre, is trying to fill as many empty dates on the calendar as possible. This year's concert schedule is as busy as it's been since the building opened eight years ago and he's also working to try to bring other events -- such as the Davis Cup tennis tie between Canada and Spain in February -- to town.
But let's face it: Downtown bars and restaurants are going to be hurting without NHL hockey.
Last year's home opener against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 9 was quite possibly the best day in Winnipeg's history to run a bar, pub or restaurant. Places were packed, clients were euphoric and they were spending money as if their lives depended on it.
Here's a quick snapshot of some of the affected establishments and how they're planning to cope until the NHL lockout come to an end:
4Play Sports Bar
A year ago: Jae Pangilinan, 4Play's operations manager, said it was "filled to the rafters" and the home opener was the biggest night it had ever had.
"It was exciting, intoxicating because of how excited the fans were. The energy was electric.
"The guests came in waves. It never stopped from the time we opened the bar to when we closed."
Pangilinan said he knew his bar would fill up with a minimum of 500 hockey fans on game nights. When you consider each one spent approximately $25, that made for a $12,500 night.
Today: Without the Jets, Pangilinan said there's no question its revenue in September and October will be down "quite a bit" from last year.
Luckily, the bar has quite a following among UFC fans and he's hoping Jets fans -- who won't be buying expensive beers at the MTS Centre -- will come out to watch other sports. Pangilinan said figuring out his staffing needs on a daily basis is his biggest challenge. With a Jets game, he knew he needed a full complement of servers, bartenders and kitchen staff to keep hundreds of fans full of beer, nachos and chicken wings. But a Justin Bieber or Bob Dylan show? Hard to say.
He needs 15 servers if he has 500 customers but just six servers if there are 200 patrons. To be on the safe side, he brings in 11 on most nights.
"If it's a dead night, you're annoying staff that you asked to come in. But if it's too busy, you're annoying guests because in their eyes we didn't prepare for it. The only thing we can do is hold the door. People are a little more forgiving when they're outside," he said.
The silver lining: November and December are busy months for Christmas parties.
Quote: "We're a sports place. The Big Four major leagues feed us. We survived without the Jets before and I believe we'll do it again."
Moxie's Classic Grill
A year ago: If you want location, location, location, for hockey you're talking Moxie's. Situated on the main floor of the MTS Centre, it was arguably the most sought-after spot for a pre-game beverage or burger.
"The revitalization of the Jets brand on game nights was like nothing I had ever seen before. It wasn't a one-off, it was repeated 41 times last year," said Anton Pradinuk, its general manager.
Today: All of its 100 or so staff members have been retained.
"We have four events next week, so there's lots of work. Our lunch business hasn't eased up. We haven't really changed the dynamics of how we're operating," he said.
The silver lining: The MTS Centre is one of the busiest facilities of its kind in North America. Even events that don't require the upper deck to be opened usually result in Moxie's bar and restaurant being filled to capacity.
Quote: "The longevity of the lockout will determine the impact on downtown and us. We've missed two events (pre-season games) so far."
A year ago: The owners of the Portage Avenue East African eatery were pleasantly surprised to see hockey fans coming in for a bite to eat before and after Jets games last year. If they didn't have tickets, many of them ordered a frosty cold glass of Bedele, an Ethiopian beer Modern brings in through the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission, and watched the game on its 65-inch television.
Today: Jeffrey Kassay, Modern's manager, said the lack of NHL hockey for an undetermined amount of time shouldn't have any effect on its bottom line.
"It's all the same for us. Without the Jets, we're OK. We have the same customers all the time. We don't have anything to worry about," he said.
The silver lining: Recent immigrants to Canada from eastern Africa aren't born and bred to be hockey fans, but they do like to eat meals that remind them of home.
Quote: "When the Jets come back, maybe we'll do more advertising about our big-screen television. Maybe we'll have more than one big screen. We'll see," Kassay said.
Rudy's Eat & Drink
A year ago: One restaurant that won't be worried about falling year-over-year sales this fall is Rudy's Eat & Drink. That's because it didn't officially open its doors until February.
Today: Owner Michael Schafer is doing his best to make lemonade out of the lemons the NHL lockout has given the restaurant industry.
He's working with various alcohol companies to create special evenings, such as bourbon-tasting dinners, to help convince downtown workers to stick around after 5 p.m.
"We're going to be launching an after-work party, too. We're going to have a DJ start on Friday at 4 p.m. We're saying 'Rudy's is where you go to unwind after work,' " he said.
"You've got to keep coming up with the stuff. The alcohol companies are fairly invested in downtown already because of the Jets. They're feeling the massive hits to their sales so they're trying to get people to come back downtown to spend money on alcohol."
The silver lining: Whenever the Jets do return to the ice, virtually all of Rudy's hockey-related business will be pure gravy. Even when it was open for a half-dozen or so games late last year, Rudy's was brand new, so most hockey fans didn't even know it existed.
"I'd like to think you'd see a 15 to 20 per cent spike in sales (when the Jets come back) if you average 11/2 games per week," he said.
Quote: "I signed my lease a year before the Jets return was announced, so I was committed with or without the Jets existing downtown. My whole purpose was to put a destination restaurant in the downtown core."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 A6
Updated on Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 7:57 AM CDT: adds photo, adds fact box
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