The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group in Chicago owns and operates several concepts, including The Berkshire Room located inside the ACME Hotel, and The Sixth in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. They also own the eponymous Fifty/50, an upscale sports bar and comfort food restaurant that has been operating for nearly a decade in Wicker Park.
The Fifty/50 patio.
The Fifty/50 is a tri-level sports bar that boasts more than 20 flat screen TVs (every table has their own 50-inch LED television), a food menu that consists of elevated, fresh and scratch-made comfort fare (which includes enormous, award-winning chicken wings), a dedicated house ice program, signature cocktails that include their famous Wobble Stopper Bacon Bloody Mary, a 65-seat outdoor patio, and literally every sports package. It doesn’t matter where a guest may be from, what sports they love, what out-of-market game they may be hunting for, or which team they call their own – if it’s on television during The Fifty/50’s lunch, dinner or weekend brunch hours of operations, it can be watched.
The downstairs bar at The Fifty/50.
We wanted to speak to one of the best in the sports bar business, and we believe we’ve accomplished just that. We’re thrilled to bring you this conversation with Scott Weiner, co-owner of The Fifty/50 sports bar and Fifty/50 Restaurant Group. There are several reasons both the sports bar and the restaurant group are so successful, and you’re about to meet one of the main reasons.
If you want to be the best, learn from those operating at the top of their game.
How important is your beer menu in terms of hosting televised games?
The beer menu is important from a quantity standpoint and because Fifty/50 is known across the country, we do get guests from out-of-town that love seeing their local beers on our menu. More important than beer, however, has been our specialty cocktail list that utilizes housemade artisan ice.
What spirits, cocktails and shots have proved the most popular with your guests during football season? Do you see any increase in wine sales during the season?
We’ve continued to expand our bourbon list over the years. As mentioned before, we have a house ice program that produces crystal clear 2x2 ice cubs that most people are used to seeing in our upscale cocktail bars, The Berkshire Room and The Sixth.
The old standbys of Jameson, O-bombs, and Don Julio are always called for, but more and more of our clientele are trying sweeter shots and drinking stronger drinks instead of a Miller Lite or an over-filling craft beer.
The Fifty/50 is known for its food menu. Would you say that food is essential to a sports bar’s success? What are your top-selling menu items?
Our group has an artisan bakery, fine-dining, family pizza…you name it. We wanted to approach sports bar food with the love, care and technique that our fine dining places do while keeping the food simple, approachable, and relative to what a sports bar should be. We approach the menu with the intent that people need to fight to get in here for a seat during big games, but we want them craving our food all week long. That’s been a key to our success and a reason we are full for dinner even when there aren’t any sports on.
The 2016 NFL regular season begins September 5. What promotions do you have planned for the regular season and playoffs?
We always offer bucket beer specials and we are considering a Mimosa cart with high-quality mixers and other little surprises. The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group also has a 25,000 active-member loyalty card, and we offer several incredible offers, especially during bye weeks or if the Bears aren’t having a good season.
How do you market your promotions and engage with your guests? Is The Fifty/50’s “irresponsibly low-priced” bottle service included in any football season promotions?
The Loyalty Program is huge for us and it allows us to reach a very diverse clientele from all over the city. We market strongly via social media as well but in-house, four-walls marketing has always been our bread and butter.
We still offer the bottle service but we have been moving away from that with a stronger focus towards our craft spirits and cocktail program.
What other sports do you put on your televisions for your guests during football season to keep them coming back?
We literally have all the packages. We get a lot of out-of-town athletes that request certain games, especially hockey players, so we need to have it all. Every table does have their own 50” LED so they can see a lot of different games if they want to. What we are most looking forward to is Cubs playoffs.
How important is your relationship with suppliers when it comes to succeeding during this sports season, and what are some of the ways that you leverage that relationship?
We love working with our suppliers on fun things that keep people engaged and wondering what is happening this Monday night during MNF. With that said, our elevated cocktail program allows us to not need much support from them, and our liquor suppliers often have an uphill battle fighting the trend of craft beer. I’d say the relationship is important but I think the consumer is starting to become very wary of cocktail lists with the same branded placements. We need to really get fantastic menu support prior to advertising a liquor supplier’s brand vs. our own.
Having a good relationship with your food suppliers is honestly more important. Getting better product than your competitor is a true advantage. Everyone’s Grey Goose tastes the same.
Millennials have proven to be a difficult demographic for some beer brands, spirit brands, and the bar industry to understand and market to. Do Millennials make up a significant percentage of your guests? How do you market to this demographic?
Millennials also make up a significant percentage of our employees. We’ve seen success marketing to them with videos. Our clientele seems to be strongest in the 25-34 range and still very strong in the 34-45 range, so we focus our marketing efforts towards that demographic, and we see them as being more loyal and moving around much less.
What advice do you have for operators new to running a sports bar?
I think asking yourself whether a sports bar is necessary to where you want to open is the first question. There are “sports bars” on every corner and five or six on my street alone. What’s kept us around for 9-plus years is that we’ve continued to push the envelope and raise the bar on what a sports bar should be. We’ve also been very savvy marketers. Having a good burger or decent wings just isn’t good enough anymore, so if you want to open up a sports bar, plan to spend as much money on your buildout as you would a fine dining restaurant. Figure out what you can offer that nobody else has thought of and spend a lot of time researching your competition.
And with regards to running it, always remember this is a business. There’s nothing more unprofessional than a bar owner who is dressed sloppily, drunk at work, and sleeping with the staff. Be a professional, work hard, and good things will come.
What is one thing you wish you had known before opening a sports bar?
Nothing prepares you for just how personal of a business this is. If you don’t take each and every Yelp review, Open Table review, and bad night of service personally then you’re in the wrong business. I wish I would have known that there isn’t much glory in this business, especially in today’s business climate. I own my business but I work for my employee’s job satisfaction and I answer to the banks, the city, and to our investors.
Our group owns 9 restaurants now and I still feel the same way: it’s not about you, it’s about the concept. It’s a hard business that requires personal sacrifice no matter what cuisine you sell. Keep those things in mind, and decide if making much less than you probably think you will make is actually worth the personal sacrifice.
The mezzanine at The Fifty/50.