March sadness for local sports bars
U-M’s and MSU’s abbreviated tournament runs are felt in the pocketbook.
After 40 years in business, Peppino’s Downtown doesn’t really have to worry about there being fewer Michigan State University basketball games than anticipated.
But that didn’t stop a flood of texts and calls to Peppino’s Pizza President Joe DiLeonardo following MSU’s first round upset as a No. 2 seed against No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State University.
“They’re all asking, ‘Pizza Joe, how mad are you?’ Joking all the time, telling me my kids have to drop out of college,” DiLeonardo said. “If after 40 years we have to worry about a lack of three games, we’re in trouble.”
That’s not to say Peppino’s and other sports bars across Michigan aren’t a bit peeved by the early tournament exits for MSU and University of Michigan. After all, the longer the “hometown” teams stay in, the more people will show up to watch the games with friends. And that’s good for sports bars’ bottom lines.
For many, the Spartans were a national championship favorite, and having been to seven Final Fours in the past 17 years, head coach Tom Izzo and his team generally boost Michigan sports bar sales in March.
The bump in business during the MSU games is especially evident, said Eric Tuinstra, Peppino’s controller. While U-M and MSU football are relatively even when it comes to sales boosts, MSU basketball is a 10-1 difference, he said.
The lack of MSU basketball Sunday, March 20, was apparent with the restaurant only about three-quarters full that day.
“If they were playing, there’d be a line out the door with a wait,” Tuinstra said. “We noticed it on Sunday in the second round.”
Prior to March Madness, DiLeonardo said extra food and beer is ordered in case a deep tournament run is made by a local team. Unfortunately, those orders now have to be adjusted, he said.
The absence of a Michigan team won’t kill a sports bar’s business, but Tuinstra said Michigan bars likely have been spoiled by the Spartans’ usual success in March, which is a good month to boost sales prior to the summer slowdown. He said MSU games can boost a day’s sales by several thousand dollars.
“That’s a good amount of money for us,” he said. “We do depend on this time of year to generate some extra revenue.”
Business also increased for many downtown bars this month because of St. Patrick’s Day — “always a big bar day,” Tuinstra said — and because of Barfly Ventures’ Irish on Ionia on March 19, which brought 20,000 people downtown.
Sports can also hinder the success of a restaurant. Often, sports fans may occupy tables for long periods of time — a detriment if it’s during a dinner rush and management is trying to turn tables quickly, especially if there’s a concert or other event at Van Andel Arena.
DiLeonardo said sales at the downtown Peppino’s location have been up six years in a row — every since it opened. He said he doesn’t think there’s likely to be a slowdown, either, as downtown continues to enjoy a resurgence. He’s particularly excited about Arena Place, which will offer 100 apartments not far from the restaurant.
“We’re a growing city and it’s a cool place to be,” he said. “There are restaurants opening up, but there’s more people moving down here, so it offsets.”
For a new sports bar, the additional $50,000 that could be made during a championship run by a Michigan school might have a big impact, but it’s just a blip on the radar when Peppino’s looks back at its 40 years in business.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a little more energetic and fun the next two weeks if Michigan State or Michigan keeps playing,” DiLeonardo said. “But hey, it’s not the first or last time this will happen. Thank God we don’t have to depend on them winning every time out.”