While some of the largest NCAA conferences have postponed fall sports until at least 2021, others plan to host them at a limited level. But the lack of fall sports, specifically football, and its tens of thousands of attending fans, would have a significant impact on Northwest Arkansas eateries as they offer a gathering place for victory celebrations or consolation after a loss.
Division I conferences, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, have postponed all sports through at least the end of the year. Football teams in the Southeastern Conference plan to play a 10-game season and only face teams in the conference.
As an SEC team, the Arkansas Razorbacks are planning to begin a shortened season at home Sept. 26 against the Georgia Bulldogs. The Razorbacks will play five home games this fall, or two fewer than previously scheduled. Meanwhile, measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 will reduce the capacity of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium to 23%, or about 17,000 fans, and face coverings will be required. Also, tailgating will not be allowed at the University of Arkansas this fall, the UA website shows.
Britain White, of family-owned restaurant Catfish Hole, said if the football season were to take place as planned, business on a typical game day would still be down between 50% and 60%. White is the son of owner Janie and the late Pat Gazzola. Catfish Hole has restaurants in Fayetteville, Alma and Kimberling City, Mo.
White said the impact is twofold, with the capacity constraints and the expectation that fewer fans will travel to games. Restaurants are restricted to two-thirds dining capacity amid the pandemic. As one of the area’s larger restaurants with a 380-seat capacity, he said it won’t be affected as much as some of the smaller ones.
Even with social distancing guidelines, table spacing and mask mandates, he said, people remain hesitant of coming into restaurants. He noted that during the pandemic, the to-go business has been record-setting, and the restaurant will prepare for a rise in to-go orders as people might opt to remain home to watch the games.
The challenge will be to serve the customers in the dining room and meet the demand for takeout orders. The restaurant might reach two-thirds capacity on a Saturday but also have 50% more to-go orders than it usually had before the pandemic.
The Fayetteville restaurant has hosted live shows with the UA head football coach, but they might have a different feel and look this year. It hosts up to 180 people on one side of the restaurant for the show. With the capacity restriction, it could have up to 120 attendees.
“Normally the way all this ticks is you want to pack out all the seats to make everything work and have that excitement,” White said. “It will be very new for us.”
Asked about the impact on business without college sports this fall, he said it would be down between 60% and 65%, compared to a typical game day.
“It has a direct impact on the Fayetteville location just because of all of the fan base that comes up for all the games,” White said. “The Catfish Hole is one of the premier stops for their trips. But what some don’t realize as well is it impacts our Alma location because, probably even more so, they get a lot of overflow traffic from people going back to central Arkansas from the games.”
The Alma location is a popular stop for Razorbacks mascot Tusk during trips to and from Fayetteville from his home at a rural farm near Dardanelle. “He loves the hushpuppies,” White joked.
‘LIFEBLOOD OF THIS TOWN’
Allen Brumett, the owner of Sassy’s Red House in Fayetteville, said without fall sports, his business would drop 50%, compared to a typical home game weekend.
“College football is the lifeblood of this town,” Brumett said. “Between that, basketball and baseball, this is a Razorback town. But college football is on a different level. You’ve got 70,000 people usually over there [in the stadium]. If we only get 1% of that 70,000, that’s a lot of people coming through the restaurant. Most of those people are from out of town. Sassy’s is one of the spots everybody stops once they are in town.”
During the pandemic, the patio has been important for Sassy’s business, and it doubles the capacity of the College Avenue location. Both of the Sassy’s restaurants have patios, and each one’s capacity has been cut in half because of the COVID restrictions.
However, Brumett said with college students returning to campus, business has nearly reached the same level as it was last August. But he is uncertain whether it will remain.
Sassy’s also hosts a live show with the UA head basketball coach but is unsure how that will take place.
“We usually pack in this place like sardines,” he said. “And this is supposed to be one of the best basketball teams we’ve had since the ’90s possibly. People are going to want to come to see these guys.”
The restaurant has hosted five shows at its College Avenue location and five at the Sassy’s along Wedington Drive.
Jason Collins, co-owner of Grub’s Bar & Grille, said he’s grateful for the football season this fall and expects it to impact the business significantly. Grub’s has two Fayetteville locations and one in Rogers.
Without fall sports, he would expect a significant impact to restaurants across the state. He noted existing social distancing measures and capacity restrictions have limited the number of customers and staff at the restaurants. With the pandemic, existing staffing is down about 40%, and the restaurants have started hiring for the fall. But he still expects to be down 25% from normal staffing levels.
Football draws the most massive crowds, but basketball and baseball bring steadier crowds, by comparison, Collins said. With the football stadium limited to 17,000 people, he’s unsure what level of business to expect until after the first game.
“Normal times, sports is where all the gravy’s at,” said Jeff Hodges, owner of Springdale-based Foghorn’s. Hodges said the restaurant/sports bar chain has six locations, and its best two or three months take place during college football season.
“September, October, the first half of November is where you make all your gravy for a sports bar, especially in a college town,” said Hodges, noting sports has the most impact on the Fayetteville locations.
The business was great whether there was a home or away game, but the two-thirds capacity restriction and social distancing requirements have limited his restaurants to about one-third capacity.
“You lose the whole atmosphere now when you’ve got 25-35 people inside a restaurant,” Hodges said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how it works.”
The Razorbacks baseball season was cut short this spring, and he said business at the restaurant adjacent to Baum-Walker Stadium was down about 55% from April to June. That business carries the restaurant through until football season. Likewise, the revenue during football season takes the restaurant through winter.
Like Sassy’s, the patio has been important for business during the pandemic. Recently, Foghorn’s started to offer online ordering.
Jeff and Melissa Bowen, owners of Italian restaurant Venesian Inn in Tontitown, explained that without fall sports, the business might be down 40-50%, compared to game days last fall.
“When there’s a Razorback game in town, you can bet we’re going to be busy, whether they win or lose,” Melissa Bowen said.
Jeff Bowen noted the fans might not stay as long after a loss but said he’s enjoyed listening to customers’ stories before or after the games.
“All the players would come in and eat, and they’d carb up for the game the night before or that day,” he said. “Just listening to those guys and gals tell the stories is fun.”
Venesian Inn has been offering takeout service only amid the pandemic, and the Bowens are considering whether to restart dine-in service.