Thursday , December 11, 2014 - 9:19 AM
When sports fans watch the big game, it's not always in a stadium seat or the living room recliner.
They might head to a sports grill, where they can see the event on a big screen over dinner and drinks. They can enjoy the camaraderie of fellow fans while someone else does the clean-up and dishes. And when the game is over, there's no traffic jam getting out of the parking lot.
Sports grills are springing up around the country, and Top of Utah is no exception. In the Junction area of downtown Ogden, you'll find Iggy's Sports Grill, Wingnutz and Tailgater's within walking distance of each other. Iggy's also has locations in Centerville and Layton. The national chain, Buffalo Wild Wings, now has locations in Layton and Riverdale. At Ogden's north end, Steiny's has gained such a following that owner John Stein is opening a second location near the Weber State University campus.
What's fueling their popularity?
Several factors, say some of the restaurateurs.
First, the cost to attend sporting events has gone up. "For the same cost of taking the Frontrunner down to Salt Lake and buying one (lower bowl) ticket to a Jazz game, you could watch it here and have a nice meal for your whole family," said Steve Trujillo, manager of Iggy's Sports Grill in Ogden. "It's a nice second for those who can't make it to a live event."
John Stein said the entertainment value is even more evident in larger cities with NFL teams. "Most people can't afford to go to the games, but you can see all the action at your sports grill. It's clean and comfortable, you've got WiFi to watch the Fantasy Football points accumulate, and you don't have to wait in line to use the restroom."
Another factor: The number of televised athletic events has increased, but so has the cost of cable and satellite TV. So there are more games or matches to watch, but often, people don’t have home access because they don't have that particular sports package.
At Steiny's, "We have 11 50-inch plasma screens wrapping the entire dining area," said Stein. "We can show up to five different events, so we can have golf, ESPN Sports Center, the NFL Network and the Jazz wrap-up show all playing at the same time. You can come in and request to put on the Cowboys game and we can do that for your section where you're sitting."
"We have the PAC-12, and a lot of people don't have that in their homes," said Trujillo of Iggy's. "We can show five games at once, and we know what we're going to be playing days in advance. This Thursday, people will be calling and asking what's playing on Sunday. When they walk in with their sports garb on, we know where to seat them."
"It gives you an opportunity to watch games happening in other parts of the country," Anthony Zike, manager of Tailgaters. "We have had a good crowd, especially for the NFL games. It gets pretty competitive in here and people get involved in the banter. We also get a big crowd for the Utah games."
Improved food and a family-friendly atmosphere are other factors that attract some fans. Several restaurateurs interviewed emphasized that they call themselves "sports GRILLS," not "sports BARS."
"In the past with sports bars, it's never been the greatest of food or the greatest of atmospheres," said Will Miller, who founded Wingnutz in 2008 and now has 11 locations in Utah and Idaho. "You couldn't really take your family, and even if the food was decent, it was usually greasy and unhealthy."
Wingnutz' baked chicken wings are its signature item. "It's a three-step process, and the baking brings out the flavor of our sauces. So you're not getting greasy bar food. What draws people in is to come and watch a game, but people come back because of our amazing food."
Iggy's carries such diverse offerings as Blackened Salmon Salad, Cajun Pasta, sizzling Chicken Fajitas, Classic Lasagna and Stadium-Grill Steak in addition to the usual pizza, burgers and wings.
"We pride ourselves in that you can bring a group of ten in here, and if you all can't find something to eat, you're not hungry," said manager Steve Trujillo. "We cater to every group. I know that a lot of people come just for the food, because we do a brisk lunch business. If we relied only on football season, we'd be out of business."
One of the fun game-day items is the Iggy's Tin Lid, featuring a variety appetizers such as mozzarella sticks, wings, onion rings, and chicken balls, served on a garbage can lid.
"We call ourselves a family sports grill," said John Stein of Steiney's. "We want to appeal to all people. Whether it's me and my buddies coming after work, or meeting another couple for dinner, or coming with my family, it's going to be an OK place that won't be too rowdy."
Stein added that Steiny's limited license allows them to serve beer and wine only, so there are no other alcoholic beverages such as tequila or vodka.
"But the food is why we're in business, not beer and wine. Our customers tells us we have the best chicken wings. Everything is homemade and cooked to order. It takes a little more time, but we figure if you're here watching a game, you're not in a hurry."
Wingnutz has specialty drinks and signature beers on tap. "But alcoholic beverages only account for 27 percent of our sales," said Miller. "The biggest part of what we do is our food."
People also enjoy the sports-themed atmosphere and camaraderie. The Iggy's in Ogden has a wall display honoring the Ogden Reds, a baseball team from 1939 to the 1950s.
On the wall at Steiny's is a large framed photo of John Stein from his minor league baseball days. It was a gift from a high school player that Stein coached, who insisted it be hung in the restaurant.
"I never made it to the major leagues, but I trampled around the minor leagues five years of my life, and I wouldn't give away a single day of it," said Stein.
When an arm injury ended his playing days, he took a job in the front office of the old Salt Lake Trappers team.
"A chance to stay around the game was very appealing," Stein said.
And, Steiny's is another way to stay around the sports world. When he and his wife decided to open it, he used the nickname he'd been called throughout his sports career.
"Whenever you play sports and you get in a huddle, everybody has a nickname. You're never just John or Stein, you're Steiny or Jonesy. So I went with it."
Stein said a sports grill appeals to a wide variety of fans.
"We get people who want to watch bicycling and tennis," he said. "We had a crowd of about 20-30 people who came in to watch the America's Cup yacht racing, so we put it on for them.Those are four-and five-hour races, and I learned all about yacht racing and the rules."
Yes, fans may get a little heated when there are opposing sides.
"On the weeknds when BYU and Utah play at the same time, we have to be careful not to ostracize either team," said Trujillo.
Stein said the bantering at Steiny's is usually good-natured.
"We have customers where one is true BYU blue and the other is U of U red, and they married sisters," said Stein. "So they come in here together whether it's basketball or football, and sit there and jab at each other. It's hilarious."
Valerie Phillips can be reached at www.chewandchat.com
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