Sporting chances

01 January 2000
Sporting chances

GOOD sports coverage may sell even the weakest of newspapers but, when it comes to using sport as a theme for restaurants, operators have to have a lot more than a wall covered with sporting memorabilia. Only those offering a good-quality product will survive in the long term, warns brewing and restaurant analyst Stuart Price, of Credit Suisse First Boston.

"The sports theme concept has strong appeal," he says, "but they also have to be able to appeal to customers with the menu and service."

As Babe Ruth's and the Sports Café set about expanding their networks around the UK, both brands insist that, while the sports theme is undoubtedly an important part of the offer, their outlets have appeal for more than just fans looking for a big screen.

The two concepts have much in common. Customers visiting a Babe Ruth's restaurant or booking a table at the Sports Café can get a meal and drinks, watch sport on one of numerous television screens, shoot a few hoops on the enclosed basketball court and then round off the evening with a turn on one of the interactive games machines. Nevertheless, the ambience in the two restaurants is very different. While the Sports Café bills itself as an open-till-all-hours entertainment venue with bar, restaurant and dance floor, Babe Ruth's is focused on the restaurant market.

After a £2.2m fit-out, a second Babe Ruth's restaurant opened in early December in a newly built restaurant complex on north London's Finchley Road. Its 10,000sq ft site, seating 300, is among the first of 12 outlets in the O2 Gastrodome, a project of development group Burfords. Neighbours on the first floor are Yo! Sushi and Ed's Easy Diner, while the ground floor offers the Capital Radio Café, Old Orleans Restaurant, Pizza Hut, Nando's and Bar Circa.

The original Babe Ruth's, which seats 380, has been trading successfully from a site near London's Tower Bridge since 1996. Operations manager Keith Feldmar says that some modifications have been made to the original concept at the Finchley Road restaurant. In Belgo style, the open kitchen is further forward in the restaurant - it is the first thing you see as you approach - and the interactive games area, which includes a ski-simulator, has been pushed to the back of the restaurant because at Tower Bridge some diners were put off by its central location.

But the sports theme remains, albeit in a more subtle way than is evident at the Tower Bridge restaurant. Feldmar refers to it as the "underlying sporting theme". There are 20 television monitors located around the venue, compared with the 120 at the Sports Café. All transmit sports from around the world, but the sound is turned up only for big events. There are framed photographs of leading sports personalities dotted around the walls but, unless you were sitting close to them, they could be photos of anything. In contrast, the Sports Café boasts one of the world's largest collections of sports memorabilia.

Name change?

Although it was decided to retain the name of Babe Ruth's for the second restaurant, Feldmar confesses he has mixed feelings about it. "We probably didn't do as much research as we should have ," he comments.

He explains that the problem is that, while the New York Yankees' 1920s baseball legend has iconic status in the USA, few Brits seem to know who Babe Ruth was, let alone associate his name with a sport. At the same time, he adds, the few who are familiar with the name will understandably assume that the restaurant has a sports theme, but will wrongly assume that it offers a menu of chicken, burgers and ribs, the traditional fare of US-themed restaurants.

In fact, Babe Ruth's prides itself on offering a varied, freshly cooked choice of dishes from a menu that attempts to bridge the gap between themed restaurant and fine dining.

Feldmar says: "When we [the Seabourne World Express Group] decided to go into the restaurant business, I went to the USA and did some research. From what I saw,I felt that what was missing from the UK were casual dining restaurants that were not really themed but were also not Terence Conran restaurants where you spend £40 a head.

"The traditional look of a themed restaurant is that of dark wooden tables, polished floorboards, lots of brass and Tiffany lampshades." he adds. "We wanted something brighter and more design-led."

According to Feldmar, the average spend is between £18 and £22 for a three-course meal with a drink; in contrast to the Sports Café, where it is £15 and drink sales are much higher than food sales, about 70% of revenue comes from the sale of food.

Feldmar admits that Babe Ruth was not the first choice when the company set about looking for a personality on whom to focus the restaurant's sports theme. An early preference was British athlete Daley Thomson, but his request for £1m a year for use of his name put him out of the picture. Feldmar now believes there is much to be said in favour of using a dead sports personality.

Though it is still early days for the Finchley Road site, Feldmar anticipates that it will attract a similar clientele to that at Tower Bridge. Visit Tower Bridge mid-week at lunchtime and the place will be full of business executives dining out on expense accounts. In the evenings, there are more couples aged 25-40, while the weekends are extremely popular with families - including Tony and Cherie Blair, who have taken their three children there for birthday treats.

In contrast to the more strongly themed Sports Café, sport is important to Babe Ruth's only in that it gives diners something extra to do. Before or between courses, they can try out the glass-surrounded basketball court or the ski simulator, but sport is not the main reason for going there.

"You can't wait for the big events to draw people in," Feldmar says. "You couldn't run a business like that. The biggest hook we have is the food. The sport is fairly secondary." n

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