NHL Lockout Hurts Chicago Small Businesses
While most of the nation was preoccupied by the Presidential election on Tuesday, many Chicago Blackhawks fans were following a contest of a different sort. Only days after canceling the 2013 Winter Classic, the NHL and players’ association have resumed talks, once again leaving fans hopeful that there could be at least a partial NHL season.
Also hopeful are the bars, restaurants, and other small businesses in the West Loop that serve hockey fans and other United Center traffic. Establishments like Crossroads Bar and Grill and the Beer Bistro on Madison Street are usually in full swing this time of year, serving standing room-only crowds on game nights. But with 22 games already canceled, business is suffering, reminding us that it’s not just players, owners, and jersey-clad fans who are feeling the effects of this lockout.
“We had a 40% drop off in our sales from what we usually do in October,” said Greg Mammoser, general manager at Crossroads. “We have established ourselves in the neighborhood pretty well and are able to survive off of that, but when it comes to profiting, that’s where the Hawks come in.”
Across the street, The Beer Bistro generates 25% of its business during hockey season and is facing similar concerns, according to owner Bob McDermott. The Beer Bistro has a beer and food menu that attracts patrons regardless of the season, but the bar is still going to miss Blackhawks home games, when they typically get 300 people in the door between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. And at most places, it’s the staff that is bearing the brunt of the lost business.
“On a game night we have nine staff members working. Right now we have four. It’s an obvious sign of who is getting hit,” said McDermott. He hasn’t had to lay anyone off yet, but knows that his servers depend upon him to stay busy. McDermott is clear when he hires new staff that their hockey season earnings will be significantly higher than what they make in the off season. Mammoser is dealing with the same issue at Crossroads, where they are averaging three staff members each night, as opposed to the nine that typically work during Blackhawks games.
“There are a lot less shifts to go around, and it affects everybody from busboys to cooks to wait staff,” said Mammoser.
Closer to the United Center, Arrow on Ogden is in even more of a scramble. Formerly The Ogden, which opened last December, Arrow on Ogden was taken over by new management last month and is trying to rebrand itself.
“I think we’re in a tougher position than the bars down on Madison Street,” said Managing Partner Danny McCambridge. According to McCambridge, the busiest nights at the Ogden last year were nights when the Blackhawks were playing at home. Now, Arrow on Ogden is working even harder to book special events and successfully rebrand itself, but the result is bittersweet for a bar that intended to serve the hockey community.
“We’ve done a lot of great things and they’re not going to get seen by hockey fans this year. We’re not able to build our business with hockey fans this year,” said McCambridge. “We want to be a Blackhawks bar. We want to fly a Blackhawks flag and we want to have hockey fans in here going nuts.”
And it’s not just bars that are being affected. Approximately half the people who go into Clark St. Sports on Madison and Damen are looking for Blackhawks gear, with the other half looking for Bulls gear. But with the average hockey jersey going for $150 and Bulls jerseys selling for closer to $90, the revenue impact is multiplied.
“Our Blackhawks stuff is just kind of sitting around now,” said Sales Associate Prentice Davis. The store had already ordered most of its merchandise for the 2012-13 season, and much of it has been sent back to the warehouse, where it will go unsold.
The lockout comes at a rough time for Chicago hockey. The NHL is only just getting back casual and even dedicated fans who lost interest after the 2004-2005 lockout. The Blackhawks, in particular, have become increasingly popular since the 2008-2009 season, when regular season home games became televised for the first time since the early 1970’s. Chicago’s renewed interest in hockey got another boost when the Blackhawks took home the Stanley Cup in 2010, but that momentum could be lost without a season this year.
“With the lockout, the fans get turned off. They get into other things, like football or basketball, when they would have been watching hockey,” said Davis, who said there has been a pickup in the number of hockey fans coming into Clark St. Sports over the past few years.
Even back east on Madison Street, the lockout will have a ripple effect throughout the entire neighborhood. While receiving some foot traffic from its proximity to Greektown and the Loop, the West Loop is not exactly a destination neighborhood for many Chicagoans. This will make it even more difficult for businesses that really depend upon the United Center to draw city-dwellers west.
“Hockey is very addictive. The whole neighborhood comes alive. It’s like being in Wrigleyville when the Cubs are good,” said Mammoser. A typical Blackhawks home game brings an additional 22,000 people into the neighborhood, and the hope for business owners is that at least some of those hockey fans will find a place they like and keep coming back. Without hockey to bring them to the neighborhood in the first place, that won’t be happening.
“If there’s no season, it’s realistic that one to two places will be shuttered up,” said McDermott.
— By Carolanne Fried