Uptown entrepreneurs welcome back Penguins hockey fans

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Before the puck hits ice this week at Consol Energy Center, Uptown business will have already scored.

Businesses whose profits tanked during the nearly four-month-long National Hockey League lockout are excitedly welcoming back fans, arena workers and their dollars with open arms.

The lockout officially ended Jan. 6, when the NHL and the NHL Players Association reached a 10-year collective bargaining agreement. The Penguins will play their first home game Wednesday night but have hosted a number of practices and scrimmages since players signed off on the agreement Jan. 12. The shortened regular season will feature 48 games, 24 on home ice.

The city lost an estimated $2.2 million during the lockout, according to tourism group VisitPittsburgh's president and CEO, Craig Davis. Although most of those funds would have gone to the Penguins, Mr. Davis said hotels, restaurants, bars and scores of other establishments felt the pain.

Whether it's a full-fledged game, scrimmage or meeting of the International Organization of Zamboni Operators, Uptown business owners are glad to see anything happening that brings customers near their establishments.

"Elated doesn't even begin to cover it," said Jackie Horvath, owner of Tailgaters Bar & Grill on Centre Avenue. Ms. Horvath said her business, which is only steps away from the arena at Washington Plaza, lost more than $60,000 in revenues during the lockout. To weather the storm, the restaurant leaned on Washington Plaza regulars and ran a guest bartending contest that offered a trip to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, to the bartender who could draw a crowd to spend $1,500 or more.

"We needed to make it big," she said. "Some people thought just guest bartending made them eligible for the prize. They didn't understand that they had to bring customers to win it."

Dave Sypherd, owner of the Souper Bowl restaurant on Fifth Avenue, skipped special promotions and put his money toward upgrading the property for the day when fans would come back. When there was no word of hockey's return by December, he kicked off renovations in the building's upper level. When the league reached an agreement a few weeks later, Mr. Sypherd delayed renovations until June and brought on the eight seasonal workers who normally would have started in October. He now has a total of 15 employees, his normal staff total during hockey season.

Mr. Sypherd wouldn't disclose how much the restaurant lost during the lockout, but said there's little chance he'll get it back this fiscal year. Despite the loss, he said, he fared much better than he did during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.

"It wasn't as bad as the last one they had; that one almost killed me," he said. "But since I went through it once, I was able to prepare myself."

Regardless of work stoppages, business owners who rely heavily on sports events should seek ways to protect themselves in the event of bad or absent seasons, said Carl Knoblock, district director of the Small Business Administration's Pittsburgh District office. He said the organization is planning a discussion for the spring on how businesses can diversify their customer base beyond what comes out of stadiums and arenas.

"Somebody losing greater than 25 percent revenue is like somebody going through a natural disaster," he said. "Those businesses need some type of format where they focus on market trends and how to market independently without relying on sports."

If the lockout were a natural disaster, Ms. Horvath is hoping the shortened season will be a miracle on ice for the Pens. If all goes well during the regular season and the Penguins emerge through the playoffs and Stanley Cup finals as champions, she thinks Tailgaters has a chance of recouping what's been lost.

"I'm an optimist," she said. "I hope that was the reason for all of this."

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652. First Published January 20, 2013 5:00 AM


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