Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” resonated through the downstairs bar at Iron Horse Taproom on a recent weeknight, but with the exception of a few patrons playing shuffleboard and another handful surrounding a table, the Man in Black serenaded mostly unoccupied orange and black barstools.
On such a night last year, Iron Horse would have been brimming with an early crowd until about 6:30 p.m., when the majority would take the half-block walk to Verizon Center for a Washington Capitals game only to return after. With the NHL embroiled in a 102-day lockout, though, the legions of hockey fans who have filled the arena for sellouts dating from 2009 aren’t absent only from the building itself, but from the surrounding bars and restaurants.
“This neighborhood has got to figure out a way to be independent of the Verizon Center,” said Daniel Williams, the general manager at Iron Horse. Williams said Capitals game nights bring in roughly $5,000 extra in sales, sometimes more depending on the team’s opponent. “I hate the idea of living and dying because the guys in the NHL can’t make up their mind about how much they want to pay each other,” he said.
Twenty-four of the 43 Capitals games canceled because of the lockout would have been home contests. That means two dozen fewer nights that guaranteed patrons piling into Chinatown establishments for pregame meals or postgame beers, an absence that has resulted in a 10 to 15 percent drop in revenue at nearby businesses, including Iron Horse, RFD, Rocket Bar and Penn Quarter Sports Tavern.
Verizon Center isn’t always dark without the NHL, of course, but Wizards and Georgetown games and concerts rarely result in the same buzz on Seventh Street.
“You can’t beat the business that comes with the Caps games. We compare everything to them,” said Arvind Nair, the general manager at Clyde’s of Gallery Place. Sales are down 7 percent from last year, leading to fewer shifts and hours for employees, according to Jeff Owens, chief financial officer of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group.
“When the Wizards played the Lakers [on Dec. 14] at the end of the night, that’s the closest thing we’ve had,” Nair said. “A really good NBA game, with a big-name opponent, is like an everyday Caps game in terms of business. They set the standard for us.”
Holiday parties brought a temporary cushion for most venues. Following each wave of cancellations by the NHL, the bars have worked to fill in dates with private events on short notice. But after New Year’s celebrations, things slow down. Although the inauguration is expected to create a busy day or two in late January, the absence of hockey likely means that lulls will be the norm until spring.
“That time of year you lose the tourism completely, our outdoor seating is all but obsolete,” said John Scherr, general manager at the Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, which is the gathering place for the fan-organized Caps Road Crew during both home and away games. “The Caps really are the one consistent thing that pushes us through and keeps us on pace.”
Until the NHL labor dispute is resolved or the season is canceled altogether, many are hesitant to pack too many events on the calendar or experiment with new strategies to bring in customers for fear of altering the identity of their establishment. Managers and owners are already considering options and making subtle changes, though. Rocket Bar will soon start selling $10 for $20 worth of drink coupons through an online deal Web siteto bring more customers to the basement bar, manager Markus Smith said.
At RFD, where a single Caps game day can yield the bottom line for a month, owner Josh Alexander may start weekly beer tastings in January, even though the sessions typically don’t take place until the summer. But he’s waiting on a verdict from the NHL before making formal plans.
“I want them to play, but I’d rather they just make a decision so we can move forward with other things to offset the revenue loss,” said Alexander, who regularly attends Capitals games himself. “Dangling the carrot in front of us of they might play, they might not, for weeks and months — I want to know for 2013 if I’m not going to have hockey, both as a fan and business owner.”