By Sonja Ryst
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010; A14
ESPN said it is planning to shut five ESPN Zone restaurants next week, including the locations in Washington and Baltimore.
Executives at ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., attributed the decision to continued weak economic conditions across the country. The company said in a statement that it will also close its restaurants in Chicago, New York and Las Vegas.
"The economy has hit every facet of our country," said Rick Alessandri, senior vice president at ESPN. "We weren't immune."
The restaurant, which features a bar with big-screen televisions and sports-themed events, opened its first location at Baltimore's Inner Harbor in 1998. The one in Washington opened in 2000 at 555 12th St. NW, just blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue and prime tourist attractions.
However, the business has been buffeted by the recession, which caused consumers to pare back their restaurant outings. Last year, the company closed its locations in Atlanta and Denver. The moves will leave just two ESPN Zone locations open. Those restaurants will be operated by AEG and Zone Enterprises.
"I would call it a positive for Disney," said Laura Martin, an analyst at New York-based Needham & Co. She explained that restaurants are expensive to run, and thus less profitable than Disney's content businesses such as film or television.
Alessandri declined to comment on the performance of individual locations.
The closing of the ESPN Zone in downtown Washington, which employed about 115 people, comes as the city's restaurant industry remains relatively healthy despite the national downturn. The District added 27 independent restaurants between fall 2008 and fall 2009 for a total of 5,931, according to the market research firm NPD Group.
"Restaurants have fared better here than the rest of the region," said Jo-Ann Neuhaus, executive director of the Pennsylvania Quarter Neighborhood Association, citing the area's mix of office and residential occupants. "We'll have to wait and see how it impacts the neighborhood."
A.J. Laban, the general manager at the nearby Hard Rock Cafe, says he is not sure how ESPN Zone's closing will affect his business, but he expects to field some job inquiries from laid-off ESPN Zone employees. He said he plans to hire about 15 to 20 more people throughout the summer.
"It's always sad to see a great business partner leave with everybody losing their jobs," he said.