UPDATED: Sept. 14, 11:20 a.m.
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Sitting at a table inside Varsity Pizza, Eric Ockert scanned the restaurant. It was Wednesday, three days before Syracuse’s football season-opener in Chapel Hill and two weeks before the home opener against Georgia Tech. The 13-year employee pointed to where the pizza line should be on Syracuse game days: packing the center aisle, curling back around when it hits the grilling area and then continuing outside where more customers wait to enter.
Two hours before a home game last year — and every other year — that’s what happened. There are people “wall to wall.” Fans use window sills and the tops of trash cans as places to set their food down. A big home game can generate the equivalent of a week’s worth of regular business, he said.
But this year, during a coronavirus-altered season with fanless games and millions in lost revenue for SU and the local community, that won’t be the case, Ockert said.
“It’ll probably just be like a normal lunch,” Ockert said.
Game-day revenue is significantly higher for Marshall Street staples, including Varsity, Acropolis Pizza House, Shirt World, Manny’s and Faegan’s Pub & Cafe, as well as Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Though these businesses are trying to find new ways to generate revenue, without the usual stream of fans, they know this season will present challenges unlike any other.
“Business is way down,” David Tewksbury, a warehouse manager and employee at Manny’s said. “Hopefully it picks up next year, but I just don’t see it happening this year.”
At Varsity, one of the most iconic game day spots in Syracuse, Ockert said he doesn’t know if people will make the game day trip to the Hill if there aren’t fans in the Dome. They’ll probably stay home and watch the game on TV instead, something Ockert would do himself.
There are season-ticket holders — who are also regular Varsity Pizza customers — that have been coming into the Marshall Street eatery every game day for the last 30 to 50 years. “We probably won’t see them anymore,” he said.
Traditionally, the restaurant would stop deliveries on game days because it would get so busy, but now, Ockert said they will rely on that for a chunk of their business. Restaurants are allowed to have up to 50% capacity for indoor dining, something Ockert hopes to capitalize on with a big projector screen for customers to watch the game.
We’re not open to (losing) money, so obviously we’re trying to make money as well, but ultimately the first concern for us is keeping everybody safe.
Eric Ockert, Varsity Pizza employee
For Ockert and John Dellas, co-owner of Faegan’s Pub & Cafe and Varsity Pizza, their priority is maintaining the community’s safety and limiting the virus’s spread — not money.
“We like to consider our customers and our employees all to be part of the family, and our first priority is always going to be keeping our family safe,” Ockert said. “We’re not open to (losing) money, so obviously we’re trying to make money as well, but ultimately the first concern for us is keeping everybody safe.”
Coming into Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Armory Square is a game day tradition for many longtime fans, said Jason Ryan, marketing director for the chain’s Syracuse location. The customer base doesn’t include many students due to its downtown location, he said, but many suburban residents will stop by on their way to the Dome.
“To them, it’s all part of the experience of going to the game,” Ryan said. “It’s not just considered just going to dinner, it’s become a tradition every year.”
The restaurant created a “tailgate package” for delivery or pickup, allowing fans to recreate as much of a game day experience as possible, Ryan said. That means providing wings, ribs and sides for fans to eat at home.
The barbecue joint also has outdoor and indoor seating and has added iWave filtration systems which can remove coronavirus particles from the air and will better protect customers and employees, Ryan said. But he understands that many fans might not be comfortable coming in to eat.
The problem is the loss of away fans, Ryan said, because there’s no way to reach them. At Dinosaur, visiting fans hear about the restaurant and are willing to get there early or wait hours to eat. Years down the line, they’ll return — it becomes part of their game day routine, too.
Dinosaur sells barbecue sauce in nearly 375 stores nationwide, so away fans have the opportunity to cook at home with friends and family and “bring as much of that tradition into their home,” Ryan said. But beyond that, it’ll be challenging to recover that lost market.
Dellas and his employees will also be impacted by the loss of away fans because Faegan’s often serves as “the away team’s base,” the 42-year owner said. The bar also used to have a large pool of regular customers that has been “whittled down from what it used to be” and is “now negligible,” Dellas said. Though Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order would allow up to 145 people in Faegan’s, Dellas chose a more strict occupancy of 55 because he’s found that manageable — both from the restaurant’s and a public health point of view.
“It’s just going to be a way-below-average Saturday,” Dellas said.
“I gotta say that after 42 years of doing this, it really isn’t any fun anymore to do it,” Dellas said. “Maybe the pandemic is getting me to that place where it’s icing on the cake — like time for me to go.”
Tewksbury, an employee at Manny’s, agreed with Dellas’ sentiment. He remembers when the store had 10 employees working the same shift to manage the game day rush, and when there were so many customers in the store that he couldn’t recognize who was a regular and who wasn’t. Now, it’s just one person manning the store, business is slow and locals aren’t interested in buying merchandise without any games to wear it to, Tewksbury said.
“People just don’t care about wearing Syracuse stuff as much, unless they’re a student here,” Tewksbury said.
For Dave Jacobs, the 44-year owner of Shirt World on Marshall Street, though, it’s just about moving forward and focusing on the community’s support. He couldn’t attend the state fair, which he’s been to every year since 1967, but he’s confident Shirt World’s product’s quality and the remaining local community’s support will get them through the pandemic.
Mavrikidis’ father lived through the Greek Civil War and taught him the importance of saving $2 for every $3 earned. Without the game day rush this season, he still knows his business, and those near his, will be OK.
“As long as we’re healthy — that’s the main thing — and we can provide food for the family, who cares?” Mavrikidis said. “If it takes another year, it takes another year. That’s how you have to look at it.”
As Syracuse kicked off its season Saturday, around 10 people scattered through Varsity just after noon. SU’s 2020 schedule was still tacked to the wall with 11 individual banners, some on the left, others on the right. The restaurant’s projector screen hung in front of the grill.
But without ACC Network — something Ockert is working on acquiring for future weeks — Spongebob played on the screen instead. Because it was an away game, a large crowd wasn’t expected. That’d be the case any season.
This year, though, they’ll all be like that. They’ll just be normal lunches.
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, the name of Varsity Pizza’s co-owner was spelled incorrectly. His name is John Dellas, not Dellis.
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