By Andrew Polk
Major League Baseball’s lockout continues, and restaurants in the Phoenix area are anticipating a decline in business for the third spring in a row due to decreased tourism.
The MLB recently announced the postponement of its spring training season until at least March 8. Cactus League teams expected to welcome back baseball fans to Arizona in full force this spring after COVID-19 cut 2020’s spring training short and restricted attendance at 2021 spring training games.
For George Gebran, one of the owners of U.S. Egg Breakfast and Lunch, a six-restaurant chain in the Phoenix valley, baseball’s lockout furthers frustrations within the restaurant industry sparked by the pandemic two years ago.
“All our staff at our restaurants look forward to spring training, but they’re starting to realize it might not happen,” Gebran said. “The last two years have really been a nightmare for anyone in the restaurant business (in Phoenix).”
Phoenix restaurants were able to reap the benefits of the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, which attracted an estimated 700,000 fans to Scottsdale, Ariz., last month. Last year, public health officials limited attendance at the golf tournament to 5,000 fans per day.
“We rely on it. Three of our six locations feel the effect of the tournament,” Gebran said. “We see about a 33% increase in customers, so that means ordering more food and staffing more.”
The WM Phoenix Open also positively impacted fine-dining restaurants. Oliver Badgio, chief brand officer of Prime Steak Concepts, said Dominick’s Steakhouse, the group’s Scottsdale restaurant just 2 miles from the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale, filled its tables even on weekday nights during the golf tournament.
“Each year, it’s always a very busy week in town. It’s a tremendous event,” Badgio said. “It’s much busier many more nights of the week. We plan for weekend-type nights for the entire week.”
After an influx of tourists from the PGA Tour’s highest attended golf tournament, restaurants in Phoenix are unsure if the Cactus League will go on this spring and if baseball fans from around the country will flock to Arizona. While the end of MLB’s lockout remains unknown, Gebran said he is already sure of the revenue U.S. Egg will lose without spring training, which usually begins at the end of February.
“We uptick 30% at all six locations because they play games all over the valley,” Gebran said. “Everybody in our industry looks forward to having the out-of-town guests and the games going on because everyone makes a lot of money, quite frankly.”
The Cactus League hosted 1,737,975 fans at its 10 stadiums in 2019, the last spring training season with a complete schedule and 100% fan capacity permitted. Prime Steak Concepts owns and operates three restaurants in the Phoenix valley, including Ocean 44, conveniently situated 1.6 miles from Scottsdale Stadium, home of the San Francisco Giants.
“It certainly isn’t a positive,” Badgio said of the lockout. “We’re optimistic that it’s going to be a tremendous spring, but we would love to see, as everyone would, baseball back in full swing.”
Gebran said he hopes negotiations between the MLB Players Association and team owners speed up so baseball fans can dine at U.S. Egg before catching a Cactus League game this spring.
“We’re hoping they get their act together and start playing some ball,” Gebran said. “Bring on the traffic, bring on the people!”
Andrew Polk is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @apolk17.