Just two decades ago, sports bars weren’t very common. This is a community story for locals and sports fans, about one of Richmond’s first sports bars, the changing city landscape around VCU and the retirement of one well-respected business owner.
One Richmond bar scores big and creates a legacy
While the city hosts numerous restaurants and acclaimed cuisine, we also have an often overlooked local sports bar–not a big chain–that’s worthy of a boisterous hurrah.
Mulligans Sport’s Grille first swung open its doors in 1990 to reveal about 20 televisions inside–none of them flat screens–all broadcasting sports games and commentary.
Think about that novelty. The playing field for sports bars used to be fairly empty of any competition.
Harken back to the early 90s, if you can. The daily routine was sans internet, cable television was not a household standard–and it certainly did not supply the multiple sports networks available now. There was an audible welcome from sports fans–to the extent that the dream of three men multiplied into six restaurants.
The first store was so successful that by its second year, the bouncers came to work before the waitstaff. They were needed to control the the crowds who would try to push inside when the waitresses arrived, as to stake early claim to the best seats in the house. The Wednesday concert series brought thousands to Innsbrook, and hundreds would just camp out at Mulligans, many taking in the concert from the comfort of the patio.
John Sweeney, along with the Hurley brothers, Mark and Matt, were experimental business owners. They tried off-the-wall things like “cook your own steak” night, where hot grills stood ready for the sports aficionado to meet tong to meet steak.
The investors ran with their game plan, opening a total of six locations. After the Innsbrook location came Mulligans in Mechanicsville, Sixth Street Market Place, Southside, the Fan and then Farmville.
MULLIGAN’S PLAYS THE FIELD, RUNS BUSINESS DOWNTOWN
Sixth Street Market Place being the failed city investment that it was, Mulligans bailed ship and in 1996 docked at its current Fan location, at Harvie and Main Streets. Of the six locations this spot is one of the two Mulligan’s that remain.
Some might remember that the bar Coyotes was formerly housed in that spot. Some might also remember that until 1985, the legal age for consuming libations was but 19, which meant a bar scene could thrive around Virginia Commonwealth University–at that time it was a commuter school.
Those few students who did live on campus were young enough to drink. Many a neighborhood businesses dried up when the drinking age changed, said Sweeney and by 1996 there really weren’t any bars in the area around Mulligans.
In fact, Main Street ran through the VCU area without yielding many options at all. The VCU area pretty much ended a few blocks east of Mulligan’s, the main anchors of the area were 7-11 and Piccola’s Pizzeria, at Harrison Street. One big block west of the bar was the former Border Cafe (now Bellytimber), but the streets were mostly vacant and dim.
PASTELS SATURATE THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN HOPES OF BRIGHTER TIMES
In the late 80s, extensive remodeling and fresh pastel paint shined up a lot of the properties Eck had purchased along the long, two-block stretch of Main Street buildings.
Eck’s first business, supplying electrical materials, was near the Gold’s Gym off Harvie Street. When city businesses began an exodus over the county lines, Eck chose instead to invest in the Richmond area.
It took awhile though, and the area still doesn’t have the same sort of miniature Shockoe Bottom appeal like the area farther up at Main and Robinson Streets.
Style Weekly and Richmond.com once had headquarters in the strip around Mulligan’s, along with a handful of other businesses. Still, it wasn’t quite the mixed-use space it has slowly become.
Sweeney made the decision to touch down at that location because he thought it had a lot potential, the building was open and the place was already built out for a bar, with a kitchen. “We liked taking places that didn’t make it and turning them around,” he said.
He thinks the Fan area is a lot safer now. “Individual businesses and people added lights and safety, but the city really could step it up,” said Sweeney.
Eck also helped convert much of the dilapidated, boarded-up homes along Cary, starting at Meadow and heading east. The area was replaced with new buildings, businesses and renovated apartments. Lights came up and in moved people.
Also fueling the progress machine was the VCU transition over the the past decade, from commuter school to college university.
To understand how pivotal Eck has been in transforming this downtown stretch, take a quick glance at the business community he enabled: Little Mexico, Gold’s Gym, Uptown Color, PharrOut, Rev It Up!, City Dogs, Capitalmac, and Uptown Gallery–and that is not the entire list.
“The city’s vision was good but citizens had the vision and resources–and the desire to keep the architecture,” said Sweeney. “It was smart urban planning with the mixed-use retail.”
Video: Changes along Main Street brings foot traffic, residents and business.
EASY TO OPEN A SPORTS BAR NOW, HARDER TO STAY OPEN
Another thing that has changed over the years: television.
Mulligan’s in the fan now boasts around 70 of those boxes, about 50 more televisions than the flagship store had when it opened. People have more access to games, through cable and streaming internet at home.
“It’s easier to become a sports bar now,” said Sweeney. “Now you have to do more than just show a game.”
It might be easier to open a sports bar, but it takes a certain finesse to handle all the obstacles. Sports are obviously the bread and butter of the business, and with sports comes fair-weathered fans.
“You will notice that once you get to the midweeks in NFL,” Tray Vanneman, who has been with Mulligans 14 years, said. “A lot of people’s team start dropping off and they stop coming in because they only want to come out when their team is winning.”
But Mulligan’s hasn’t fumbled. Instead, inside the cavernous 8,000 square feet space you will find all the necessities to bring out the crowds.
There are video games, darts, billiards, ping pong, a outside deck, a covered outdoor patio, and a main smoking room. Patrons have lots of things to do besides just catch the games: poker, karaoke, trivia and keeping up with the elaborate, daily rotating happy hour menu.
SWEENEY AS COACH, STEADY DRIVE FOR THE WIN
Sweeney moved to Richmond from Buffalo, NY in 1978 and started teaching at Freeman High School, in the Industrial Tech department. In the late 80s, he switched careers and went to work as a bartender at the Red River Rib company.
He thought he would get his MBA, but that never happened. In fact, he laughs at the thought now. “An MBA was unnecessary, you have to get out and work for someone else to learn the business.”
Perhaps Sweeney inherited a penchant for the restaurant business from his large Irish family. It’s clear he’s an extrovert and great conversationalist, as he sits comfortably chatting and answering questions for two hours. Topics delve in all directions; from city politics to best live concerts to current books and back to Richmond’s future.
As people tell it, that’s the same charisma he brought to the bar. Sweeney loved the daily interaction. “Of course it’s important to enjoy what you do, but you’ve definitely got to really enjoy the restaurant business.”
He attributes the success of Mulligan’s to “surrounding himself with good people.” He definitely built a team. Three employees have more than 12 years at the bar. Sweeney said the top manager has been there from the beginning and that the head bartender started as a bar back.
No one can say enough nice things about him as a person, or as his qualities as a dedicated, hands-on restaurant owner
“John will bend over backwards to take care of his people,” Vanneman said, and commented that Sweeney has seen more of his adult life then Vanneman’s own father. “You need help in your personal life, there’s John.”
“John is hands down the best boss I’ve ever had, period,” he added.
So one could imagine that the recent sale of Mulligans had the employees worried. Would the new owner employ Sweeney’s philosophies? Would their 10 plus year careers at Mulligan’s come to an end?
NEW COACH TAKES OVER THE PLAYBOOK
Like Sweeney, a fork in the career path steered Edward Dudley into the restaurant business.
Formerly employed with Verizon, until an unexpected layoff in 2009, Dudley bounced back from unemployment by investing in the franchise sports bar Wings, Pizza and Things, situated at Regency Square Mall.
He signed right before the Michigan-based Taubman stopped making its mortgage payments on the property and many big name stores withdrew from the once bustling mall.
One night Dudley, needing a business with more foot traffic, came across the online sale listing for Mulligan’s. Four months later he was the new owner.
NCAA March Madness saw Mulligan’s scoring major points. Sweeney and the bar appeared on ESPN when national attention turned to VCU’s shocking Final Four success. Lines were out the door seven hours before game time.
No one had seen anything like it, and “what it did for business was unbelievable,” said Sweeney. “It covered a lot of past sins.”
It was a good time to sell, and Sweeney was ready for a vacation, one of the first in 20 years. “The interest on the market was unbelievable,” Sweeney said.
Bandazian and Holden, a Richmond firm specializing in property management, commercial investment and business brokerage, negotiated the sale. In July, Dudley took over the court.
Vanneman said the crew’s initial fears and hesitations have disappeared. The transition has been smooth, and mostly unnoticeable by customers. The menu has been upgraded, and much-needed building repairs are underway. Otherwise, Dudley is hands-off and busy managing his other restaurant.
“I have taken a lot of things I learned here and implemented it there, and visa versa,” Dudley said.
Sweeney, already looking on the horizon for the next opportunity, said he really has no regrets. “In hind sight there are always some things you would do differently.”