Calhoun’s Restaurants Thrive Under Unique Sports Partnership

Calhoun's Restaurants Thrive Under Unique Sports PartnershipAlignment strategy pays off big for Knoxville restaurant group

Calhoun's Restaurants Thrive Under Unique Sports PartnershipCalhoun’s restaurants have been part of the Knoxville, Tenn. landscape for three decades, but a unique partnership cultivated with the University of Tennessee and its enthusiastic fan base has the restaurant and its signature barbeque showing up in unexpected places. As this month marks the beginning of college football season, Calhoun’s is positioned for another record-breaking sales year.

Situated along the banks of the Tennessee River, Knoxville is a vibrant southern town with a solid economy, a thriving arts and music scene and a panoramic view of the Smoky Mountains. It is also home to the University of Tennessee, and a few hundred thousand fans who eat, sleep and drink UT sports. Sports Illustrated magazine once wrote, “In some Southern towns, football is like a religion. In Knoxville, they say religion is something like football.”

The flagship Calhoun’s restaurant is “Calhoun’s On The River” in downtown Knoxville. It provides both indoor and outdoor riverside seating and is a favorite with locals and visitors alike. Birthdays, wedding proposals, anniversary celebrations and every conceivable special event take place daily at Calhoun’s. It’s where celebrities dine when they are in Knoxville and the destination for virtually everyone in East Tennessee who has visitors in from out of town. It is also in the shadow of both Neyland Stadium and Thompson-Boling Arena, the 102,000-seat football stadium and 21,00-seat basketball arena for the University of Tennessee.

When sporting events take place at the University of Tennessee, seats at Calhoun’s On The River are about as easy to come by as tickets to the Super Bowl. Bart Fricks, Chief Operating Officer for Calhoun’s, recognized this and not only wanted to capitalize on it, he wanted to formalize, package and grow it. Five years ago, Fricks developed a strategy that successfully solidified Calhoun’s relationship with the University of Tennessee fan-base and, ultimately, resulted in Calhoun’s having seven new physical locations inside East Tennessee’s most recognizable sports venues.

The strategy Fricks implemented had many moving parts, but one primary objective. The objective was to make Calhoun’s synonymous with University of Tennessee athletics and tap into the hundreds of thousands of fans who flock to Knoxville for sporting events. The tactical elements of the strategy included the following:

  • Host special events that correspond to specific athletic events
  • Become a business partner with the University of Tennessee (catering, on-call delivery service, etc.)
  • Host the local sports radio station’s weekly UT athletic show (“Vol Calls”)
  • Become primary sponsor of the most popular sports radio shows in the market
  • Launch an aggressive social media campaign (80,000 followers)
  • Host a massive event on National Signing Day (when high school athletes commit to colleges)
  • Purchased the “Rally Boards” advertising space in Thompson-Boling Arena for basketball games
  • Launch advertising campaign (television, radio, print) focused on Calhoun’s as part of the University of Tennessee “game-day experience”
  • Conduct ongoing game-day contests and promotions
  • Sponsor the “Knoxville Open Golf Tournament”

Over a six-year period, Fricks and his team at Calhoun’s successfully planned and implemented each of the tactical elements outlined above. While most restaurants would have viewed this program as wildly successful (revenues climbed 6-percent for Calhoun’s during this period while most restaurants in the area experienced a decline), Fricks wasn’t satisfied.

Calhoun's Restaurants Thrive Under Unique Sports PartnershipThe second phase of Fricks’ strategy (three years ago) for Calhoun’s was to physically locate his brand inside East Tennessee’s legendary sports venues. Over a two-year period, Calhoun’s opened the following locations:

  • Neyland Stadium – six locations
  • Thompson-Boling Arena – one Calhoun’s branded location (products available at multiple locations)
  • Lindsey Nelson Stadium – one location
  • Smokies Park/Smokies Stadium – three locations

At Smokies Stadium (where the Tennessee Smokies Minor League Baseball team plays), Calhoun’s took the partnership to an all-new level with the creation of another unique partnership. Beginning in 2014, Calhoun’s opened its own concession stand and its products were available at all stadium-operated concessions. The partnership not only brought Calhoun’s food to baseball fans, it also introduced Smoky Mountain Brewery (part of the same family of restaurants) to the stadium. A new “Calhoun’s At The Yard,” sit-down dining area was built for groups that serves both Calhoun’s and Smoky Mountain Brewery products, and the “Copper Cellar Clubhouse” opened in the upstairs suites which is wildly popular with fans.

“This is an example of what can be accomplished when you know your primary audience and develop a strategy to serve them and solidify your relationship with them,” Fricks said.

The new Calhoun’s locations inside stadiums and arenas not only increased the chain’s revenues dramatically, they put the brand front-and-center with their target audience. It was a hail-Mary touchdown, a grand-slam home run and a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer all at once for Calhoun’s.

Calhoun’s is part of the Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants. For nearly 40 years, the Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants have been known as “the taste of Tennessee.” In 2014, the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce awarded the Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants its prestigious Pinnacle Award for the positive impact the company and its 1,100 employees have on East Tennessee. The Copper Cellar Group operates 17 locations in Knoxville, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Maryville, Sevierville and Lenoir City and includes the Copper Cellar, Calhoun’s, Chesapeake’s, Cappuccino’s, Cherokee Grill Steakhouse and Smoky Mountain Brewery restaurants.