SBJ/June 19 - 25, 2006/This Weeks News

Cordish buys license for future NASCAR restaurants

The firm bought the Orlando (left) and
Myrtle Beach NASCAR Cafes and plans to recreate them.
Real-estate developing giant The Cordish Co. has purchased two NASCAR Cafe restaurants, in addition to the license for future projects, and will rebrand them under the name NASCAR Sports Grille.

Baltimore-based Cordish, which has licensed Hard Rock Cafe for entertainment and hotel projects and owns the license for Maker’s Mark, bought the NASCAR-themed restaurants in Orlando and Myrtle Beach, S.C., for an undisclosed amount from H&C Racing Inc., which formerly held the license for NASCAR Cafe. Cordish intends to build one NASCAR Sports Grille a year and at the same time devise a more contemporary look and feel to the 11-year-old race-themed concept.

“We want to far exceed anyone’s expectations of a themed restaurant or a sports restaurant,” said Reed Cordish, company vice president. “We’ve brought in a world-class designer and are creating a very hip concept that will appeal to the NASCAR fan base, but also expand well beyond that to people who are just interested in sports in general. We’re blowing past the classic model of the sports-oriented restaurant in terms of design, cuisine and content.”

NASCAR Cafes have experienced varying levels of success, based mostly on where they’ve been located, said Blake Davidson, managing director of NASCAR’s licensed products. The cafe in Sevierville, Tenn., near Pigeon Forge in the Smoky Mountains, abruptly closed on May 31, and the Nashville edition, which was the second cafe to open, closed its doors five years ago. The Orlando and Myrtle Beach locations still represent the opportunity for strong business, Davidson said.

Two other restaurants were not part of the Cordish deal. The Las Vegas property is owned by Sahara Hotel and Casino, while the cafe in Greensboro, N.C., which still is owned by H&C, will no longer be part of the NASCAR license.

“When you look at the cafe, it was born about the same time as the restaurant industry was exploding,” Davidson said. “But the concept hasn’t evolved much from what it started out as, so we saw this as a good opportunity to inject some life into it and take it in a new direction as well. The entire marketplace has evolved. We’ve got to keep up with what’s happening in the marketplace.”

Cordish’s first move will be to spend $5 million renovating the NASCAR Cafe in Orlando, which sits in Universal Studios CityWalk. The Bitton Design Group, which has several themed restaurants to its credit, including the Elephant Bar and Tahoe Joe’s, has been hired to create something of a high-end tailgating atmosphere, complete with a large open-flame grill and a more sophisticated menu than the typical wings and chicken tenders fare associated with most sports restaurants.

Guests will enter the NASCAR Sports Grille through a 30-foot-tall glass and steel replica of the Nextel Cup. Inside, Cordish plans an interactive video component to each table, which will allow guests to select segments on a favorite driver or event.

Cordish intends to keep the Orlando restaurant open through the renovations, with the project to be completed in time to debut before the Daytona 500 next February. Once the Orlando footprint is in place, Cordish will begin work on Myrtle Beach and future locations, as well as developing a smaller model that might target lower-volume areas.

“We’re just starting to look at future sites,” Reed Cordish said. “We want to be very selective, and we think we can be. There are certainly places of interest, like a Times Square or an Atlantic City, areas around pro sports stadiums. With our background, a strong overall project is the best home.”

Merging sports, entertainment and food is nothing new for Cordish, which will manage the NASCAR Sports Grilles through its operating arm, Entertainment Concepts Investors. Cordish has developed Ballpark Village in St. Louis next to the new Busch Stadium and Woodbine Live in Toronto next to the Woodbine Racetrack and Casino, while North Shore Live, an entertainment district near Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, is in the works.

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