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A newly formed hospitality group with two D.C. projects in the works is betting sports gambling will help draw people back to bars and restaurants once it’s safe to high five strangers again. Sports betting became legal in D.C. in May 2019, and the District’s first sports book opened at the Capital One Arena last year. A betting app run through the DC Lottery has gotten mixed reviews. Now smaller retail enterprises are getting into the game.
“We’re all interested in proving we’re right about something,” says Jonas Singer, who co-founded Union Kitchen and now makes up one third of the team at ExPat Hospitality. He thinks studying data and crunching numbers is part of pop culture and believes Washingtonians will be eager to bet on everything from the length of the National Anthem to who returns the first kick. “It doesn’t have to be sleazy,” he insists.
Singer is joined by Chef Tim Ma of downtown restaurants American Son and Lucky Danger and Ben Sislen of Logan Circle watering holes Kingfisher and The Crown & The Crow. Sislen also served as legal counsel to the Tin Shop bar group. The trio have spent the past two years familiarizing themselves with the ins and outs of retail sports wagering.
They think of betting as an experience-creating amenity at the sports bars they’re planning to launch in Adams Morgan and Foggy Bottom, rather than the main draw. That’s why they’re shooting for the seamless integration of technology. Patrons will be more likely to place bets on their phones or on tablets at their tables instead of visiting kiosks or windows, though the group hasn’t ruled anything out. Bars can use geofencing to dictate where customers can place bets on premises.
“That’s far more interesting to us and has less of an impact on our sort of aesthetic,” Sislen says, reiterating that food and beverage will be the focus. Sislen describes sprawling, Las Vegas-style sports books as somewhat intimidating places with terrible carpeting. That doesn’t jibe with the group’s mission of being inclusive and appealing to a broad audience. “Education is part of our job. So is having an interface that’s intuitive.”
“The experience is going to be very much the same thing as walking into Lauriol Plaza,” Singer adds. “You see people sitting around having fun—an eclectic range of people across the age spectrum. They’re going to be looking at their phones, but they might be placing a bet.”
He hopes ExPat Hospitality spaces will appeal to everyone. But even if newbie and veteran gamblers come to pick the spread with a side of truffle fries, sports betting isn’t a cash cow. “When you hear gambling you think, ‘It’s raining money,’” Singer says. “It helps, it doesn’t hurt. But it’s not that much money. It’s not a huge bump to our top or bottom line. Most of the money goes to the city and operators of gambling.”
There’s also the challenge of addressing neighbors’ concerns. Not everyone wants legal gambling paired with alcohol in their backyard. Capitol Hill residents are fighting a Virginia businessman’s plan to put a sports book, Handle 19, inside the former Stanton & Greene space on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
Asked about the resistance Handle 19 is facing, Sislen says, “We are great neighbors. We will continue to work hand in hand with neighborhood commissions to make sure that we operate restaurants that our neighbors are proud of. We have an excellent track record.”
Ma believes differentiating themselves from others by offering sports gambling is worth the effort. “What drew me to this project other than Jonas and Ben is the big lesson from the pandemic,” he says. “A single-threaded concept with only one draw is the first to collapse.” New revenue streams, such as ghost kitchens or gourmet pantries, have been critical to survival.
He’s looking forward to working on the menus for both bars, which they hope will open before the next NFL season kicks off. (Gambling licenses may take longer than that to acquire.) “The beauty about sports bar food is it’s all-encompassing comfort food,” Ma says. Each ExPat Hospitality business will have its own personality and menu. One could focus on American Chinese food or barbecue.
Those cuisines are crowd-pleasing sure bets. But what about the group’s wager that fans will rush back to sports bars after a year of comfortably watching games on their couches with beers that haven’t been marked up and without that too-tall fan obstructing the view?
“That trend about people staying home?” Sislen asks. “I believe that when everyone is vaccinated, everyone is going to have that itch to watch sports with friends—high five, hug a stranger, cheer your team on. It wasn’t that long ago that the Nationals took the World Series. Being at Nanny O’Brien’s when Howie [Kendrick] hit the ball off the post, beer was flying. We’re optimistic. We see a tremendous opportunity to create amazing experiences in bars and restaurants and sports gambling is the entrance to that.”