Justin's Cafe has been a favorite Nats Park hangout for the past five years, but last December, owner Justin Ross opened up a second sports bar in the area. The Big Stick has a bigger footprint, plenty of sausages and brats, and a more worldly beer selection than its predecessor.
Running a business in the baseball-centric neighborhood can be challenging — and Ross has managed to successfully juggle two. Eater asked him to share the secret to staying busy when the fans aren't around.
This is your second restaurant in the Capitol Riverfront. Were things easier starting out this time around?
Not necessarily. I think they were a little more difficult just because it is bigger and I had to run Justin's while doing The Big Stick. So certain thing...buildout, getting staff going, and stuff like that, that stuff was easy...But in terms of just having so much going on, that was a little harder.
Q: Overall, how did the first year go?
It went well, really. We had a great baseball season. We opened up to the Winter Classic, so that was just amazing, and then we learned a lot about the neighborhood. The off-season was a little bit slow, but what we've been trying to do is really kind of balance things out, and not just have big days and some slow days.
Q: I'm sure it's challenging having two similar concepts in the same neighborhood. Has The Big Stick affected Justin's Cafe's business at all? Do they end up competing with each other for customers?
I think that the only day it's affected us a little bit is on Sundays with NFL football, because Justin's does not have the Sunday ticket, and The Big Stick does. But otherwise, I think we kind of play off each other.
How has The Big Stick distinguished itself from Justin's Cafe and from the other restaurants in the area?
It has more beers on tap than Justin's Cafe. It's just a lot bigger. Justin's Café is a neighborhood establishment, and that place has been there since the beginning, since April 2010. So The Big Stick is...more of a traditional sports bar than Justin's Café, there's a ton more space to be used...Much more patio space.
More of the European beers on tap. One of the things about this neighborhood, it's become very beer-centric, which is awesome, and a lot of places are doing a little more hoppy beers. We're doing a little more European beers, and Pilsners, and lagers, and things like that. Justin's only carries domestic beers, and so The Big Stick is different in that way.
And just the location is different. Justin's is kind of insulated by apartment buildings and condo buildings and The Big Stick is out there. It's right next to the metro, so you just automatically get a little bit of a different crowd because of that.
Why did you choose to focus on beer and brats?
We originally were just kind of just focusing on the brats and the sausages, and I think we realized that we needed to add some more stuff to the menu, so we've added a lot more to the menu to really round it out. But I think the simple concept of it was kind of just [that] beers, brats, and baseball make a lot of sense to all of us.
What has changed over the past 12 months?
We started ordering the UFC fights, so we get good crowds for those...We have a new chef [Jose Gonzalez] who's done a really great job...106.7 or CBS Radio has moved in, and that's definitely affected our lunch business, having all the offices around here...
The cool thing about the neighborhood is many things have changed. There are still so many lots around there that are open, and there's still so much to come. Growing with the neighborhood is one of my favorite parts about the whole thing.
What are the customer favorites on the menu?
The sausage and cheese board has been really popular because it's got three different brats and sausages and different kinds of cheeses, which we rotate. We do cheese curds, which you don't see a lot of places have, cheese curds from Wisconsin that are really, really good...
In terms of sandwiches, the Turkey Jack. And then Jose, our chef, is Cuban, and I love Cubano sandwiches, and he makes an amazing Cubano sandwich. It's probably our highest selling sandwich.
What steps, beyond the menu, have you taken to specifically cater to sports fans?
We do a special for Caps games, a $12 Bud Light pitcher special. We try to promote Redskins' games. We partner with Bud Light and we get a party bus to the Redskins' stadium, and we're going to do that again with the playoff game, which is a home playoff game somehow. We always try to show different sports on TV or do specials for March Madness or anything like that.
Q: What's the most challenging part about having two restaurants near Nationals Park? How do you keep business going during off-season?
It's great on game days, but where we are now, the Fairgrounds is still kind of an empty lot...It's weird because I think in a year or two, we're going to be in the best location you could have, right at Half and M, but immediately around us is still undeveloped...It can kind of feel like you're a little isolated on non-game days, and so that's been a little bit tough.
Q: Have you taken any steps to remedy that? How do you balance out business?
We try and go and contact office managers and try and organize happy hours for the local offices...And do anything we can to promote the place and get people in the door. That can be a little bit tricky. We try and book parties, we try and have live music on Wednesdays.
Q: What is on the horizon for The Big Stick in the coming year?
I think a really good baseball season is coming. I think the team is going to do really well...I think being established this season is what excites me and excites all of us about The Big Stick and having baseball season. We've had a full year to kind of promote, get the word out, and everybody knows that we're here.
Q: Any major changes with the menu or the space itself?
We'll change the menu a little bit in the spring and summer when it warms up, we'll do a little bit lighter, more seasonal stuff. Maybe a couple more brats, but generally a little more lighter food in the summer.