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2017 NCAA championship game viewing party at Top of the Hill, courtesy of Top of the Hill

March Madness is upon us, and for restaurant and bar owners it can be a big win for profits. But winning at “the Big Dance” requires you to have strong March Madness restaurant promotions to get crowds in the door and the right menu in place to keep them happy.

March is All About the Beer

March is historically a major month for beer sales. In fact, the highest beer sales of the entire year happened on March 15, thanks to a perfect storm of March Madness and St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

St. Patrick’s Day is historically the top holiday for beer, with average sales 19 percent higher than on New Year’s Day, and 22 percent higher than Valentine’s Day. This year, St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday, so restaurants and bars can expect the festivities to start even earlier in the day.

College basketball fans also keep beer sales high during March Madness. 

In the Northeast, the strongest beer sales of the year took place between March 14 and 20, and averaged 10 percent higher than the remainder of the year, right in the thick of March Madness game viewing. This region takes its beer drinking so seriously, in fact, that throughout March, restaurants across the U.S. saw a steady increase of nearly four percent in food consumption everywhere except the Northeast, where restaurant guests drank more beer, but ordered less food.

Midwestern diners drive suds sales during this time, consistently spending more on beer than restaurant guests in other regions, but less than anyone else on food. They may spend more than their Midwestern counterparts, but diners in the Northeast also focus more on pints than apps during this timeframe, spending more on booze while seeing a decrease in food sales.  

Elsewhere in the U.S., restaurants saw a steady increase of nearly 4 percent in food consumption in all regions throughout March 2017. 

March Madness beer infographic

March Menu Strategies

Scott Maitland’s restaurant and brewery Top of the Hill sits just 10 yards from the University of North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill, making it the optimal time for March Madness restaurant promotions. Maitland stipulated that those hoops fans lucky – and determined – enough to secure a coveted spot to watch the game at his bar must spend at least $20. 

That usually means a lot of beer. On average, Top of the Hill does anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 in beer sales a day. But when big games tied to March Madness come along, sales skyrocket. During last year’s UNC-Duke regular season finale, Maitland saw about $17,000 in beer sales. And for the Tar Heels’ Final Four game against Oregon, the restaurant netted about $16,400 in sales.

In addition to beer sales, you can try coming up with March Madness food specials to encourage people to order a meal while they’re taking in a game.

Start planning your March Madness menu with help from our Smart Menu Builder.

March Madness Bar Promotions (Even if your team isn’t in the tournament)

Unlike Top of the Hill, the restaurants and bars located farther away from major college basketball programs take advantage of the tournament by pairing cheap grub with even cheaper draft and bottled beers. Here are a few examples:

  • 1 cent Beer Pitchers: In Scottsdale, Arizona, you can get one pitcher of beer for a penny at Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row if you buy three sliders ($4 each).
  • Team-specific beers: In Chapel Hill, Maitland only offers the beers he brews at his 20,000-square-foot restaurant – about 1,800 barrels a year – including two that pay homage to UNC basketball, the Assist IPA and the Rams Head IPA.
  • $3 Domestics & 60 cent Wings: At The Beginning II, a sports bar in Syracuse, New York, known for its wings, patrons can get a bottle of Miller Lite or Coors Light for $3 during tournament games. The Beginning II also has 60-cent wings during games, Krajacic said, which helps sell more beer. “They can have that second or third beer because they’re eating a dozen wings,” he says, proving that it’s game time for restaurants’ kitchen and bar staff as well.
  • Unique Commercials: Last year, Buffalo Wild Wings, which bills itself as “the official hangout” for March Madness games, rolled out an entire ad campaign for the tournament, including a commercial that aired whenever a game went into overtime. At the Buffalo Wild Wings in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, general manager Michael Gardner has worked through the last five tournaments. Gardner expects the restaurant, which has 50 beers on tap, to see an overall jump in business during the month.
2017 NCAA championship game viewing party at Top of the Hill, courtesy of Top of the Hill
2017 NCAA championship game viewing party at Top of the Hill, courtesy of Top of the Hill

March Madness Bar Promotions

Unlike Top of the Hill, the restaurants and bars located farther away from major college basketball programs take advantage of the tournament by pairing March Madness food specials with even cheaper draft and bottled beers. Here are a few examples:

  • 1 cent Beer Pitchers: In Scottsdale, Arizona, you can get one pitcher of beer for a penny at Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row if you buy three sliders ($4 each).
  • Team-specific beers: In Chapel Hill, Maitland only offers the beers he brews at his 20,000-square-foot restaurant – about 1,800 barrels a year – including two that pay homage to UNC basketball, the Assist IPA and the Rams Head IPA.
  • $3 Domestics & 60 cent Wings: At The Beginning II, a sports bar in Syracuse, New York, known for its wings, patrons can get a bottle of Miller Lite or Coors Light for $3 during tournament games. The Beginning II also has 60-cent wings during games, Krajacic said, which helps sell more beer. “They can have that second or third beer because they’re eating a dozen wings,” he says, proving that it’s game time for restaurants’ kitchen and bar staff as well.

What can you do? If you’ve got a full menu that isn’t getting much attention during the big games, conjure up some interesting beer and food pairing suggestions to make upselling a slam dunk.

Get Crafty with Craft Beer

Craft beer does well during March Madness, according to Bart Watson, an economist for the Brewers Association. In 2017, overall craft sales, including on-premise and off-premise, jumped from $14.2 million in February to $17.1 million in March, Watson says.

“March Madness is built into American culture, and it’s an out-of-house event: You want to be at a place that has four TVs,” Watson said. “The Super Bowl is a big beer-driver, but a lot of it is in-house. March Madness strikes me as a little different; it’s more of a communal event.”

March Madness, from a College Bar Owner’s Perspective

Alex Amra and his two brothers, Brian and Rommie, own three Tobacco Road Sports Cafe locations, including in Durham and Chapel Hill. The cafes draw their name from the nickname for the powerhouse basketball region in the North Carolina Piedmont, historically led by the “big four” teams of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, Duke University and Wake Forest University.

Few regions can rival the Triangle, which is home to UNC in Chapel Hill, NC State in Raleigh and Duke in Durham, only about 30 miles separate the three schools. These campuses hold many championship trophies and rabid basketball fans. And for the sports bars, it can be one of the biggest draws of the steady crowds they’ll get all year.

March Madness delivers a unique opportunity for sports bars. Rather than driving in crowds for a single prime-time game, it brings in a steady spike to business during weekdays. When it comes to March Madness, Amra says, the Triangle delivers fans for teams all over the country.

“The Triangle is such a diverse place; out of the 64 teams, you’re surprised if less than half of them are represented in your restaurant,” Amra says.

Try Upserve’s March Madness Menu Bracket

It’s not only bars and beer joints that score extra points during March Madness. Restaurants that show a little ingenuity can get in on the action, too.

You know your menu, including which items are most popular during crowd-pleasing sports events. You also know how to pair the right drinks to make the most profit. But do you know them so well you could predict the winner in your own head-to-head March Madness Menu Bracket?

Our simple restaurant bracket download makes it easy for your to pin two sections of your menu against each other: Beer vs Apps

  1. Download and print out our template
  2. Fill in the first round with the items you’d like to see go head to head from your menu and decide on clever prizes and incentives to offer along the way (see below for our ideas)
  3. Make copies to hand out to your customers and have them make their picks for their favorite menu items, fill in their contact details and submit to be entered to win
  4. Sit back and watch the trends emerge tracking the winners of each round week by week as the NCAA tournament progresses

Beyond brackets, see what other March Madness contest ideas you can come up with. Maybe it’s having customers use a special hashtag along with a photo of how they are celebrating the game at your establishment (the one with the most likes wins!). Then you can come up with fun March Madness prize ideas that invites patrons back, such as a coupon for a free appetizer or dessert with the purchase of an entrée.

If you’re an Upserve customer, you already know what the most popular (and highest retaining) menu items are at your bar or restaurant, but for the rest of you, this bracket is a great opportunity to dig deeper into customer preferences and menu performance. It’s also a great way to build customer loyalty and capture more customer contact info in order to be entered to win the grand prize.

80% of a restaurant’s food sales come from only 16% of menu items. How do you know which ones? The perfect menu is just a click away with Upserve's Menu Builder.

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Matt Tota is a freelance journalist from Boston, Mass., who writes about beer. He loves New England IPAs, maple stouts and tropical sours.