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Blue Crew Sports Grill beating the odds

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Randy Collins learned quickly that being a huge Indianapolis Colts fan doesn't help much when you're trying to line up financing for a restaurant.

Despite his enthusiasm for the Horseshoe, Collins' idea for a Colts-themed eatery--a concept never before tried in this market--almost got sacked before its first pass attempt.

Bankers balked at the proposition of lending Collins' group money for the venture, and its zoning approval and liquor license were delayed until the establishment's founders could prove it would be more than another late-night hangout.

"Restaurants have the highest mortality rate among any business," said Steve Delaney, a partner and restaurant specialist at The Linder Co., a Carmel-based real estate firm. "The restaurant business is extremely competitive and more complicated than most people might think."

Being a Colts fan doesn't mean you can overcome those obstacles, but Collins and his business partners--Dan Dilbeck and Everett Myers--aren't ordinary fans.

Collins, Dilbeck and Myers are three pillars on which one of the National Football League's biggest fan clubs has been built, and they're the owners of Blue Crew Sports Grill, which opened in October.

While there are certainly numerous sports-themed and even a few team-themed restaurants across the United States, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello isn't aware of another started by members of a team fan club.

"It's certainly not something you see every day," Aiello said. "It's an intriguing venture."

As one might expect, the 4,000-square-foot restaurant, which operates from leased space at 7035 E. 96th St., is outfitted floor to ceiling with Colts memorabilia, big-screen televisions and the biggest horseshoe-shaped bar this side of the Mississippi.

Though the partners are still tinkering with everything from menu to marketing, Collins said the restaurant is well on its way to its goal of grossing an average of $1,200 a day in its first year. Buoyed by early customer response, the three founders are even considering opening another Colts-themed restaurant, possibly downtown.

Questions persist about the restaurant's ability to draw a crowd during the off-season, but Collins said a schedule of special events surrounding the NFL Combine hosted in Indianapolis in February, the draft in April, and training camp celebration in July will keep crowds coming through the door. Other non-Colts-related events are also in the works.

Delaney thinks local ownership and a connection with the team will give Blue Crew Sports Grill an edge as it contends with a formidable lineup of corporate-owned competitors.

The restaurant--though operated separately from the not-for-profit Blue Crew fan club--has its hoof prints laid firmly in the tracks of one of the NFL's most successful fan clubs.

After Blue Crew's predecessor, The Thundering Herd, went extinct about a decade ago, Collins, 49, and a small band of dedicated fans helped launch the new club in late 1998. Now, the Blue Crew has well over 1,100 members, a low-six-figure annual budget, numerous annual events and corporate sponsors, and supports charitable causes.

Its biggest events, of course, are Colts games themselves. On home-game days, the Blue Crew leases a 540-space parking lot at South and Pennsylvania streets for tailgating and other special events. Each spot is leased to members for $150 annually. Several spots are reserved for the club's Colts-themed firetruck, which the club uses as a promotional tool.

To supplement its budget, the Blue Crew sells clothing and other Colts memorabilia--purchased from licensed wholesalers--and produces and sells its own posters and calendars. Annual dues--$30 for individuals and $50 for families--is another important revenue stream for the Crew, as is support from sponsors such as local disc jockey agency DJs Direct, local Internet service provider Iquest, and national ticket reseller StubHub.

Collins, president of the club, said the money is poured right back into the club or one of its charitable causes, including Noblesville's Janus Development Services, an organization that works with people with developmental disabilities.

A club run like a business

Tom Zupancic, Colts senior vice president of sales and marketing, is impressed by the operation.

"The key to their success is superior organization," Zupancic said.

The Blue Crew's central theme is having fun, but it's run like a business. It's that business-minded mentality fostered by Collins, Dilbeck and Myers that will also help the Sports Grill succeed, Zupancic said.

The fan club is not sanctioned or licensed by the Colts, but does share a cozy relationship with the NFL franchise. When the team needs a boisterous crowd or volunteers for a promotional or charitable activity, it knows it can turn to the fan club and its 5,000-strong mailing list.

In return, the Blue Crew can use the Colts' logos at no charge, and the team occasionally donates autographed items to the group. The new restaurant has benefited from some of those same perks.

The Blue Crew and its firetruck are well-enough known to have recently been featured in a story in Sports Illustrated.

But when Collins, Dilbeck and Myers decided to take their passion for the Colts to a new level by opening a restaurant, they raised some eyebrows.

Collins had seen the burgeoning business the Blue Crew brought to Ram Restaurant & Brewery, which had been a fan-club sponsor, and decided that with the fan club as a support base, he could launch the city's first team-themed restaurant.

But with a 75-percent five-year failure rate among startup restaurants, convincing banks to lend money wasn't easy.

Startup costs were projected near $400,000, but the trio's background in construction, manufacturing and utilities allowed them to do much of the set-up work themselves. The initial cash outlay was reduced to $240,000 through in-kind donations and elbow grease, said Collins, who is a veteran construction manager. The rest was covered through a loan from Key Bank.

Getting a site approved was another obstacle. Collins and his partners lined up a space that formerly housed a Vietnamese restaurant along bustling 96th Street, but convincing local officials to issue a liquor license was another challenge.

The Sports Grill's founders instituted a smoke-free policy that helped persuade local officials the establishment wasn't merely another bar. They also reserved a portion of seating for under-21 diners.

"We wanted people to know this was going to be a nice place for everyone," Collins said. "Ninety percent of our patrons have said they like it smoke-free. It shows we're promoting a healthy environment."

Bringing in the pros

Though the owners are hands-on managers, Collins said seasoned restaurant professionals were hired to run the operation.

Collins runs a small construction company, Collins Drywall and Acoustical Ceiling; Myers works for Quality Feeders Inc., a Greenfield area manufacturer of automated assembly equipment; and Dilbeck has been a manager with Duke Energy for nearly three decades. Still, the trio didn't fool themselves into thinking their work experience would enable them to successfully run a restaurant by themselves.

"I've seen so many people that have been very successful in other businesses, fail in the restaurant business," said Delaney, the Linder retail broker. "Hiring the right staff will be critical. What they've done is a smart move."

Sports Grill founders have kept their day jobs, but Collins can see the restaurant one day becoming his full-time gig.

"It has become extremely time-consuming," Collins said. "But I've loved doing this. We just want to make a little money, and have a lot of fun."

Though the fan club provides a solid customer base, with the restaurant filling its 149-seat capacity early on game days, Collins has worked hard to dispel several misconceptions.

"Some people think you have to be a Blue Crew member to get in," Collins said. "Some don't realize we're a full-service restaurant open seven days a week."

Sports Grill owners are looking to expand their reputation by booking more live music for the weekends and planning parties surrounding such events as Indiana University and Indiana Pacers basketball games and NASCAR races.

The biggest party, however, will be reserved for the Colts' next trip to the Super Bowl.

"We didn't write that into our business plan," Collins said, "but no doubt, that would give us a big boost."

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