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Restaurants, bars toast NCAA dollars
Many say business exceeded expectations as hoops fans splurged

They came. They saw. They spent.

Though local bars and restaurants haven't tallied all their receipts just yet, most are confident in saying the NCAA Tournament men's basketball games over the weekend paid off big.

"It was great. Probably one of our busiest weeks ever," said Mike Shatzel, owner of Cole's Restaurant on Elmwood Avenue.

The Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated the tournament, held in HSBC Arena, would pull in 14,000 out-of-towners who would spend roughly $5 million here on food, drink, hotels and transportation.

Roughly 8,000 of them hit Pearl Street Grill and Brewery on Friday alone.

"I have never seen so many people headed for this place all at once," said Bill Casale, the restaurant's general manager. "I actually got nervous, . . . but we got everybody in."

Several buffets allowed the throngs to dine quickly. With four floors and a deli in the basement, Pearl Street has a capacity of roughly 4,000. During the break between NCAA doubleheaders Friday, the restaurant filled each of its dining rooms plus its tented parking lot and several outdoor patios.

"We probably could have crammed a few more in, but we were pretty full," said Casale.

W.J. Morrissey Irish Pub, located on Mississippi Street near the arena, quickly filled to its capacity of about 150 people and served between 500 and 700 people Friday. It cut its usual menu in half -- down to about 14 items -- in order to serve folks more quickly, and it opened early Sunday to serve breakfast.

The bar and restaurant ordered three to four times what it would for the average Sabres game and went through "quite a bit" of that order. With three Sabres home games coming up, any leftover beer is sure to be absorbed.

"Things were very good, very busy," said Patrick Wade, W.J. Morrissey's general manager. "We're looking forward to next time."

Local beverage distributors Certo Bros. and Try-It changed their delivery schedules to accommodate the influx of patrons, delivering to local bars Saturday -- a day they normally wouldn't.

Coca-Cola Field took in numerous revelers Friday.

"It was a ghost town, and then the game ended," said Robert Free, director of food service for the Buffalo Bisons. "I stood under the balcony outside, and you could see everyone coming. It was a sea of people. It was pretty cool."

Some dined in Pettibones Grille's quick-service buffets, while others sat in the stands eating and drinking from vendor carts set up on the concourse. Pettibones did four times its normal business, and proceeds from the concourse -- which normally doesn't open until April -- put concessions ahead of the game.

"It's a phenomenal boost this time of year to have that one-time hit," said Free. "You know what you're planning for, you know to have more staff, more food. You're not taking a risk because you know you're going to make it that day."

Thirsty Buffalo on Elmwood Avenue became a home base for West Virginia fans. One of the bar's owners, Bill Shaflucas, attended West Virginia University and worked with the school's alumni association to arrange meet-and-greets there and at his other location, Average Joe's in Amherst.

"It actually exceeded our expectations," said Gregory Andreozzi, working owner at Thirsty Buffalo. "It was a nice little party."

Though the CVB and NFTA had arranged shuttle buses to carry revelers from the arena to local restaurants during Friday's doubleheader intermission, Thirsty Buffalo commissioned two buses of its own to shuttle patrons among the team's hotel, the restaurant and the arena.

The out-of-town vibe translated into more sales of Budweiser, Miller and Coors rather than the Labatt products Western New Yorkers favor. But at each restaurant, chicken wings were obviously a hot ticket.

Thirsty Buffalo ramped up its staff, ordering and hours of operation, reporting a 25 percent to 30 percent increase in business above its average busy nights.

"Everybody made out," said Andreozzi. "We had 50 percent more staff on. They worked hard, but they were paid well this weekend."

The same went for the folks at Cole's restaurant on Elmwood Avenue.

"Just looking at my staff this morning they look really tired, really beat up," said Shatzel. "We went from St. Patrick's Day, which is usually our busiest night of the year, and then went straight into the tournament. You know it's been a good month when they look like that."

Though Friday was the busiest day for most downtown restaurants, Saturday was the biggest winner for Cole's as basketball fans, with no tournament game scheduled, hit the town. While there was lots of Syracuse orange in the crowd at most restaurants, each out-of-town team seemed to be represented, proprietors said.

Though Cole's is typically very busy on Saturday nights, the tournament seems to have ratcheted business up by about 20 percent. The restaurant went through lots of beer and lots of chicken wings.

"It's nice to see people coming into the city rather than leaving it," Shatzel said.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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