Swinging Doors found key to success and didn’t turn back
Reserved seats at next Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI are selling for thousands of dollars each on eBay.
But why spend a fortune and schlep all the way to Indianapolis when you can enjoy the adrenalin rush of screaming fans, sloshing beer and crowded restrooms a short drive from home.
Best of all, seating is free. But you’d better hurry.
Local sports bars have been reserving game-day tables for weeks. One of the area’s oldest, the Swinging Doors at 1018 W. Francis Ave., expects to easily fill its 200 seats.
And Super Bowl Sunday isn’t even the busiest day of the year. New Year’s and the day after Thanksgiving typically battle for first and second.
Bob Materne opened the Swinging Doors more than three decades ago. Today his restaurant is recognized as one of the best sports bars in Spokane.
But like a late-blooming athlete, it took a while for the Swinging Doors to find its groove.
Materne recounted the early years and his secret for success during a recent interview:
S-R: Did you play a lot of sports as a kid?
Materne: I’ve always liked sports. I played some football, baseball. I went to Gonzaga University on a golf scholarship.
S-R: What was your first job?
Materne: My dad had a road construction company – Materne Brothers – so from the time I was 15 to when I was 32 I built highways.
S-R: How did the Swinging Doors come about?
Materne: My dad sold his company in 1980, and I had a wife, three daughters, no money and no job. I partnered with someone we thought knew a lot about the bar business. After one year I realized he wasn’t a very nice man, so my father bought him out and I later bought out my father.
S-R: What was here before Swinging Doors?
Materne: It started out in ’69 as the Gazebo Pizza Parlor. Then it was The Syndicate. My wife, Barb, and I renamed it.
S-R: Why did you choose the name?
Materne: We used to have the old, western-style doors at the front, but we’ve remodeled and expanded quite a bit since then.
S-R: Were you always a sports bar?
Materne: No, we were a pizza parlor for two years, and then we took out the pizza ovens and made it a full tavern. Then we tried a card room for a while, but that didn’t work, either. In ’95, we added cocktails and a full restaurant menu, and started allowing minors in.
S-R: What do you recall most about starting out?
Materne: We didn’t make any money the first five years. We were undercapitalized, like most business, and I was working 120 hours a week. We were ready to file bankruptcy.
S-R: What turned things around?
Materne: I met a guy who got us into pull-tabs (gambling), and then everything else started picking up. You get established, and people start hearing about you.
S-R: When did the televisions arrive?
Materne: We bought a 50-inch big screen in 1985. Then we kept putting more and more of them in.
S-R: Is that when you transitioned to a sports bar?
Materne: Yes, but we’ve never tried to categorize ourselves that way, because when you say “sports bar,” a lot of people think it’s all about TVs and drinks, and the food isn’t going to be that good. But food represents 53 percent of our business.
S-R: Who decides what’s on the TVs?
Materne: Pretty much the customers. On Sundays when there are 10 games, obviously we show all 10. If you have a large group in one area and they’re all Packers fans, you’ll have the Packers game on those TVs. But wherever you sit, you can usually see five or six games pretty well.
S-R: What if someone wants to watch a presidential debate?
Materne: We’ve done that for people. We’ve done some Oprah. In the mornings, a lot of guys watch Northwest News or CNN.
S-R: What’s your business philosophy?
Materne: Keep it family. We’ve never allowed female employees to wear short shorts and low-cut tops. We don’t do lingerie shows. It’s more like Cheers. Families can be here until 9:45 at night, and by that time I think kids should be home anyway.
S-R: What else?
Materne: We don’t let the furniture get ratty. If the carpet gets torn, we fix it. If light bulbs go out, we replace them. And the restrooms are kept very clean. I figure if someone sees things messy out here, they’ll wonder what the kitchen’s like.
S-R: What’s the key to success in this business?
Materne: Staff is the biggest thing. You can have the best TVs, the best food, the best everything. But if the staff can’t move that along to the customer, you don’t have anything.
S-R: What qualities do you look for in employees?
Materne: We don’t look for beauty queens and GQ guys. We want someone who’s going to be a good, honest, friendly employee.
S-R: What do you like most about the business?
Materne: The customers. When they’re here, they’re usually having fun, and I love to be around people having a good time.
S-R: What do you like least?
Materne: Again, the customers. You can get some bad ones. You do everything to make them happy, and sometimes you still can’t please them.
S-R: How noisy does it get in here?
Materne: If GU makes a basket to win a game, it’s ballistic. But normally it’s not bad – a mellow roar.
S-R: Which teams are most popular?
Materne: Gonzaga basketball and Wazzu football are our biggest draws.
S-R: Has the recession hurt business?
Materne: Yes, we’re down. I think everybody is. If they say they aren’t, they’re either not telling the truth or they’re not doing it legally. But we haven’t laid anybody off. We’ve just tried to run a tighter ship.
S-R: What’s the outlook for your business?
Materne: Hopeful. I’ve been here almost 31 years, and now my daughter Lisa (Ruggles) is the manager. Someday this will be her business, and she has a daughter and a son. Who knows? This might be something that goes on for 60 or 70 years.
S-R: You famously offer free steak dinners on customers’ birthdays. How many of those do you give away each year?
Materne: Between 7,000 or 8,000. One woman brought in her daughter, who was celebrating her 1st birthday. The daughter got a free steak, but the mother ate it.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.