COVID-19 and the financial impact on businesses closely associated with college football

Smoky's Club in Wisconsin is hardly the only restaurant closely associated with college football that has far too many empty seats. Schmock family

With only a small percentage of fans returning to college football games across the country, the financial impact is not only affecting the universities directly, but the businesses closely tied to these schools.

The coronavirus has kept more and more people out of communities. As a result, smaller operations that once thrived during the heart of the season are suffering.

Colleges still are struggling to hone their COVID-19 protocols, and the packs of fans who are so eager to don their school colors and head out to bars, restaurants and other venues are stuck inside the confines of their own walls.

Below is a small sampling of some businesses closely associated with big-time college football towns that have felt the financial effects.

Smoky's Club, Madison, Wisconsin

Whether Wisconsin was in a blowout or a thriller, the Schmock men would leave their prime seats at Camp Randall Stadium with about two minutes to play. They shuffled up the aisle and raced to their car, parked in a customer's yard three blocks from the stadium.

Then, they drove the mile or so back to Smoky's Club, the steakhouse their family has owned since 1953.

"We'd start cranking it up," said Tom Schmock, who would attend Badgers games with his father, Leonard, and older brother, Larry. "About five minutes later, endless crowds showed up. It went three or four deep at the bar. Those were our busiest days. Those were nuts back then."

Founded by Leonard Schmock and his wife, Janet, Smoky's is located minutes from Camp Randall on University Avenue. Occupying a gray brick building with a green-and-orange neon sign above, Smoky's became a postgame hub for Wisconsin football fans. The supper club boomed in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, but remains a popular spot on Wisconsin football weekends.

Smoky's and the family's nearby bar, Blue Moon Bar & Grill, are among the many businesses in Madison, Wisconsin, impacted by the Big Ten's decision to postpone the fall football season, only to reinstate a season while prohibiting fans from attending. Tom's nephew Matt, who operates Smoky's, said the steakhouse would typically bring in $12,000-$13,000 in sales on a normal Wisconsin football Saturday.

"We're lucky now if we hit anywhere from three to four grand," Matt Schmock said. "With it only being on TV, people are probably going to stay home and then they're not going to go out for dinner. I'm ecstatic that the season's going to happen. Badger football has been our life forever, so at least I can watch, but it's not going to do anything for us."

When COVID-19 hit in March, Smoky's went carryout only, then limited capacity through the summer and early fall.

"At first, I thought it was nothing, we'd be back to normal soon, and now it's like, 'Oh boy,'" said Matt, who, along with his brother, Tim, contracted and recovered from COVID-19. "And then when the Big Ten decided not to play, it was, 'Oh no, this is not good.' The waitstaff, they depend on tips. What are they going to do? The family, we're OK for now. We don't have a lease, we own the building. But I feel bad for all the places who have a $10,000 lease a month."

Smoky's history with Wisconsin football stretches back to before it occupied the current space. Before Smoky's, there was Justo's Club, operated by Jennie Justo, Madison's "Queen of the Bootleggers" during Prohibition, and her husband, Art Bramhall, a former professional athlete who became Wisconsin's lead football broadcaster. Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, the Wisconsin star halfback and future Pro Football Hall of Famer, worked at Justo's in the 1940s.

After Smoky's moved into the Justo's property in 1969, Hirsch, just hired as Wisconsin's athletic director, became "a fixture on Saturday nights," Tom Schmock said.

"That was the spot to go after UW football games," Matt Schmock said. "We had football players with their families. I'd be busing tables and Ron Dayne would be over here and Lee Evans and Jim Leonhard."

Former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight would dine at Smoky's with his wife and coaching staff every time the Hoosiers visited town. Former Purdue basketball coach Gene Keady would bring in the whole squad. Wisconsin athletic director and former football coach Barry Alvarez would stop in, and although he later invested in a local Ruth's Chris franchise, he recently had a fish fry at the Smoky's bar with his wife.

The Schmocks still have 14 season tickets to Wisconsin football, occupying areas on both sides of Camp Randall.

"We'll keep that going as long as we can," Tom Schmock said.

Matt Schmock said the adjusted football season will most impact bars and other businesses along Regent Street, just south of Camp Randall. He estimates Wisconsin's seven home games account for 80% of their business.

But no Saturday crowds are impacting many Madison establishments.

"We're doing just a small fraction of the business we used to do," Tom Schmock said. "It's just a bad situation. Restaurants and bars, we're really getting kicked." -- Adam Rittenberg

Baker's Candies, Nebraska

On a typical fall Saturday when the Nebraska Cornhuskers play at home, cars waving red flags and banners would be backed up in front of the Baker family candy factory along Highway 6 leading into Lincoln.

It is a route with more grain elevators than gas stations. A scenic alternative to the 70,000-car parking lot that can be Interstate 80 from Omaha. And for the Baker family, it meant more than 3,000 customers stocking up on Baker's signature gourmet chocolates each weekend the Huskers were in town.

Without Huskers football, sales during those normally busy periods have been down by 80%, said general manager Todd Baker.

"Our busiest time of the week starts three hours before game time and runs right up to just about kickoff and then immediately following the game for the next three hours," Baker said, adding the company also counted on walk-in exposure for future online sales.

In addition, sales of officially licensed Huskers candies -- red, black and silver wrapped chocolates -- distributed at grocery stores and gift shops, were down 90%. Six family-owned retailers in Lincoln that carried Baker's Candies closed for good during the pandemic, Baker said.

"In this state, you're born and raised to know that there are three things you can count on: death, taxes and Husker football," he said. "Without Husker football, there's no doubt about it. The foundations of business have been rattled."

Baker's Candies is "Nebraska famous," meaning it is up there with other beloved state creations: Runza sandwiches, Fairbury red hot dogs, Valentino's pizza. The gourmet candymaker is best known for its chocolate meltaways -- basically chocolate-covered chocolate -- made by an assembly-line system designed by Todd Baker's dad, Kevin Baker, who founded the company 33 years ago.

"It's how Nebraskans traditionally celebrate. They stop in and buy a box of their Husker chocolates. Some of them believe that the Huskers can't possibly win unless they have those with them during game day," Baker said. "[We have] lots of other tailgate items, even officially licensed peanuts. Nebraskans will buy anything with a big script N on it."

On a weekday in late September, Husker-branded chocolates wrapped in red, silver and black poured off the assembly line a pound at a time. The announcement last month that the Big Ten would have a season did cause a jump in orders from retailers for such officially licensed products, Baker said.

But even with the first Nebraska home game scheduled for Oct. 31 -- a day made for candy -- Baker said that without that walk-in traffic from fans driving to Memorial Stadium, revenue would fall short. In the meantime, the store is running promotions and sales, and is urging customers to order online, Baker said.

"We expect that Husker fans will celebrate. They will watch the games. The tailgate parties and driveway watch parties are happening everywhere," Baker said. "And we know that they will eat candy. So we hope that the sales will recover. But as far as the traffic goes, there really is nothing like a Husker football game to bring cars through the city." -- Paula Lavigne

Grace Episcopal Church, Syracuse, New York

It's hard to pin down exactly how long Syracuse fans have been parking their cars in the small lot at Grace Episcopal Church on football Saturdays. The lot has 28 spaces, which go for $20 apiece, and it's only a 10-minute walk to the Carrier Dome. The lot, unlike the dome, is outdoors. "Football games, as you get up into November, get cold," said Paul DeLima, who sometimes works the lot. "Basketball games give you some real pause."

Churches near campuses have been siphoning parking income from college football games forever. But the relationship between Syracuse and Grace goes back to their founding days. Both opened their doors in 1871. In August of that year, the university laid the cornerstone for the Hall of Languages, the first campus building, an iconic symbol to this day. Five years later, the same architect, Horatio Nelson White, designed Grace on the northern border of the campus, using the local limestone he used on the Hall of Languages. Grace has been the Episcopal parish for the university community for longer than anyone can remember.

Grace has played a vital role in the city as well. In 1957, Grace became the first congregation in the city to integrate. In the mid-1960s, it served as a meeting place for the local CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) chapter.

To this day, the congregation is 55% black and 45% white, according to Susan Keeter, a church warden. Five years ago, on the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, National Geographic published a piece retracing the path of Lincoln's funeral train from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois. The train made a brief late-night stop in Syracuse. The story included a two-page photo of Black children and white children worshipping together in a service at Grace.

That said, as with many urban congregations, Grace is aging its way into a crisis. Keeter described Grace as a "small, struggling church."

"We have elderly parishioners who can afford to give $2 at a service," she said.

That's why the parking revenue is so important. Over the course of the year, Grace raises $4,500 from parking revenue, two-thirds of it during football season (snow usurps some spots during basketball season). The Grace budget, Keeter said, barely tops six figures. The parking revenue supports the church food pantry, one of the first established in Syracuse. In 2018, Grace served supplies for nearly 20,000 meals to more than 1,000 households.

There's also the expenses of keeping the doors open, even as services have been held online during the pandemic.

"It costs $75 to have a musician play," Keeter said. "It costs $130 for a guest preacher. It costs $150 even when the church is closed for a man to keep the building clean." Throw in costs such as the $1,000 for fire-alarm services, or the $1,500 for annual elevator maintenance, and $20 a pop comes in pretty handy.

"With everything being dislocated and the fact there won't be any tailgating and no attendance, that revenue source will not be available," DeLima said. "Hopefully there will be other methods of generating revenue. Hopefully it won't be catastrophic. We'll have to wait and see." -- Ivan Maisel

Penn State Berkey Creamery

A look inside the historic Penn State Berkey Creamery

Take a look behind the scenes at the older university creamery in the country, the Penn State Berkey Creamery.

To say the Penn State Berkey Creamery has a line around the block on a football Saturday would be an understatement. The Creamery has a line so long it makes the DMV jealous.

When you travel to Happy Valley in the fall, there are two things you do: You take in the electric atmosphere at Beaver Stadium for a football game and you go to the Creamery. For more than 150 years, the Creamery has made its own ice cream, cheese and other dairy products, serving Penn State's dining halls and the masses that line the sidewalks outside its store.

The scoops of ice cream are so big you almost want to ask for a little less. The milkshakes are so creamy and smooth it makes you question if you've ever really had a milkshake before. On a normal weekend in the fall, the Creamery will scoop approximately 10,000 ice cream cones and sell more than 10,000 half gallons of ice cream to go.

"Everybody comes on Saturday to get an ice cream cone, or bowl or shakes. On a Sunday, they come to get ice cream to take home with them," assistant manager Jim Brown said. "So we'll pack 10,000 half gallons of ice cream and people will get a thermal bag, or they'll bring their own thermal bag, and they'll pick all their half gallons, we pack it with dry ice and take it home on their trip."

The Creamery goes through 15,000 pounds of dry ice per week just sending ice cream home with its customers since it's not unusual for regulars to take home 20 or 30 half gallons per trip. The Creamery even has a regular customer who takes orders from friends and family and ends up hauling 100 half gallons home to distribute.

That foot traffic has slowed, however; with restrictions from COVID-19 and the Big Ten football season pushed back to this past weekend, the Creamery is currently seeing a 50% decrease in its overall business. The Creamery is not even scooping ice cream for orders, instead selling prepackaged pints and allowing only 10 customers inside a store that could easily fit upward of 200 customers at once.

The store hours have been limited, with the Creamery not open on weekends. That decision was made with consideration of the university trying to reduce the number of people off campus traveling to campus and potentially spreading the virus.

The lines were still strong in the summer, but those lines have dwindled as foot traffic around campus has decreased. Students are still on campus, but many are taking online courses or going straight from class to home, rather than venturing out and stopping at the Creamery.

The Creamery is diverse in its business with e-commerce, selling most of its products online, and also servicing the dining halls and food services on campus, but it doesn't make up for the now-empty sidewalks outside its store.

Flashback: Marty visits the Penn State Berkey Creamery

In 2017, Mary Smith took the party to Penn State to witness the university's historic creamery.

With no fans in attendance at the football games along with the impending change in weather, the Creamery is going to be impacted greatly by the circumstances. It already has been impacted in a way that could have long-term effects.

That hasn't stopped the store from staying positive and hopeful that its loyal customers will still experience their favorite Penn State treat, just in a different way this season, much like everything else around them.

"[The customers] are who we miss right now and I'm really hopeful that even though there will not be fans necessarily in the stands, the games will provide the rejuvenation and excitement for the season," Brown said. "And those that may be upset that they can't come to the stadium and watch the game will be more incentivized to order ice cream, have it shipped to their house and watch the football game. I see that happening quite a bit." -- Tom VanHaaren