Local restaurants respond to Spring Training revival

Spring Training brings a lot of customers to Ground Control, but its owner is worried there's not much time left for baseball fans to make plans to come out. (Ground Control/Submitted)

Major League Baseball hosted events during its 2021 season that created some much-needed excitement surrounding the sport.

Neutral-site games at the Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and the Field of Dreams Game in Dyersville, Iowa, drove viewership.

In addition, 2021’s postseason galvanized fans of the game and saw a franchise in the Atlanta Braves win its first World Series title since 1995.

Coming off a shortened 2020 season that saw games played without fans due to COVID-19, it was exactly what the game needed.

What immediately followed was borderline catastrophic for the game: The league locked out its players. The two sides would need to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement before games — regular season or Spring Training — would be played.

That lockout ended one day shy of hitting the century mark. After an extensive amount of back and forth between the two sides, the owners and players, seemingly at the death, agreed on a new CBA.

Though the season was recovered, and players began immediately reporting to Spring Training camps, the number of Spring Training games that would be played was essentially cut in half because the two sides could not reach an agreement quickly enough.

Many local restaurants near Cactus League facilities were left wondering how big an impact this year’s edition of Spring Training would have on their restaurants.

“Is it going to make a difference? Are people still coming? It’s a little last minute to make any changes,” said Ian Harwell, owner and operator of Ground Control.

He said Spring Training brings a lot of customers to his restaurant, making the time period his busiest of the year. He’s worried that there is not a lot of time left for people to make plans to come out.

Ground Control sits a little over four miles away from Camelback Ranch, the facility that hosts the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox. It roasts its own coffee beans, specializes in wood-fired pizza, and offers many local beers on tap.

“We’re a locally owned small business,” Harwell said. “We make everything in-house. Everything is hand-crafted, from our cocktails to our food, and we make our sauces and dough daily. Everything that we do, we make in-house.”

Harwell said his restaurant is noticeably busier during a normal Spring Training season. Though the amount of clientele from this year’s Spring Training is up in the air, Ground Control will be ready if it gets busy.

“We always have to keep up with that and plan for an influx of customers if they do come,” said Stephanie, marketing director and Harwell’s wife.

Opa Life, another restaurant that attracts guests attending Spring Training games at Camelback Ranch, specializes in Greek cuisine. It operates just under 3 miles from the facility.

“We have people from Los Angeles that have been coming here for years to watch the (Los Angeles) Dodgers for Spring Training and look forward to coming out to Opa,” said Alan Krier, managing member and operator. “They know me, and they know the restaurant and the food. It was good to see them start coming back this week.”

When games were canceled by the league, Krier wasn’t exactly surprised. He said he followed the back and forth very closely and predicted the two sides not being able to come to terms in time for a full Spring Training season to commence.

“I had already planned on, in my head, not having games about four or five months ago because I follow baseball very closely and saw where things were going,” Krier said. “I didn’t think they were going to be able to work it out. I wasn’t totally shocked, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed.”

Opa Life receives a substantial bump in clientele when Spring Training games are going on, so Krier was elated when an agreement made it so games would still be played, despite it being fewer than usual.

“It has a really strong impact,” he said. “I was really glad that it came together at the last second. It seemed like it was not going to happen at all, and all of the sudden Major League Baseball made a deal. We were really happy. It makes it a lot more steady during some slower hours of operation.”

According to Krier, the impact of games being revived was almost immediate. The restaurant was getting business from Spring Training within an hour of an agreement being made.

“There were already people in town when games got canceled because they had already booked their vacations,” he said.

Camelback Ranch is not the only facility offering many nearby restaurant options.

The Peoria Sports Complex, host to the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, lies in an area that offers a surplus of neighboring restaurants. The Angry Crab Shack is one of those; it is just 3 1/2 miles away from the facility.

“We have it on lock at Peoria,” general manager Tim Dernick said. “We know that Spring Training every year is a great time to pull people in and keep them coming back.”

Dernick admits there is still a lot up in the air. He’s unsure if his restaurant will see the influx and numbers it normally gets from Spring Training due to the initial cancellation of games.

“(Games being canceled) was disheartening,” he said. “We were definitely keeping an eye on it and hoping that something would come to grips. Up until a couple of weeks ago, the reality of the situation was that it looked like it wasn’t going to happen.”

With the way things are currently trending, Dernick believes his store will see a boost. He said Angry Crab Shack is ready for it. His restaurant is noticeably busier during Spring Training, so he is just grateful to be getting anything at all.

“I’m glad they’ve got that going on and they’re giving us a little bit of that this year,” he said. “I know the company itself takes it very seriously. We look forward to it, and we know that not only does it bring in an uptick in sales and foot traffic but we get different people from different areas that have never experienced the type of restaurant we are.

“It really gives us an opportunity to show what we do by providing a level of service and hospitality that could spread by word of mouth, not only in Arizona but states all over the country, because we bring people in from all over during Spring Training.”

Dernick said that immediately following games being reinstated, corporate sent a companywide email to all of the Angry Crab Shacks in the area outlining just how important the next couple of weeks will be.

“We realize and recognize that there is a real opportunity to put on the best experience possible for these guests, because you never know who’s coming in,” he said.

Dernick believes Spring Training is immensely important for restaurants in the Valley. Despite a shortened season, for Dernick, having games at all is huge for the local restaurant industry.

“The restaurant industry is kind of in a flux right now, and it’s been difficult coming out of a time where a lot of restaurants were closing. But we recognize this as an opportunity to grow as a company and grow our base.

“As with any restaurant in the Valley, Spring Training plays a huge factor,” Dernick said. “It’s a driving force in the community and the autonomy for all the metropolitan Phoenix area.”