For Jason Fish and Mike Llorente, co-owners of downtown Vancouver’s Main Event Sports Grill, the economic downturn served up a perfect mix of ingredients to execute a dining and nightlife game plan. It also emphasized the benefit of going into business with the support of a close-knit team.
Friends for the past fifteen years, Fish and Llorente toyed with the idea of opening up a restaurant and bar in 2005. However, both were successfully employed and had too much to walk away from at the time.
Flash forward to 2009, change was in need. Fish found himself working in a struggling mortgage industry, and Llorente was forced to lay off staff and close a franchise restaurant with his partners Michael Schnidrig and Steve Hilken.
Facing uncertainty, all four revived the old plan and hit the real estate market. With a lease opening in the heart of downtown Vancouver (Main Street), the group jumped into action. The central location inspired the name, and soon the partnership was inspiring a new staff – well, new to Main Event that is.
The group made the decision to recruit staff from Llorente’s old franchise restaurant. After all, they were already well-acquainted.
“Most of the employees were trained by me or Steve [Hilken] personally,” Llorente said. “It’s one of those situations where we’re very comfortable with the people we’re going into business with, because we know everything about each other.”
That level of trust and support has carried over into the group’s management approach. Main Event is designed and structured as a corporation, but Fish and Llorente said the staff is considered family.
“All our staff helped us bust walls down, paint and move everything around,” Llorente said. “It’s great for them too, because they have some sweat equity and a real sense of ownership in the place.”
While Fish jokingly admits he can’t yell at his staff anymore, he recognizes that their efforts have allowed the ownership to focus on their utmost concern – the first six months.
“It was about getting our visions – as far as service and presentation – executed correctly,” Fish said. “You only get one chance to make that first impression and if you don’t do it right there’s a very slim chance you’ll get people to come back.”
So far, the group said Main Event has exceeded their sales estimates the first three months. They believe the restaurant is winning patrons over by bringing a vibe that’s new to downtown Vancouver. Down to the tablecloths and menu, the group has taken steps to provide upscale offerings, excellent service and an inclusive atmosphere.
“You don’t see any ketchup or salt and pepper on the table because it’s about service here,” Fish said. “We’re a sports grill because it separates our food from bar food.”
Another key to getting the business off the ground, according to the group, is making people feel like they’ve been coming in for years. Fish said everyone involved in the operation has exercised their social clout to bring in devoted patrons. Most significant of all is Llorente’s 16-year career as a bartender.
“It’s almost like an insurance agent has a book of business,” Fish said. “He’s got his clients – or guests as we call them – that follow him everywhere.”
Getting those friends, family and fans into downtown is important for Main Event. The idea is to offer a place that is on par with Portland eateries and lounges, yet avoids the extra drive time and hassles. To them, downtown Vancouver is a destination and they’re striving to instill that belief – even if it means personally walking their guests down the street to go dancing at Atrium Lounge. It’s an unspoken partnership, for the betterment of downtown’s nightlife scene.
“If we can provide a place that keeps just a few people from going across the river every day, that’s great,” Llorente said. “We’re not necessarily trying to take anyone’s piece of the pie down here; we just want the pie to be bigger.”