Metro Weekly

Neighborhood Trophy: Nellie’s Sports Bar is a U Street institution

In 2007, Doug Schantz shelved a career in advertising to open a gay sports bar. Nine years later, Nellie's is a thriving, U Street institution.

Doug Schantz at Nellie's Sports Bar - Photo: Todd Franson

Doug Schantz at Nellie’s Sports Bar – Photo: Todd Franson

Nellie’s owner Doug Schantz keeps the atmosphere at his bar upbeat and lively. But even he was unprepared for the how rowdy his patrons became when Barack Obama was elected president over John McCain in 2008.

“We had only been open a year, and we were just hitting our stride,” says Schantz. “And people knew we had thirty TVs. We were packed to the point that there were people standing on the stairs. [Obama] won, and everyone ran out in the street, not paying their tabs, taking all of my glassware, with beer bottles, running down the street, screaming.”

After the revelry subsided, Schantz was able to herd the tab-skippers back inside. He wasn’t so lucky when it came to the glassware.

“We found some five days later, down the street, like, ‘Hey, there’s a Nellie’s cup,'” he laughs.

In the nine years since Nellie’s first opened, Schantz has emphasized its versatility. Besides beer and spirits, Nellie’s touts its full-time kitchen staff and a menu that goes beyond fried finger food. Patrons can also take part in a variety of nightly events, each bringing their own unique crowds. Mondays belong to poker players and drag bingo and karaoke have a foothold on Tuesdays. Wednesdays draw the brainy and the quick-witted for weekly trivia night. Saturdays and Sundays offer the famous drag brunches, sold out a month in advance.

“The thing about Nellie’s that I didn’t expect to be so successful is that every night is busy, but with a completely different group of people,” Schantz says. “We just did, with that snowstorm that happened, a “What the Duck?” onesie party. It was packed here. And the people who you haven’t seen for a while were here, lining up, just wearing onesies. And walking out in the snow in onesies. Meanwhile, in the dining room, we’re watching this exciting playoff game between the Patriots and the Broncos. Off the charts crazy-busy there. And on the next level, a different universe.”

At the same time, Schantz has also stressed consistency and reliability to appeal to the local residents in the U Street and Shaw neighborhoods — and keep his regular customer base satisfied. Those customers want somewhere they know they can get quality service, wall-to-wall coverage of sports, and a comfortable atmosphere where they can unwind after work or socialize on the weekends.

“When I opened Nellie’s, I put people’s pictures up: local friends, people jogging, races, guys hanging out in football league, whatever,” Schantz says. “I asked the leagues to bring stuff in, and banners from some of the schools, so that, within the first month, it felt like it had been there forever. That whole concept was based on the idea that this isn’t going to change.”

Schantz attributes part of his success to the hard work and loyalty of his staff, most of whom have been working at Nellie’s for more than four years — something almost unheard of in an industry frequently plagued by high turnover. He also abides by several guidelines that he’s put in place that help promote the bar as open and welcoming to all who enter.

“When I opened Nellie’s, I told people: we’re never going to charge at the door, because it’s a neighborhood, friendly, open atmosphere. We don’t have a VIP area, so we don’t rope off something. You can always count on coming in to Nellie’s and it will be open for you throughout the building. We don’t charge for space,” Schantz says. “This is a neighborhood bar that you can walk in and count on, just like the show Cheers.”

METRO WEEKLY: What was your childhood like?

DOUG SCHANTZ: I was born in Phoenix, Arizona. But when I was growing up, I spent summers in Emporia, Kansas, where Nellie is from. My family moved there in 1865, so we’re fourth- or fifth-generation Kansans. I went on to college at the University of Colorado. And moved to D.C. from New York in 1995.

MW: When did you realize that you were gay?

SCHANTZ: I grew up in very conservative states, in both Arizona and Kansas. I probably knew when I was very young, but it was such a foreign concept that I didn’t really identify with it. It was also back in a time when no one was really out, and all that sort of thing.

So I came out very late in life, when I was 29. In college, my experience was completely straight. The University of Colorado didn’t have a large gay population that I knew of — or at least I didn’t recognize it. I was in a fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and had a fantastic college experience dating women. But I was also realizing at that time that this is probably not who I really am.

Nellie's Sports Bar

MW: What did you imagine your life would be at the time?

SCHANTZ: When I thought about the future, I just didn’t know. I basically buried it, and didn’t really think about the future that way until I moved to Chicago when I was 29. I was working in advertising. And I started to meet a much more diverse group of people. I had a gay friend at the time. He knew I was gay. And I did, too, but I just didn’t want to take that step. He encouraged me to come out, and I did.

MW: What was your family’s reaction?

SCHANTZ: I hadn’t told anybody in Chicago when I came out. I moved to New York. My mother came to visit me in New York. She actually went to Jackie Onassis’ funeral that week. She and I were at a flea market, and we were having a bagel. And I told her that I was gay. She just looked me right in the eye and said, “I love you, no matter who you are.” It was one of the most wonderful days of my life.

I said, “I can fly back to Emporia and tell Dad if you want.” And she said, “No, let me do it.” And when she told him, he was fine with it. So I’m very, very lucky. I have a very loving, close family. So many people don’t, and that’s sad. Not lately, not as many, but I’ve heard some really sad things. And I know friends who have bad situations.

I also have one brother that I’m incredibly close to, Tim. And I had told him earlier. My partner and I lived in a fantastic house that had two bedrooms, and one bedroom was made up like it was my room, and it actually was not. And my brother came into the house, walked right to the back room, because there’s a big master bedroom where we clearly slept, and the back bedroom had a little bed that was almost a cot. He sat down and said, “So, this is your room” — and fell through. And he looked at me and said, “Yeah, you sleep here.” And that’s basically how I told my brother.

MW: Tell me about your first experience in a gay bar.

SCHANTZ: That was very uneasy, because I wasn’t out. It was in Chicago, called Sidetrack. And Roscoe’s — I actually went to both that night. It was frightening, but it was also enlightening. It was just refreshing to see that there were people who were gay and having a good time.

Doug Schantz at Nellie's Sports Bar - Photo: Todd Franson

Doug Schantz at Nellie’s Sports Bar – Photo: Todd Franson

MW: How long was your first relationship?

SCHANTZ: I was working on advertising for Ace Hardware. And I met a guy who was my first boyfriend — Tim — about a month into it. We just started to hang out together, and became a couple. We moved after about a year to New York together, as a couple. And so, throughout the time I lived in New York, for six years, I was coupled with this person.

In New York, we had a great life. We went to all of the different clubs there, it was an exciting time to live in New York — the Roxy and all these places were just opening up. It was a very club-oriented, edgy time. We’d go out to the Hamptons, we’d go out to Fire Island, and I had a great experience, right off the bat.

But I had never really experienced the single life, as a new gay. We are still very close, but we just decided to part. He ended up staying in New York, and I moved here to D.C. in 1995.

MW: What was your first impression of Washington?

SCHANTZ: I loved it. When we broke up, I wanted to move back to a city like Chicago, but that wasn’t so cold. I wanted rowhouses and such. So I came here. Tim actually came first, and thought he might move here and work on a political campaign. Then I came and fell in love with the city. I got a job at Earle Palmer Brown, and then I got a job at RTC Direct, which is in Georgetown. And loved it, and loved the gay scene.

When I decided to move here, I lived at 17th and Q. I could literally see Trumpets from my window. And JR.’s was right around the corner. Cobalt had just opened up. It was really fun, we went all the time. I probably went to JR.’s five days a week, just to hang out there. I had lots of friends. I’d throw parties all the time. I was famous for Sunday brunches where people would come, but we’d never have any food. It was just a huge vat of Bloody Mary mix. That was breakfast.

The way I met some of my best friends, who are still my friends 21 years later, is I walked through JR.’s the second week I lived here, and handed out my card, and said, “I’m going to have a brunch. Please come.”

MW: When did you first decide you wanted to go into the nightlife business?

SCHANTZ: Well, back in the day when I was in my fraternity, even when I was in high school, I was very social. I was the Social Chairman for my fraternity for two-and-a-half years, and you’re only supposed to be it for one semester. But I was good at it.

So I worked at these different ad agencies, and in the back of my mind, was always thinking that I’d like to start my own business. I was seeing all these ads — a bar called Splash was just opening in New York, and the guy that did all the graphics was working at Ogilvy & Mather, and there were several people like that, who had opened different businesses, and I thought, “This is so exciting, and I would love to do something like that.”

There was this place called Champs in New York, that was this big sports bar idea, but not like Nellie’s — it didn’t have food. And I thought, I should do something like that, but make it more of a neighborhood bar, like I experienced in Chicago. Chicago has hundreds of bars. Every other corner has a corner bar. And people would hang out there. That’s all you do, because there’s eight feet of snow. So they would hang out there, and they all knew each other. I thought all of these different things could connect the dots for what I wanted to do.

So when I came here, I worked for another five or six years, but from the moment I moved here, with my newfound friends, I started to talk about opening a sports bar. And it was just because I had the concept down of what I wanted to do.

MW: Why a sports bar?

SCHANTZ: Because it was a new idea. When I was going to the gay bars, they were either clubs or corner bars, but they all played the Madonna and Cher videos, and all that sort of thing. I had friends who were playing softball in Chicago, and then in New York, there were some football teams, and they really didn’t have a place to hang out. I thought, “This is an untapped market.” They were also so loyal. If you get a sports group together, and they like your bar, you win. So one of the strategies behind Nellie’s was to open a sports bar that would have a captive audience.

When I started to really look at the sports bars in D.C., there were none. Back when I opened Nellie’s in 2007 — though I started in 2005 — there was ESPN Zone and all the big ones downtown, and there were several in Virginia, but none of them had the personality that I wanted to portray.

MW: What were you aiming for?

SCHANTZ: More of a neighborhood bar, with good food. You know, fresh salads, and creative items and wraps, and no one had that. We also have 25 to 50 people call in for carry-out. I guarantee you other sports bars, besides for big events, don’t have that as a regular restaurant-type thing. That was my sports bar idea, overlapping the neighborhood idea, capitalizing on the Chicago things I saw, and so this is a perfect opportunity to have this corner bar, here in D.C., where the neighborhood literally grew up around it.

MW: Where did the name Nellie’s originate from?

SCHANTZ: Nellie is actually my great-grandmother. She’s my grandfather’s mother. I did not know her. She came from another time. Her mother’s name was actually Nellie, and they were a high Victorian family. Nellie was a total character in terms of social [situations], and just had a lot of fun in life. Aunt Bertha, her younger sister, would tell me stories about that.

Also, the name “Nellie,” you know, if you’re nelly, you’re not good at sports, and I thought, “This is fabulous. I can name it after a real person, and it can also have a secondary meaning that’s fun.” Now, I will say, when I first opened Nellie’s, there were a couple of people who emailed me or wrote me that I was taking gay sports back a step. Because insinuating that gay sports people are nelly. And I wrote back: “I’m proud of my great-grandmother’s name, and hope to see you at Nellie’s.” You can’t argue with them. Ironically, one of those people [who complained] is now one of our better customers.

MW: Some sports bars make money, others don’t. What is it that sets Nellie’s apart that allows this business model to flourish, beyond what you’ve already mentioned?

SCHANTZ: Basically, Nellie’s is a gay neighborhood sports bar. So we have captured all three of those audiences, and given that my background is marketing, in the gay aspect, I’m gay, I have gay friends, and its name speaks for itself. The neighborhood aspect, we’re in this neighborhood and it’s become a place for people to have dinner, watch TV, socialize with their friends. So that’s another group of people who may not be gay, but also fill seats. And the sports bar aspect, I didn’t hang my hat on just that. So the first two help to balance the entire business model.

I tell my staff “We’re not ever advertising for the Super Bowl, we’re not advertising on New Year’s Eve, we’re not advertising on playoffs.” We don’t need to put ads in a magazine saying, “Come to Nellie’s for the Super Bowl.” Because we don’t need to, that’s low-hanging fruit. But, like you said, Saturday mornings in the middle of June are pretty dead, there’s not a lot of sports going on. So you have to fill that with other things, which are the neighborhood aspect, or whatever we have going on.

Nellie's Sports Bar in D.C.

Nellie’s Sports Bar – Photo: JD Uy

MW: What do you attribute to your success? Do you feel you have to compete for customers with other gay bars?

SCHANTZ: The key to success of a marketer is not to convince people who aren’t your target to become your target. It’s to identify your target, and get their friends or like-minded persons to come. So that’s what we do. As far as competition goes, I focus on what Nellie’s purpose is. Of course I’m aware of what’s going on outside of my business, but I don’t consider any of the gay bar or any of the neighborhood bars or any of the sports bars specific competition.

Look at the neighborhood. This was a field, now it’s luxury condos over here. We’ve got a movie theater, there’s a Whole Foods going in. So we definitely aren’t the lone cruise ship out here, we’ve got to adapt to what the clientele is, and what the neighborhood is. You want to make sure you’re keeping up with the times, and what you’re offering. If we’re just a sports bar, we probably wouldn’t have drag bingo, because that’s really not a sport. But you have to adapt and listen to your customer base and see what their needs are.

MW: On the topic of adaptation, what do you say to people who comment that Nellie’s is attracting an increasingly straight crowd?

SCHANTZ: Well, Marketing 101 is first you want to make sure you have a solid customer base. Everybody who works here has worked here a long time. So what we do with Nellie’s is we deliver great service, a friendly atmosphere, great food, all that. That’s going to appeal to, hopefully, everybody.

We have a thing called “Join Our Team,” where people fill out their name, their address, their birthday. And it’s a very successful program. We send out about 1,500 birthday cards a month, and we get about 35 to 40 percent of them back. My mother and I and our friends who were helping me during those first few days were saying, when people were coming in to fill them out, we’re opening a “straight-friendly gay bar.” So if I’m going to open something that’s a neighborhood bar, it’s going to include all types of people. And the customer base here mirrors the staff: there’s women, there’s men, every minority. Every walk of life is represented in both the staff and our customer base.

MW: What’s your relationship like with Team DC?

SCHANTZ: It’s very good. Brent Minor and I are friends. He’s someone who, at the beginning, when I opened, the first thing we did was Nats Night OUT, and we were packed, and we didn’t know what we were doing. It was a disaster. [Laughs.] It wasn’t a disaster — it was just fun, pure fun. We’ve done Nats Night OUT for nine years in a row. I invested in t-shirts so that everybody’s wearing Nellie’s — one, to get the Nellie’s name and brand out there, and two, to let people proudly walk around at the Nats game to be identified as a group that came here. And it was wildly successful. And Team DC has grown with us. And that’s a very good example of a group that benefitted from Nellie’s being open, and us benefitting from all the leagues they come in contact with.

MW: What do you see in the future? Is there any project you have your eye on, or something that you think is a good idea on the horizon?

SCHANTZ: Yes, I think that I’m a very conservative person in terms of opening — a lot of people are saying you should open a second or third Nellie’s, or in a different city, or what have you — and I look back over the nine years, and we have this solid business model. In the nine years, I’ve purchased the building, I’ve paid back all the investors. I’m set, probably, to do something else, and I have a few ideas. There are things in the works.

MW: Is that still on the table, the idea of opening in another city?

SCHANTZ: It could be. It could be. I have different options. It’s nice to have options.

MW: What’s the best party you’ve ever thrown?

SCHANTZ: The best party would be — there’s a lot that were unique — but I guess Nats Night OUT is a good one. That basically brought all these people here, who were coming from a game, and leaving together, and having a great time. In the summertime, we did Guil-Tea, the tea dance, that was a really good one. And that was with Shea Van Horn, who’s incredibly talented and a good friend, and we hit it out of the part with Guil-Tea. It was just a timely party.

MW: And the worst?

SCHANTZ: We were giving away a free piece of pie Thanksgiving week, with a promotion of “Just come in, and you’ll get a free piece of pie.” And so I bought 300 pies. [Laughs.] And I thought for sure it would work. I gave away like three slices.

So every time a friend would come over, or the kitchen crew was leaving, or the servers, I’d say, “Take a pie with you.” And they were everywhere, all over the walk-in, they were back in the food cabinets. We had pies left over for about two weeks. It was a nightmare. And so my friend, Eric Thomas, who passed away, was one of my dear best friends. He was just very to the point. He turned and said, “They can’t all be winners.” [Laughs.]

MW: Everyone was on their diet.

SCHANTZ: Now, if they come up with a vodka pie, I’m going to go back to that promotion, and do a free slice of vodka pie. And it’ll be fantastic.

MW: What are your plans for Super Bowl Sunday?

SCHANTZ: We’re going to be open. We have $15 buckets all day. There’s not a lot to say. We’re out there. People know we’re here as a sports bar. I just hope it’s an exciting game. Like the first playoff game versus the second playoff game, it’s fun when it’s really exciting.

There’s certain parts of Nellie’s that are just magical, and one of them is when people are gathered together in the dining room, and there’s an exciting game, like the World Cup or something, and everyone’s chanting and screaming — it’s just amazing. I meet people on the street who know that I own Nellie’s, and they’ll say, “I just go there, and I’m happy.” It’s a happy, fun place.

Nellie’s Sports Bar is located at 900 U St. NW, and will be open on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. For more information and daily hours, call 202-332-6355 or visit nelliessportsbar.com.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com