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Caps Fans Devour Wings

Austin Grill wings. Local restaurants: give local fans free food, get free pub. (Robert Severi, courtesy Austin Grill)

Mike Holden grew up in the D.C. area, lived here basically his whole life, and has cheered for the Caps that entire time. Heck, his parents' first date was at a minor league hockey game. He spent countless evenings at the Cap Centre, and has fond memories of what used to happen when the home team reached five goals.

"PEET-SUH, PEET-SUH," he remembered the fans chanting. "PEET-SUH, PEET-SUH."

Why Pizza? Because, come the sixth goal, everyone was getting a free pizza courtesy of Jerry's. Holden and his friends and family members have reminisced about those bygone days of Caps fans, lending their voices in joyful solidarity, chanting for free food. And last spring he got the power to bring those days back. Holden took a job as director of marketing for Austin Grill, and after a successful stint doing food promotions with the Mystics, the Caps called him up. His pitch?

"I said, 'What do you think it would take for us to do a promotion involving six goals and free food?' " he recalled.

The decision was made: six goals by the home team would mean one free pound of wings the next day for Caps fans with game tickets. The Caps had reached that number at five home games in 2006-07, and Austin Grill braced for at least that number of wing fests.

The first six-goal explosion came on Saturday, Dec. 8; attendance was a tad over 14,000. The next day, Austin Grill's seven locations gave out nearly 1,200 pounds of free wings. The second six-goal explosion came on Tuesday, Jan. 1; attendance was 14,500, and the fans began chanting "We Want Wings" after the Caps reached five. The plan was working. The next day, Austin Grill gave out nearly 1,700 pounds of free wings, for an 11 percent redemption rate.

Monday evening, Mike got a call from his Caps contact, telling him the team already had four goals midway through the first period in front of a crowd of better than 17,000. Before their conversation ended, the fifth goal came. A few minutes later his dad called to tell him the Caps had reached six. Free wings for all!

Some of the chain's locations ran out of wings during previous giveaways, and so they started storing hundreds of pounds of extra wings off site. Monday night the crew snapped into action; a marketing meeting on Tuesday was canceled to produce more able bodies, and two Austin Grill operations staffers made a late-night visit to the off-site supply. Mike and the operations manager both delivered 480 pounds of wings yesterday morning.

At 11 a.m. yesterday, ticket holders were already lined up outside the E Street location. The Tuesday wait for a lunchtime table at that Grill is usually 5-10 minutes; yesterday it was 45 minutes, with foot traffic roughly double the normal amount. By around 4 o'clock, that store had already given out 225 pounds of free wings.

"It was kind of like an assembly line: they walk in, give us their ticket, we give them their wings; they walk in, give us their ticket, we give them their wings," general manager Stephanie Zaranski told me. "We have a lot of good promotions, but the wings promotion blows them all away."

The final chain-wide tally was more than 1,400 pounds of wings. I wondered whether Mike was in a tough spot, rooting for the Caps as he does, but aware that an offensive onslaught could put his co-workers under the gun and lead to costly complimentary gluttony.

"It's an incredible amount of work for our staff, and I'm so grateful for these guys, because they go through a lot, but they love the fact that we've got people coming into our locations to try our food," he said. "The amount of exposure and buzz it creates is hard to generate. To have people chanting for your food in a sports arena.... I'm looking for the right way to describe it. It's marketing gold."

Seven home games remain.

By Dan Steinberg  |  March 5, 2008; 12:44 PM ET
Categories:  Caps  
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Mike Holden >>>>>> Screech

Posted by: Kim | March 5, 2008 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Steinberg -- this might be your best work yet.

Posted by: Go Skins Go | March 5, 2008 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Great article. Makes me wish I went to more Caps games.

Posted by: Johnny | March 5, 2008 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Wow, I know that dude. Mike Holden is one famous character!!!

Posted by: Uncle | March 5, 2008 2:38 PM | Report abuse

That Mike Holden ROCKS!!!! Austin Grill has scored a winner of a marketing manager

Posted by: Mike's #1 fan | March 5, 2008 3:09 PM | Report abuse

The Austin Grille in Old Town was empty when I went in at 5PM on Tuesday. I am not sure how busy they were for lunch. The Wings I got were ok, but nothing great. A few were overcooked and dry but I didn't complain or throw them away as they were free.
Now, can we get 6 goals on Sunday please! I want some more wings!!!

Posted by: KraziJoe | March 6, 2008 7:52 AM | Report abuse

Cool stuff Dan -- it's always neat to see the ripple effects of the main story (in this case, the Caps' big win) and how it impacts others. Nice angle!

Posted by: OrderedChaos | March 6, 2008 12:59 PM | Report abuse

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