Founded in 2003, Walk-Ons has become one of the most well-known sports bars in the country and was named the #1 brand in Entrepreneur’s prestigious 2020 Top New Franchises Ranking. The brand was also selected as the winner of the National Restaurant News’ Menu Masters Awards in 2017 and honored at the National Restaurants Association’s annual conference in Chicago. Their combination of Louisiana-style menu items and pub favorites, high-quality ingredients, crafted cocktails, and exceptional service has elevated the brand from a standard sports bar to a family-friendly food and entertainment destination.
We sat down with Mike Lester, CEO and Co-Founder of Walking Tall Brands, LLC, and a franchisee of Tampa’s Midtown Location, to discuss the success of the new location and how he became involved with Walk-Ons. We also discussed their menu and what customers can expect from the sports restaurant.
Can you tell us about the Walk-Ons story?
The concept came from Brandon Landry and Jack Warner, two walk-ons for the Louisiana State University basketball team. Landry played about 7 minutes his entire senior season, so he knew he likely wasn’t going to make it into the NBA. During his time as a player, he got to travel around to a lot of different places with regional sports restaurants serving great food. He loved the concept and wanted to bring that experience to Baton Rouge. He originally wanted to do just one location at LSU, but they ultimately were successful early on, expanded into other markets, and were even voted the #1 Sports Bar in America by ESPN in 2012.
Can you tell us a bit about your background in the culinary industry? How did you get involved with Walk-Ons?
I started as a dishwasher when I was 14 years old and worked at several restaurants through high school and college. I decided I didn’t want to pursue a medical degree and applied for a Restaurant Manager position at a place I was bartending. Two weeks later I was managing my first restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska. I ended up really liking the restaurant business and was good at it, so I decided to stick with it. That was 32 years ago, and I haven’t looked back.
I previously worked at Outback Steakhouse managing 15 restaurants in the Northern Ohio market. In 2006, I moved to Tampa to take a VP of Operations position with The Melting Pot. I was promoted to President and was there for 8 years. I eventually started this company with three friends of mine – we all wanted to start something of our own – and became a franchisee of Walk-Ons for this market.
How was your opening experience for this Midtown Tampa Location?
Opening Day set a record for the highest sales in all of Walk-Ons’ 65 locations. To be fair, it was Game 3 of the Stanley Cup with our home team playing so we had a bit of an advantage. We also have 86 TVs for people to watch. The goal is for every guest to have 3-4 great views of TVs so they can watch multiple programs. We looked at every angle from every seat to determine the best positioning for our TVs.
Did you know that you wanted to open in this area?
We knew we wanted to be in the Tampa area. Everyone in the US wants to be in Florida, especially the Tampa market, so we had to be opportunistic because the area is so hot right now. We didn’t exactly know where we wanted to be, but we knew we would know when we saw it. This opportunity in Midtown was perfect and has been fantastic so far.
Regarding the menu, do you have a favorite cocktail?
My personal favorite is the Blueberry Coconut Mojito. It’s refreshing and not too sweet. You really can’t go wrong with any of our 48 draft beers on tap. Our equipment is designed for the beers to come out ice cold each time and we have one of the largest selections of draft beers in Tampa. We also source from a lot of the local breweries.
Do you have any ideas for expansion with cocktail items?
As a franchisee, we are running the national drink menu from Walk-Ons. We are still figuring out what the local market wants and introducing some of our local Fan Favorite cocktails. The idea is to get 6-10 additional cocktails that meet the preferences of this area.
For example, gin is really hot in this market at the moment, and we already have some good gin-based cocktails and will be introducing some more in the future. Vodkas are always good in warmer climates because of how refreshing they are. We are also looking at mezcal cocktail options. These types of blends are popular among mixologists now. We already have multiple tequila cocktails, including one of the best Skinny Margaritas in Tampa.
Switching to food, can you tell us a bit about the menu?
About a third of our menu goes back to our Louisiana heritage. When we say Louisiana, some people assume the word “Cajun” as meaning spicy, but that is not the case and more so means that it is full of flavor. The next third of our menu would be traditional pub favorites that you would see in many restaurants. Our twist is that everything is prepped fresh. Anything going into the fryer is hand-breaded and there is a lot of care and time put into freshly preparing all ingredients and items. The last third of the menu offers healthier choices. As a Louisiana restaurant, we serve a lot of seafood that is a healthier and lower calorie option. We also have several high-quality salads with fresh ingredients for a lighter alternative.
What are some of your personal favorite menu items?
I think the Shrimp and Grits are fantastic. As a Georgia native, I’m familiar with grits and can attest to their quality. For the shrimp, we start with large pink Gulf Shrimp, which are known for a better flavor, and then stuff them with cream cheese and fresh jalapenos and then wrap them in bacon. We then throw it on the grill, so the bacon gets crisp and the cream cheese mixture melts perfectly.
My next favorite would probably be the Tuscan Chicken. We use our proprietary blackened seasoning, which is more flavorful than spicy. Many traditional blackened seasonings have a lot of sodium, but we have managed to reduce the amount of sodium to create a better balance on the palette. We serve that with loaded mashed potatoes and green beans with a fresh tomato Tuscan salsa on top of the chicken. You have the flavor of the blackened chicken combined with the brightness of the salsa, including its balsamic and fresh basil components, to make for a fantastic bite.
Our hickory burger is probably our best-selling burger. It’s got about six inches of onion rings on top of it with our fresh high-grade beef. Our po’boys are also very popular items and are more of a nod to our Louisiana heritage. We have catfish, shrimp, and even a blackened ribeye po’boy.
Do you have any Happy Hour deals or other promotions that customers should know about?
Oh yes! We have a great Happy Hour with $3 house spirits pours that rotate through our distributors. We are not looking for the least expensive spirit – we are looking for a good quality product that we can serve at a value price point. We feature $4 pours of our house wine, which is Robert Mandavi, as well as $3.99 domestic pints and $5.49 22oz. draft beers.
For food, we have our Fried Pickles and Waffle Cheese Fries at $5. We also have our Boom Boom Shrimp and Cajun Queso at $6 and our Boneless Wings and Cheeseburger Sliders at $7.
Happy Hour runs Monday-Friday from 3 to 6 p.m., Monday-Thursday from 9 p.m. to close, and all-day Tuesdays. We also have daily promotions like Tito’s Tuesdays, where we offer $5 Tito’s cocktails all day.
Are there any Rewards or VIP Programs?
There is a Walk-Ons loyalty app that people can sign up for and you will receive a coupon for a free Waffle Cheese Fries upon registering. From there, you can get 1 point for every dollar spent at the restaurant that can be used for any of our items. We also have special promotional coupons going out as a thank you to loyal customers of our restaurant.
What helps your location stand out?
One thing I can’t speak enough about is the quality of our staff. We were hoping to be open earlier this year and we were unfortunately delayed, but our staff stuck it out and were excited about being here. Openings always bring people together and establish a sense of comradery. This team really came together for our launch and has done an amazing job learning the Walk-Ons menu and concept.
As the biggest restaurant space in Midtown, we can fit about 350 inside and 120 outside. There is plenty of parking for people with a six-story parking structure that has over 1,000 free parking spaces. We also have an even demographic of about 50% men and 50% women, so you’ll see a lot of families that help build out the atmosphere. This Midtown area offers a sense of community that extends to both residents and visitors.
Not to mention our proximity to Raymond James Stadium. We are anticipating a busy football season and want fans to know this is a great option to stop in and get some great food and drinks while enjoying the game.
We noticed a walk-up window at the corner of the restaurant. Can you tell us about that?
That is unique to this location. Patrons are permitted to purchase alcoholic beverages and walk through the Tampa Midtown development, so we wanted to have something to accommodate people. It has been very successful, and people are happy to have that accessibility.
We also have a fire pit table that is able to be reserved for parties. We expect that to be booked up during the colder months. A lot of people use it as a communal space when it is not booked.
What would you recommend to someone who hasn’t been to a Walk-Ons before?
I would say to try it twice – once on a normal day and once on a big game day. The first time will give you a chance to sample the food and drinks and get a feel for how we operate. The second time will show you how great of a sports atmosphere we have here. When we opened on Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final, the entire restaurant broke out into Lightning chants and it was awesome to see everyone joining in the festivities.
Do you have any other Walk-Ons locations? Are there any plans for expansion?
We have two other locations in Lakeland and Wesley Chapel and are planning to expand to at least five other locations in this market. Our Wesley Chapel location was recently named Operator of the Year for the entire Walk-Ons chain and we’re very proud of that.
I think the Tampa market will support more than 5 new locations, so it comes down to finding ideal real estate. We’ve even been looking to expand over the bridge into St. Petersburg and other areas if we find the right spot.
We thank Mike Lester for the chance to sit down and speak with him about the latest Walk-Ons location in Tampa Bay. Their commitment to quality ingredients, care with preparation, and ambition to elevate the sports bar experience will surely be significant contributions to their success. Be sure to keep an eye out for future events and stop in for a game once football season gets underway!
You can follow Walk-Ons on Facebook and Instagram.
Visit the Tampa Midtown location’s website here.
How Fintech Helps
“All three of our locations use Fintech. I don’t know of any Walk-Ons that doesn’t. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t! It helps keep us organized and makes the logistics simple.”
Mike Lester, CEO & Co-Founder | Walking Tall Brands, LLC