Plenty of people have asked me about how I feel about Benchwarmers closing since I’ve spent as much time there over the last four years as anyone who wasn’t getting paid to be there. Benchwarmers was one of the first places I went when I moved to Chanute, and I was there at the bar on the last night that it was open. It struck me as a very popular and well-run place at first. Over time, I witnessed a gradual decline and the various attempts to bring it back to where it once was.

I observed a change in ownership, watched the comings and goings of various waitresses and bartenders, and met most of the best friends I’ve made in this community there. I played trivia there, listened to music, and had some of my most entertaining nights in Chanute seated in my usual seat in that bar. So I do have very warm feelings about the place, even though I am not surprised that its run came to an end the way that it did.

The Woodyards, who owned Benchwarmers for the last two years, were very positive and progressive members of the community. I can’t blame them for leaving town when they deservedly stumbled upon better-paying gigs. I recognize that even before this decision was made, Benchwarmers had several large icebergs sitting in the middle of its course. It was difficult for any observant pessimist who was a Benchwarmers regular to miss this, and I was surprised the establishment managed to stay afloat as long as it did.

The whole saga of Benchwarmers reminds me of an old joke:

How do you make $100,000 in the restaurant business?

Invest $200,000.

Running a restaurant is clearly a very difficult undertaking – more than most people realize. Benchwarmers had issues with the consistency of both food quality and service, as well as several questionable personnel decisions, that put a dent in its public reputation even before the Woodyards took it over. That can be a near-fatal blow for a business in a city like Chanute, even when owners and employees really try to turn things around.

I remember walking into Benchwarmers the night before Thanksgiving of last year, which is usually regarded as the busiest night of the year in the bar business. People who come home for the holiday want to go out and drink the night before having to deal with all their relatives the next day. However, my lovely girlfriend and I were the only customers at Benchwarmers that night at 9 p.m. We walked down Main Street to Mel’s Other Side, and it was totally packed. My girlfriend and I both saw this as a sign that our local sports bar of choice might be in some trouble.

Another problem with Benchwarmers was that no one who ever owned it seemed sure whether they wanted it to be a good family restaurant or a fun bar. It was difficult to try to serve both functions. 

This delicate balance between a bar and a restaurant seemed to be struck better in local establishments owned by the Bartholomews. For a while, they made the Southside into a fun bar that served good food. Their other establishment on the other end of Main Street has a restaurant on one side and a bar on the other, so people can visit whichever best fits their mood. Benchwarmers never seemed quite able to properly compete with these options once they came available.

That was a shame, because Benchwarmers had plenty of awesome employees through the years who I am going to miss seeing on a regular basis. I know a new restaurant and sports bar will soon be occupying that space, featuring some familiar aspects of the Benchwarmers menu and that same décor that we’ve all gotten so used to – but it won’t be quite the same.

The Bartholomews, who are taking over the place and changing the name to PlayMakers, have indicated a desire to restore its reputation back to where Benchwarmers was in its heyday when I first started hanging out there. Even as I write this obituary for Benchwarmers, I do want these new owners to succeed in this effort. This community desperately need places to eat and drink downtown, so I am glad this space will remain a sports bar.

As someone who believes that free-market competition usually makes things better, I am admittedly not crazy about the idea having every downtown public drinking spot owned and operated by the same couple. However, the Bartholomews seem more likely to put care into unleashing the potential of that space than an out-of-town owner would.

That’s my hope anyway. Those of us who experienced the bumpy history of Benchwarmers and who loved the place despite its flaws, throughout the wild ride it took us on, deserve nothing less.

Please send all questions, comments, hate mail, marriage proposals, or invitations to buy me dinner and drinks at PlayMakers to brian@chanute.com

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