January 2010

Hilton Head Island’s Home Town (Sports) Bar

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

Remember those television commercials featuring Victor Kiam for Remington? “I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company.” The same could be said for Vic Neely. For years, Neely, then working for the Waffle House Corporation in Western North Carolina, came down for the Heritage. On one of those trips he “discovered” Callahan’s and loved it. And six years ago, he bought it.

“It took a lot of faith to leave a secure career of 24 years and make a change. But it was worth it,” Neely said. “Our company owned a condo in Harbour Town. I used to bring my district guys down here all the time. We would come down for the Heritage. That was probably 15 years ago. Every night we would eat seafood, go to the Crazy Crab and CQ’s and have a nice dinner. After about five days, we were down at the Quarterdeck; I was talking with one of the wait staff, one of the ladies there, and said, ‘Look, we just want a locals’ place to go have a hamburger and a beer.’ She said, ‘We go to Callahan’s.’ Every year after that we’d come to Callahan’s. We had a little pool tournament, and just a burger and beer,” Neely remembered. Callahan’s became a regular stop when Neely was on Hilton Head, and Neely became a regular.

Neely might also be compared to “Frank Druffel,” the fictional CEO-type featured in commercials for Post Shredded Wheat, who proclaims, “We put the ‘no’ in innovation.” The actor very cleverly suggests that once you’ve got something right, why change it. Since its opening in the mid 1980s, Callahan’s Sports Bar and Deluxe Grill (while that happens to be the official name, everybody has always called it simply Callahan’s), its menu is substantially the same as are its environs. It started out, and remains today, a local watering hole. Even its location on New Orleans Road, is truly “local.”

“If that girl at the Quarter Deck hadn’t told me, I’d never have known it was here. I’d have never been on New Orleans Road. I had to get directions,” Neely laughed. “Tourists go down Pope Avenue, into Sea Pines and on 278. That’s kind of it.”

As to change, Neely said, “We still do what we did six, ten years ago: hamburgers, chicken wings, draft beer. We’ll keep the same menu, we’ll keep our prices moderate, and we’ll keep buying the highest quality food. There’ll be no change in that.”

Regular customers, and Callahan’s has had a strong “regulars” following for years, are a mixed bag, young and old(er), bankers, lawyers, food and beverage staff, retirees. “We serve a full menu until 2:00 a.m., so we get a lot of F&B people when everybody else closes down,” Neely said. “We get football and basket ball people (Callahan’s displays a number of wide screen televisions and subscribes to a number of sports packages). In the daytime, we get business people having lunch. Any time you go somewhere on vacation, you see people advertising ‘the locals place.’ Well, I think we really are,” said Neely.

There are exceptions. During the Celebrity Golf Tournament in September, it’s not unusual to find a famous face or two at the bar chomping down a large Callahan Burger (a favorite) and sipping a draft beer. “It’s Hilton Head. You get all kinds of people. Jerry Springer has been here a couple of times. He brings his family in, shoots pool for a couple of afternoons,” Neely said. He added that because of the atmosphere at Callahan’s, the notables fit right in with the regular folks.

With seating for about 150 people, six pool tables and dozens of televisions, including 10 large screens, the “sports bar” description definitely fits Callahan’s. Part of the customer base is the presence of local adult teams, celebrating a soccer or rugby victory. But a few years ago, Neely remembered one older customer he found fascinating. “I had a guy, probably in his 90s, used to come in once a week with his son-in-law. He’d come in for a hamburger and one glass of red wine. He was president of General Dynamics. His project was Polaris submarines. I heard stories,” Neely recalled.

One of Neely’s biggest challenges is keeping up with technology. “We’re always upgrading electronics. We have all the sports packages. We keep trying to stay up with quality. Now we have NTN Buzztime trivia games.” NTN games include everything from fantasy football to card games on the big screens. NTN is now a “must” in sports bars.

Two facets of the business Neely likes best are the fact that his two sons are part of his bigger picture. Neely also owns Plantation Café and Deli, with locations on Pope Avenue and in Port Royal Plaza, and both sons help out, though the younger son is still a student at USCB. Not surprisingly, both restaurants are frequented year round by local residents.

Neely described the other aspect he most enjoys. “Sometimes I’ll buy regulars a beer. I might even pick up their tab. They’ll say, ‘You don’t have to do that.’ And I’ll say that one of the very few advantages of owning a restaurant is where you can be around friends and be a host. I’m here because of the people.”

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