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Nearly 70 Indy restaurants happy to serve teams in NCAA bubble

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Although fans in the Circle City on Friday enjoyed the first full day of the all-Indiana NCAA men’s basketball tournament games, restaurants have been reaping the benefits for about a week.

Athletes, coaches and staff in their coronavirus bubbles can’t get food just anywhere; fewer than 100 restaurants are approved across the city.

The restaurants aren’t just serving the bubbles on the weekends. Most teams entered the bubble a week ago, and the game winners still can’t leave until for another 2.5 weeks. That’s a lot of breakfast, lunch and dinners between now and then.

Waffle House is one of roughly 70 with the seal of approval to deliver food for the bubble.

“It’s been a great opportunity by having the NCAA here this year,” said regional manager Ezra Willingham.

Each team is responsible for its own meals, so it means 35, sometimes 40, meals needed at once.

Iconic downtown restaurants including St. Elmo Steak House are on the list but so are pizza places, ethnic restaurants and nationwide chains. There are even a few such as the Waffle House in the Indy suburbs.

Make no mistake, with a national footprint especially in the South, for college kids on the road, the waffles, hash browns and eggs are a taste of home. The Waffle House regional manager said, “A lot of teams come from all across the country, and we have seen a lot of teams are very, very interested in having Waffle House while they’re here.”

Grindstone Charley’s is also on the list.

“It’s special to be a part of the NCAA,” said owner Blake Fogelsong.

It’s already paid off. The Baylor team got their dinner from Grindstone Charley’s on Friday after their win.

Fogelsong said he’s gotten about eight orders this week, each with an average price tag from $800-$1,000.

“These are big orders for us,” Fogelsong said.

Still, it’s not easy considering they are just doing it all with the staff on hand … though there are certainly more hours to go around.

“That’s been the challenging thing is doing it with the dining room is busy as well,” said the Grindstone Charley’s owner.

To make the cut, each place had to go through a vetting process, and agree to serve a minimum of 34 orders in as little as four hours, which means they have to carry a lot of extra inventory on hand with no guarantee they are ever going to get the call.

That’s why while the Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association invited everyone to participate, many decided it was just too much.

One final requirement: delivery to the hotel.

With no delivery option usually, Fogelsong is doing it himself. “I’m actually taking the orders down to the hotel and dropping it off. So, it’s been fun for me,” he said. “We’re just super-excited coming out of the pandemic after having such a hard year.”

Willingham with Waffle House agrees.

“Us doing our part to be a part of the community and trying to get them a little semblance of home,” he said. “The student-athletes are in a bubble. When they see that list, that Waffle House is one of those names, they will recognize. We love to bring the familiarity, that sense of home to them, to give them that sense of comfort and also to give them a hot meal.”

The current setup is a big change from the typical tournament. It’s not just the number of teams gathered in one place. Usually teams have meals catered through the hotel or perhaps use a private dining room at a restaurant; sometimes athletes can even go get their own food on a day off.

While hotel catering is certainly still an option, there’s such an extended time frame, an outside restaurant list is an important piece of life in the bubble.