When news first hit this summer that Saginaw realtor Scott Wilson and his son Nate Wilson were teaming up with businessmen Dave Bell & Brian Denman, owners of several fast-food franchises throughout the Tri-Cities, to open a new restaurant & custom-brew pub at 9620 Gratiot in Shields at the location that once housed the long-standing & successful Old Tyme Roadhouse, word spread and anticipation fanned out like a raging California wildfire when it was simultaneously announced the team enlisted the talented acumen of Dan Ballard to oversee and manage the daily operation of what is to become Sporty’s Wing Shack & Smokehouse – without doubt, one of the most sought-after and frequented destination points in Northern Michigan.
The initial creation of Sporty’s was pulled together by the team of Doug Worth and his father Dick Worth. Back on August 1, 2000 they took over the ‘Ole Sportsman’s Saloon’ in Pinconning and for legal reasons could not keep the name, so they changed it to ‘D.W. Sportsman’s Brew Pub’ with hopes of brewing beer on site. However, not having any city sewer services, they were unable to engage in on-site brewing, so as an alternative option began training customers to drink premium draft beer and shift the focus to their food service.
“We made chicken wings our main goal and started out with five flavors: plain, mild, medium, Hot, and Satan’s Breath,” explains Doug. “As time passed customers kept encouraging us to kick up the heat, so we made a few more hotter sauces, bringing us up to seven flavors.”
“Then while cutting grass one day I had a vision,” continues Doug. “Seven flavors, eleven wings in an order, so with gambling in mind, I came up with 7, 11, 21 and started developing recipes until we had 21 sauces, with ‘Challenger’ being our hottest, containing 250,000 secoville units of heat.”
As their reputation spread and people started frequenting Sporty’s over the weekends on their way north to summer cottages and weekend getaways, the Worths knew they were onto something; yet according to Doug, customers still wanted hotter sauces to dip their meaty and meticulously fresh (never frozen) deep fried wings in, so as he puts it: “You get what you ask for in my book. I formulated what is known as our Suicide Sauce that is 300,000 times hotter than straight Tabasco, with 650,000 units. Along with this sauce came a waiver for customers to sign, for our protection,” smiles Doug.
“After burning up a few people and word getting out we started challenging people from all walks of life to sample all of our sauces, yet always aim to provide something for everyone. So while chicken wings are our specialty, we also focused on developing top notch Chili, Burgers, and great pub style sandwiches and burgers, which are our forte; and after 15 years we now find ourselves branding out to this new location and a wide open future.”
The new Gratiot location, which is slated to open around mid-November, will be the inaugural franchise of what has proven through the test of time to be a uniquely distinct concoction of slow-cooked barbecue, custom-crafted beers, community involvement, and varied entertainment – so who better to enlist for daily management of the operation than Mr. Dan Ballard, who shares a similar & strong reputation for overseeing the equally successful Shooters Entertainment Complex, which was also located on Gratiot and for nearly twenty years set the standard for offering quality and affordable dining, a massive game room, live music, and one of the area’s first Comedy Shops.
According to Dan, the Wilsons’ wanted to reach out and do something for the community, start a business, and put 30 people to work, so when the opportunity to pick up the Sporty’s franchise surfaced, they jumped at the opportunity. “They wanted to involve themselves with something positive and Scott said it would be perfect for me to oversee and be the front man and help pull it all together.”
“And in all honesty, the key players involved are the perfect mix. Everybody has their role down. My job is to oversee and maintain the daily operations, the Wilsons’ have the real estate down, while Dave and Brian have the restaurant expertise. If this turns out to be as successful as we believe it will then we will start looking at opening other locations in Lansing and Grand Rapids.”
Because he has also toured the national comedy circuit and was one of the earlier promoters of stand-up comedy in the area, while the focus at Sporty’s will be sports-related activities, the potential also exists for exploring varied entertainment options. “For me it’s like everything is falling together nicely for someone 63-years old looking to make a final hurrah,” laughs Ballard. “Because of way that the bar is set up in a horseshoe shape, it’s also set nicely to possibly introduce some stand-up comedy. Sports will be our forte, but if somebody like Mike Armstrong or local favorite Rob Little is passing through town, we might be able to get them to do show for a night in the area. And with a stage there, I might go up for 10 minutes myself on any given night.”
Ballard also relates how over the years he developed bonds with the Wilson’s. “Scott’s wife went to school with my ex-wife, so I had a connection with him when I first came to town years ago; and his son Nate worked for me at Shooter’s back when he was 15 or 16, so I got to know the family quite well.”
“Because of the reputation Sporty’s carries in Pinconning and this was the first franchise to open, they were looking for somebody with some background that wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the operation, “ continues Dan. “So he went to the other partners and I went through an entire interview process that lasted over three or four sessions. I asked them straight-out if they wanted me as a consultant or to run the operation, and they said: ‘We want you to run it.’
“Personally, I’m excited to have this opportunity. What a chance for me to take this last big jump in my life! I know we’ve got an excellent product and are putting together the team to deliver it. We’ll have volleyball out back and are working on a 4-year plan. These are solid people and we have a natural and easy-going relationship. It’s the perfect thing for me at this stage in my life.”
In 2008 the Worths' decided to do a marketing change to focus on their infamous wings, changing their name to Sporty’s Wing Shack & Smokehouse, while developing a new mascot character, ‘The Super Chicken’.
“Our image is a more family friendly atmosphere and we have had a great response and a new following of customers from the whole State of Michigan and beyond. We pride ourselves in making food fresh to order and our always fresh and never frozen wings are what make us different and better than all other competitors,” he asserts. “Fresh is King in our world. We may not be the fastest, but the wait is well worth it at Sporty’s.
After 12 years of doing the Suicide Challenge, the team now has 63 people making the Sporty’s Wall of Fame, with over 800 takers that just couldn’t make the grade. “So if you’re a hot wing maniac we’re the place that is a must for your resume.”
Without doubt, one of the signature components involved with the ever-expanding success and reputation of Sporty’s that draws considerable attention is the custom-designed Smoker that Dick Worth has built with his own hands and imagination.
“This machine is something to behold,” states Ballard. “On my first visit I stood in awe. This smoker was fired up and smelling like a million bucks. Dick was smoking some shoulders at the time and they were sitting on the grill with a light smoke rolling over them. Dick takes his time when he smokes his barbecue and whenever whatever he has decided to smoke is gone, it’s gone – there’s no more to be had for that day. So get ready folks, because if Dick has the grill going it’s some of the best smokehouse food you will ever eat.”
“When I first visited Sporty’s in Pinconning I could not believe how phenomenal the food was and how freaking packed the place was,” enthuses Dan. “The wings were the best I ever had because they cook them slow and long enough so they’re tender yet crispy; and they don’t sit in sauce a long time, so they’re not chewy or flabby. They’ve spent over 15-years getting the recipes right and feature incredible burgers & sandwiches as well.”
“Everything they turn out is over the top and I think Doug and his father have taken a lot of time to make what they offer the best you will get anywhere,” continues Dan. “On Thursday through the weekends the place is backed up with wall-to-wall people, but Dick is an ex-metal worker and the smoker he designed is a piece of engineering genius. It looks like a big train engine and he’s a salt of the earth kind of guy with a passion for smoking. He’ll start smoking on Thursday and when he pulls ribs off at 4 PM Thursday they will usually be gone by Friday night, if they last that long.”
“That’s why we are being very careful about training our cooks properly,” emphasizes Dan. “They will train in Pinconning for a good month because even though we’re offering a bar type menu, we have to get everything just the way they have it in Pinconning. Our guys have to be on their game, including myself.”
As for the Gratiot location, the entire building has been gutted and is being totally re-designed with new grills, air vents, deep fryers and charbroilers. “We will have 14 craft beers on Draft, along with a couple of Domestics and Sporty’s Ale, so we want to take the arena of craft beer to a new level. There’s certain seasonal ones you have to provide, like Oktoberfest; but Nate has his thumb on this, so it will also evolve.”
“Well have fifteen 42-Inch TV’s with seven at the bar for people to watch Sports action on and we blew out the bar and opened the windows, so there’s a lot more light coming through, “ adds Dan.
Sporty’s will be open seven days a week from 11:00 AM to Midnight and they also intend to tie-in with the local high-schools on regional and local sports events and involvement. “With all the pre-talk that’s been going I don’t believe we’ll be able to do a ‘soft-opening’,” notes Dan.
“This place is going to be swinging, which is why I want everybody to have their game down before the first sale is rung on the register.”
So how does it feel to back in the game for Ballard? “Everybody involved with this project is top-notch and we have great times ahead and a great product to be shared with everyone,” says Ballard. “I’m proud to be a part of this new adventure.”