How beloved SF sports bar Underdogs survived a fire, a failed kidney and a pandemic

An exterior photo of Underdogs Tres in San Francisco.

On Dec. 2, Doug Marschke spoke to Eater about Taco Shop at Underdogs — the sports bar he’s owned since 2008 — and its impending move to Ninth Avenue in San Francisco, where it would be renamed Underdogs Tres.

Underdogs Too, his other sports bar in the city, was “in a better situation” than the original Taco Shop, which had been “struggling since March” to such a degree that Marschke had to seek out a more conducive location for delivery and takeout orders.

Less than two weeks later, on Dec. 15, Marschke was awakened at 7 in the morning by a flurry of texts asking if he was okay. The answer, truthfully, was no: A few months earlier, he was diagnosed with kidney failure. But that’s not why people were reaching out. Underdogs Too was on fire.

Marschke rushed over to the taco spot on Taraval Street and found it burnt to a crisp. Dozens of firemen had already put out the worst of the flames, but there was no chance of salvaging the building. Marschke’s mind went into overdrive. First, he was terrified employees might have been inside. That was not the case, though. What likely started as a small electrical fire at the crack of dawn had grown and grown and grown because no one was in yet. So one concern was alleviated, and another immediately sprung forth.

“Once I knew everyone was safe, then I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen to all the employees’ jobs? And what’s going to happen to me?’” Marschke had a ton of loans attached to the second location, which had been operating for only a few years. “It was a disaster at the worst time,” he says.

Underdogs Tres has now been open for a little more than a week, while Too is a pile of rubble. “It’s been a strange month, for sure,” Marschke says. No kidding.

Marschke stumbled into owning a sports bar thanks to his coed flag football team. In 2006, he convinced Underdogs Sports Bar and Grill to sponsor his squad, whom he says won multiple championships before they succumbed to, in his own words, “getting old.” Underdogs, in turn, convinced Marschke to become an investor in the bar, and quickly, he was attached. Business was struggling; within two years, he’d invested more and more and more until it was his own bar, at which point he convinced his chef friend Nick Fasanella to reinvent the menu with “great food that’s sustainable and fresh and environmentally friendly,” Marschke says.

Underdogs started garnering attention in local publications for its highly regarded fish tacos, and then the San Francisco Giants turned into a juggernaut. It was a potent combination. When the Giants won the World Series in 2010, Marschke remembers “madness at the bar and madness in the streets.” The continued success of the Golden State Warriors has also been a boon for business, and Marschke — a University of Michigan alum — has always made sure to get big-time Wolverines games on the TVs too.

Underdogs Too opened a few years ago. Both Underdogs locations were doing great at the beginning of 2020, Marschke says. March Madness was fast approaching, which consistently led to packed crowds. The lease at the original Underdogs was set to expire soon, but its renewal was a formality.

The pandemic messed all of that up. Underdogs Too churned along because it was better arranged for delivery and takeout, but the first Underdogs was a “special place that was really built for indoor dining,” Marschke says.

There were furloughs of more than half the staff. When outdoor dining was allowed, Underdogs didn’t really benefit, because there wasn’t much room for a parklet. Kitchen capacity needed to increase, and it would’ve taken a huge investment to keep the space. In September, Marschke reached out to the owner of the recently closed Nopalito and negotiated to buy the location, which had a larger kitchen space, a patio and a parklet.

The Underdogs Tres menu.
The Underdogs Tres menu. Credit: Blair Heagerty / SFGATE

So that takes us back to mid-December. As Marschke was solving for all the little issues that pop up when you leave one bar location, and solving for all the big issues that arise when you’re arriving at a new bar location, his other bar burned down, which caused far bigger issues.

“There are so many people around you pushing cards in your face,” he says. “Smoke and fire remediation companies, insurance adjusters. They’re all trying to get a piece of that insurance buy. It just gets overwhelming. We pay them to be helpful, but at the end of the day, they’re just trying to get their cut.”

More importantly, the 38 Underdogs Too employees are suddenly out of work in an industry that’s already decimated. Marschke doesn’t see the second stimulus bill helping an already-closed restaurant, so he launched a GoFundMe for his workers. “I wanted to at least give them something to get them through Christmas,” he says.

The GoFundMe — which is only necessary because federal, state and local governments have failed to adequately support unemployed workers — has accumulated $48,040 as of Tuesday. Marschke sent out a round of checks from the fundraiser before the holidays and plans on sending out another round at the end of this week, if you have anything to spare.

On the bright side, if you want to call it that, Marschke is cautiously optimistic Underdogs Too will be reconstructed by this summer. And his other location, Underdogs Tres, has gotten lots of support from the neighborhood since it opened for delivery and takeout. (They can’t use the patio or parklet he liked so much when he nabbed the new spot because of the outdoor dining ban.)

An exterior photo of Underdogs Tres in San Francisco.
An exterior photo of Underdogs Tres in San Francisco. Credit: Blair Heagerty / SFGATE

“It was tough for me personally trying not to bring that negative energy to this location, but the staff that was moving was excited,” he says. He promises that someday, Underdogs Tres will be a destination for big sports games just like the Taco Shop.

For the foreseeable future, Marschke won’t be around the bar much. His kidney failure condition puts him at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19, so he’s understandably been a homebody (which is also why we didn’t ask him for portrait shots for this story).

“It’s changed the way I operate in life and with the restaurant,” he says. The good news — and this is actually good news in a story full of anything but — is that he recently found a kidney donor: his wife.

You can donate to the Underdogs Too GoFundMe for its employees here.

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