Everyone likes to feel smart
Updated: Sep 17, 2018
There's nothing trivial about trivia at bars and restaurants around Western New York
Trivia is a booming business around Buffalo.
Most weeknights, it’s easy to find a bar or restaurant hosting a trivia game, from the controlled chaos of shouted answers at Founding Fathers pub on Edward Street, to the music infused, casual vibe of DJ Trivia at several Western New York locations, to questions spanning diverse categories offered at a pizzeria and brewery in the Southtowns.
Hundreds play every night, then return the following week to do it again. Why trivia?
There’s not one easy answer, but people are drawn to its social aspect — food, drink and conversation with friends. And everyone likes to feel smart.
Bill Metzger purchased Gene McCarthy’s, a 50-year-old bar on Hamburg Street in Buffalo’s First Ward, back in 2012. With his business partner, Matt Conron, they had visions of developing a brewery. Metzger recognized that craft beer shops were popping up nationwide, and wanted to capitalize on the growing trend. But he faced a more immediate challenge: turning around the fortunes of a struggling tavern in a blighted neighborhood.
“People came in and said their grandfather used to drink here,” Metzger recalled. “But most of those families had moved out to the suburbs. We knew we had to attract customers beyond just the neighborhood crowd.”
Metzger, now 63, hosted beer schools and better beverage societies, educating patrons. He considered adding a karaoke machine. But a lunchtime discussion with a friend, Kristen Phillips, sparked a different idea.
“Kristen had come in before with a group of single women,” Metzger said. “They were looking for fun things to do. She had been going to trivia games at a different bar. As we talked, it seemed like a good idea to try it. I asked her if she’d like to run trivia here on Tuesdays, because Tuesday was our slowest night.”
Phillips, now 38, has since married, changing her name to Kristen Lisiecki. She works as a math teacher at Frontier High School in Hamburg. She had never hosted trivia, but was confident enough to try.
"I wanted to make the game easy enough where everyone could have fun and not feel like an idiot." — Kristen Lisiecki
“I have a bubbly personality and teaching lends itself to doing things in front of people,” she shrugged. “When I take something on, I throw myself into it, so I knew I could do a good job.”
Lisiecki spent a month reading, researching online, and watching old episodes of "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" to develop a format and write questions.
Before the initial game in June 2013, both owner and host were nervous. What if only a few people showed up? Worse, what if no one came?
No worries needed. That night, thanks to an advertising push, the bar was packed. The second week was filled as well. Trivia at Gene McCarthy’s was off and running, inspiring other venues to follow.
Finding a format
“People like seeing how smart they are,” mused Bill Shaflucas, owner of DJ Trivia, a company that hosts 46 trivia contests every week at establishments from Buffalo to Rochester. “There’s a reason 'Jeopardy' has been on TV for more than 30 years.”
A Williamsville resident, Shaflucas, 46, got involved with trivia when he worked at various bars. He soon recognized that he wasn’t good at writing questions, so he connected with a national trivia company, adopting their format.
“We ask 20 questions, and our program is designed to be social. We play music and with fewer questions, we don’t have to be the center of attention. We give players a booklet for multiple choice answers and some fill-in-the-blanks. We also have picture questions, because it’s hard to Google those. Our show is two hours, and we take song requests during the game.”
The format is different from other trivia contests. After years of experience, Shaflucas has a good handle on when and where DJ Trivia games will be successful.
“It’s not a good fit for everybody,” he admitted. “We like big groups. We look for places that serve shareable appetizers, have big menus and allow families with children. If a pub caters to singles that have two or three craft beers, or doesn’t have a menu, our trivia show probably isn’t going to succeed there.”
With DJ Trivia’s format, a team is never out of the running to win, even by the final question. That sours some hardcore trivia fans, who believe overall knowledge should be rewarded with accumulating points. Shaflucas understands the concern, but also wants to keep patrons engaged in the game.
“I get it,” he admitted. “But if you start playing, and only get one out of four questions right, how long will you want to stick around?”
Lisiecki developed a different format. Her game consists of five rounds, with eight different categories, for a total of forty questions; answers are written on a slip of paper. With each round, questions become progressively more difficult.
Same categories include “Now I Know My ABCs,” which focuses on spelling difficult words, “Don’t Know Much About History,” and “Music To My Ears,” featuring questions about songs or musicians. A bonus question is included during the first four rounds, and if only one team answers a question correctly, they are rewarded with two points instead of one.
“From attending different trivia contests, I knew what I didn’t want,” Lisiecki said. “I didn’t want shout out trivia. How do you choose who said it first? I went to another game where the questions were really hard. One answer was some country I’d never heard of. I wanted to make the game easy enough where everyone could have fun and not feel like an idiot. Even if you didn’t know the answer, when you heard it, you’d say ‘Oh yeah, now I remember that.’”
As part of her research, Lisiecki learned that the best trivia contests occur when the average person can correctly answer 75% of the questions.
“The popularity of our game grew out of the great structure,” Metzger said, complimenting Lisiecki’s format. “The different categories gave everyone in the group an opportunity to participate. One person might not know anything about a movie category, but another category was about literature, and they were an expert on that.”
Some bars host themed trivia nights. The NBC show "The Office," for instance, still has a devoted fan base, even though episodes stopped airing in 2013. One specialized trivia game featured questions focusing solely on that that show. Yet participants complained about difficult questions that were too obscure. And if a random customer had never seen "The Office," why would that person even join the game?
Land or Sea?
Amy Hoffman’s experiences with trivia are different from most others. She hosted trivia at sea on Carnival Cruises.
“You’re in an environment where people pay to be there, so they expect 200% satisfaction all the time,” she said.
Hoffman, 30, graduated from Orchard Park High School in 2005. After earning a theater degree from the University of South Florida, she taught pre-school in Tampa before being hired by Carnival Cruises in 2011. Hosts are responsible for on-board entertainment, including poolside competitions, running the comedy club, and coordinating trivia contests.
“Trivia is scheduled every day of every cruise,” she noted. “If you’re on duty at a certain time, you’re hosting trivia. We started at 11 a.m. and went back to back to back until 6 p.m.”
When she began the job, each ship held a binder with a menu of potential questions, Hoffman explained. Those questions — some originally written as far back as 1985 — were shared among ships. But that led to controversy from patrons who sailed on more than one Carnival cruise.
“You saw a lot of the same questions on different ships. When I started, smart phones weren’t as prevalent. Soon people started arguing, saying there could be two possible answers. Problems arose, so the corporate office in Florida decided to streamline the process and create questions from their end. Everything went into a central system and we could only use those questions. Too many people were complaining.”
Hoffman was able to contribute questions — she created a category about her favorite TV show, "I Love Lucy" — but they were fact-checked by management.
On land, Hoffman observed, the tenor of games is different. People attend trivia for various reasons.
“At the end of the night, when someone loses, they say, well, I was with friends and we had a few beers and it was fun.”
Not so on a cruise ship.
“Some people never get off the ship and come back for every single game,” she recalled. “They’re competitive and focused on getting a win. I even saw people bring old answer sheets from previous cruises. We had to ask them to put those away because trivia should be based on what you know.”
Because of the international tenor of a cruise, regional questions aren’t appropriate, so often there were themes, like Disney songs, classic rock, or even Harry Potter.
Hoffman, who returned to Blasdell in 2017, has since participated in local trivia contests as a player. Her experience on the other side of the microphone, she believes, does not provide much advantage.
“I’m not very good at sports or at Buffalo-based questions,” she said. “But I guess sometimes my experience helps. I went to trivia at Gene McCarthy’s, and the tiebreaker question was ‘what was the original flavor of Heintz 57 varieties?’ I knew it was horseradish, but I’m not sure where that knowledge came from.”
Even before Jimmy Butera opened his restaurant serving craft beer and pizza in Hamburg in 2015, he knew he wanted to incorporate a trivia night.
“We were looking for something entertaining to do with a family,” Butera said.
He had seen Lisiecki host trivia at Gene MeCarthy’s, and contacted her with a job offer, promising that Monday nights would not conflict with her Tuesday schedule. For nearly a year, Lisiecki hosted at both venues. By the end of 2016, however, she left Gene McCarthy’s and now hosts exclusively at Butera’s.
“Two nights a week was just too much,” she said. “Something had to give. The people at Butera’s are competitive but in a healthy way.”
Lisiecki, in fact, met Don, who would become her husband, while hosting trivia at Gene McCarthy’s. The benefits haven't been solely romantic, however. Her experience has led to other opportunities: she coordinated trivia at Buffalo Riverfest in 2014, and was hired to ask love and wedding-related questions at a bridal shower in lieu of traditional bridal games.
At Butera’s, trivia's popularity has soared. By summer 2018, reservations were required to participate on Monday nights. When the room is filled, more than 50 adults compete.
“That’s because of the nice atmosphere,” Butera observed. “It’s friendly but competitive. It’s mainly family oriented, and the clientele isn’t overbearing. We have three tables that are constant every week. There’s a group that hasn’t missed a game in more than a year.”
One regular team is composed of Jim and Cheryl Walters of North Collins, Frank and Linda Silagyi, also of North Collins, with their son David, Debbie Castro of Derby, and Ron Degenfelder of Hamburg. Jim, Linda and Debbie are siblings. Each week the team fields between six and eight players.
“It’s a night out with the family,” said Linda. “We come for the fun. We don’t really care if we win.”
Lisiecki is proud of the niche she’s created as a trivia host.
“There are some Monday nights where it’s snowy or rainy and I don’t feel like leaving my house,” she said. But once Lisiecki arrives at Butera's, she immediately feels rejuvenated, pleased to find herself in a routine.
“Patrons have promised to follow me anywhere that I do trivia,“ she said. “A woman came up and complimented me, saying what I do is an art form. I love it.”
©2018 by Jeff Schober
The story behind
Early in 2016, Kristen Lisiecki mentioned she was hosting trivia at Butera’s on Monday nights. Kristen and I have worked together for years — we smack-talked each other during one fantasy football season when our rival teams met in the finals — and Butera’s is only a few blocks from my house. Since Trivial Pursuit became a party staple in the 1980s, I’ve been a fan of general knowledge questions. My wife and I even participated in a "Jeopardy" casting call at the Buffalo Convention Center back in 2001, long before we married. (I, who spent a month studying at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., incorrectly answered "Hamlet" instead of "King Lear"…)
So I took my stepson to Kristen’s trivia game, and a family tradition was born. Many Monday nights, Matty and I can be found in Butera’s side room, battling other teams. We’ve become friendly with our regular competitors. Kristen is a pro; she sticks to a routine and keeps the atmosphere light. But it got me thinking: How did this all begin? Where do her ideas come from? How does she decide what questions to ask? Are any categories too hard?
I hope you enjoy this feature. Keep checking back to Buffalo Tales for more stories like this.