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Mohegan — In a sign that it’s intent on diversifying outside the gaming industry, the Mohegan Tribe announced Friday that it has signed a deal with a Harrisburg, Pa.-based restaurant chain to open at least 15 franchised restaurant locations throughout New England over the next five years.
Under the agreement, the tribe will open the first Arooga’s Grill House and Sports Bar on reservation land adjacent to Mohegan Sun, the tribe’s flagship casino.
The deal is one of several nongaming initiatives the tribe is pursuing and the only major one to be made public.
In a statement, Kevin Brown, the Mohegan tribal chairman, hailed the partnership with Arooga’s, the tribe’s first franchising venture.
“We are thrilled to bring this incredible sports bar concept to the New England area,” he said. “Arooga’s reputation for being the next great restaurant franchise is well earned and we are privileged and pleased to have them as an important part of our organization.”
A new tribal-government department that the Mohegan Tribal Council created to investigate opportunities beyond gaming and hospitality pursued the deal, according to Chuck Bunnell, the tribe’s chief of staff. Phil Cahill, the tribe’s chief operating officer, oversees the department, which is headed by Jeanette Ziegler, Bunnell said.
“They’re looking at all kinds of initiatives, from high tech to manufacturing; it runs the gamut,” he said.
In 2011, the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which manages the tribe’s gaming operations, including Mohegan Sun and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., formed Mohegan Gaming Advisors to pursue management opportunities in the gaming industry. Mohegan Gaming Advisors now manages Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City.
Economic pressures have taken a toll on casinos in recent years, prompting both the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots, who own Foxwoods Resort Casino, to increasingly focus on developing alternative revenue streams. An 80-store outlet mall is under construction at Foxwoods, while Mohegan Sun announced plans last year to add retail, entertainment and dining options to its Uncasville property.
Arooga’s — the name is derived from the sound of the Model T car horn — operates eight corporate-owned restaurants in central Pennsylvania, including three in Harrisburg, and plans to open a ninth this summer in Shippensburg. Founded in 2008, the company expects to rapidly expand beyond Pennsylvania, largely through franchising.
Arooga’s was named “America’s Next Top Restaurant Franchise” in a 2010 competition involving more than 250 entrants from 36 states.
The Arooga’s at Mohegan Sun is to be built across from the tribe’s public safety building in a parking lot off Sandy Desert Road, which is off Route 32. It will encompass 9,000 square feet of space and include a separate bar area, a large outdoor deck for dining and fire pits for social gatherings. It will feature more than 100 big-screen TVs and offer some 40 domestic and craft beers on tap.
Cincinnati-based FRCH Design Worldwide is designing the restaurant, which is expected to open before the end of the year. Existing Arooga’s locations employ from 50 to 100 people, depending on the size of the restaurant.
“We are excited to announce this agreement with the Mohegan Tribe,” said Keith Swade, Arooga’s director of franchise development. “They are a world class organization and a leader in the hospitality and gaming industry. We could not ask for a better partner to develop the New England market for Arooga’s.”