• David A.F. Sweet

Cool(er) Hand Luke: Lake Forest Resident Plants Flag in Tailgating Business

By David A. F. Sweet What happens when former Chicago Bears quarterback Bobby Douglass shows up to your playoff tailgate party? Lake Forest's Luke Lincoln, head of American Tailgater, found out in the winter of 2007. With his tailgate set up in the Soldier Field parking lot before the New Orleans Saints met the Bears in the NFC Championship game, Douglass -- also a Lake Forest resident -- appeared. Suddenly, partyers jettisoned their plates of Jambalaya and started running routes for the left-handed gunslinger, who once threw four touchdown passes with a broken wrist.

Luke Lincoln takes his boys Lukie and Fritz to their first Bears' game.

“Bobby is just dropping balls on the dime right behind grills and cars,” said Lincoln, a Lake Forest native who co-founded the tailgating business with his brother Mike in 1998. “One gentleman who stopped appeared to question Bobby's arm strength, so Bobby had him run a 15-yard pattern and zipped a heater right on the mark. The poor guy spent the rest of

the tailgate with his swollen hand in the beer cooler.”


Though not usually used for medical emergencies, the coolers Lincoln’s firm supplies are one of its most popular items. In fact, the RollR cooler – a wheeled contraption that Lincoln said can keep beer cool for a week while offering ample space for food -- was a huge hit both during the pandemic last year when homegating replaced tailgating and also this year as stadiums have opened up. A product that has shined this fall is the $300 telescoping flagpole (the $100 version is stuck off the coast of California in the well-publicized supply-chain bottleneck).


“You run the telescoping flagpole up 20 feet and fly two flags – sometimes the home team flag and then a unique flag so people can find you,” said Lincoln, whose Duke University banner no doubt was the only one fluttering in the Soldier Field parking lot back in the day.


A graduate of the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management as well as the North Carolina school, Lincoln has combined his passion for sports with a business that, aside from the occasional Jimmy Buffet concert or Ravinia performance, is married to college and professional games. Early on, he saw there were really two types of tailgaters.


“One of the things that jumped out is when I went to the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders games the same weekend,” recalled Lincoln, who wore a tie dotted with Weber grills during our chat. “The 49ers fans used china and brought cracked crab. The Raiders were a beer and cheese whiz crowd. And they were angry. I feared for my safety.”


Lincoln chose to cater to the higher-end tailgaters.


“Those are our best sales,” he said. “The SEC is probably the best market for us – people are passionate about their teams, and there’s great weather.”


That includes places like the University of Mississippi in Oxford, one of Lincoln’s favorite spots to tailgate.


“The Grove at Ole Miss is so steeped in tradition,” he said. “There’s a lot of open space, and the men dress in coat and tie. The old-timers bring out the fancy stuff.”


Tens of millions of college fans tailgate every football season, while an estimated four million tailgaters attend NFL games in a normal year, so the market of potential customers is robust. Of course, the 2020 lockdowns nearly destroyed Lincoln’s business, as corporate customers – about a third of sales –stopped spending since no fans also equals no tailgaters.


“When I heard there wasn’t going to be a football season with fans, I thought this could be it,” Lincoln said. “Fortunately, we got creative and marketed to people at home.”


Aside from the standard products you’d expect, such as grills and chairs, American Tailgater offers offbeat ones: a Football Helmet Beer Tower, a cooler that features speakers so you can blast pregame music and The Beer Belly (a pouch you strap to your body with a beer dispenser) among them. Marketing is mainly word of mouth, though Lincoln has advertised on the Bears’ website and sponsored the Ultimate Sports Adventure, where two guys drove an RV around the country for a year and watched the top events, starting with one Super Bowl and ending with another.


Lincoln’s business is a one-man shop with some seasonal help that focuses heavily on the football crowd, though he sees Nascar as a growth opportunity. His office resides behind the Hot Shots hockey rink off Route 41 near Lake Bluff, where his sons often play hockey and where Lincoln participates in a men’s league. In fact, he compares tailgaters to those who play in adult hockey leagues.


“When I played hockey in Washington, D.C., we’d have a baggage handler from United, a consultant in his suit,” Lincoln said. “At Soldier Field, we tailgated with landscapers and carpenters, and next to us were community bankers. The camaraderie is so strong.”


And even though the Bears beat the Saints in 2007 to make the Super Bowl, Lincoln’s best-loved memory that day involved tailgating.


“My favorite takeaway was Bobby Douglass cleaning us out of Jambalaya and reminding us that he played in New Orleans and ours was the best Jambalya he'd tasted!” Lincoln said. “No one has a bad time tailgating.” This article was reprinted with permission from Classic Chicago magazine.