Watching an intense tug-of-war battle across the Mississippi River on a hot day sounds like something that might make you hungry.
Luckily for the 30,000 people expected to flood the small towns of Port Byron and LeClaire this weekend during the 31st Tug Fest, there’s a new restaurant just for that.
It’s a place, located on the Port Byron riverfront, where you can grab the Tuggers Club sandwich and wash it down with one of a bunch of fittingly-named cocktails, such as the Rope Burn Bloody Mary, Mississippi Manhattan or the Tug Master Mojito.
Tuggers, an eatery specializing in burgers, beers and “urban nautical undertones,” opened in April. Its owners and staff have been talking about this weekend — its first Tug Fest — since day one.
“The goal was to become the Tug Fest location,” Kevin Steeber, general manager and chef at Tuggers, said Monday. “We have one of the best views. We knew it was going to be a destination spot.”
With four months under its belt, the 100-person capacity Tuggers joins other Main Street establishments such as Duey's Corner Tap and Harrington's Pub in the Rock Island County village with a population of about 1,600 that enjoy an annual surge in business during Tug Fest, which runs Thursday through Saturday.
Steeber, who previously served as the corporate chef at Deere & Co. and worked in the kitchen at Me & Billy in downtown Davenport, has put together a limited menu that includes the crunch and munch, a burger topped with citrus-chile dusted pork rinds. Additionally, Tuggers will extend its hours this weekend and offer specials on beer.
“We have no history or benchmark for this,” Steeber said. “We’re going to learn a lot.”
A test for Tuggers
It’s a much-anticipated test for Tuggers, said Tricia Ferrell, who owns the restaurant with her husband, John, as well as a Bettendorf couple, Dominic and Christy Rivera.
The Ferrells have lived in Hampton, just five miles away from Port Byron, for 20 years and they frequently visited Tuggers’ predecessor, called It’s on the River, which closed after seven years in August 2014.
The idea to bring a restaurant back to the 3,200-square foot spot was “always in the back of our minds,” Tricia Ferrell said.
When they purchased it last summer, Ferrell said they quickly landed on a Tug Fest theme.
“For such a small community to do something like Tug Fest is just absolutely remarkable,” Ferrell, a native of Waukon, Iowa said. “It’s such an accomplishment for a small town. We wanted to pay homage to the camaraderie and the friendly rivalry of it.”
Across the river
There may also be an unspoken rivalry between the establishments on opposing sides of the river.
But it’s all good natured, said Ryan Burchett, co-owner of Mississippi River Distilling Co.
“The Tug gets the headlines, but that’s just a small part of it,” Burchett said. “There are lots of people walking around all weekend, which is great for both cities. It’s small town Iowa at its best.”
This weekend marks the first Tug Fest for the distillery’s Cody Road Cocktail House, which opened in July. In previous years, the distillery could only offer free tours and samples during the festival because of liquor legislation in Iowa. This year, Burchett and his staff have 20 cocktails on tap and the business will host live music on Friday and Saturday.
The cocktail house’s outdoor patio offers a "perfect view” of the Tug, Burchett said, as does its neighbor, Green Tree Brewery.
“It’s the most people we’ll see in one weekend all year,” Burchett said. “We don’t know what to expect. I hope we’re ready.”
The draw of the Mississippi
The team behind Tuggers were hooked on the location’s view and proximity to the river.
“It’s not the ocean, but the Mississippi River is a huge landmark,” Ferrell said. “Once we opened, we heard that people driving by would stop near the Mississippi River just to dip their toes in. The Mississippi River has quite a draw.”
But, around the Quad-City area, Ferrell said, “We take the river for granted. We don’t have a lot of restaurants on the river, or as many as we could have.”
Others include the Captain’s Table in Moline, Driftwood Pub in Davenport and Go Fish Marina Bar & Grill in Princeton, Iowa.
Tuggers is trying to make the most of its backyard, complete with a patio, beach area, outdoor games and a dock for boaters. A tiki bar is in the works.
Ferrell hopes to stretch out patio season by adding heaters in the colder months. Plus, the windows are outfitted with adjustable screens.
“Being outside just makes you feel like you’re on a getaway,” Ferrell said. “It also makes you appreciate where you are.”
It makes for an ideal setting to watch the Tug, set for noon to 3 p.m. Saturday.
Near the restaurant’s front door, a scoreboard shows the competition’s current tally: 19 wins for “Us” and 11 wins for “Them.”
Whether or not Port Byron’s winning streak of the ultimate tug-of-war continues, Tuggers may turn into the ultimate spot for a toast.