It’s Sunday night at the 331 Club and the grimy dive bar is brimming with know-it-alls. Or at least, they hope they know it all. A Trivia Mafia quiz is about to get underway.
The brainiac players—primarily male, under 35, and fans of screenprint T-shirts, beards, baseball caps, and Buddy Holly glasses—are gathered in small groups at circular tables close to the stage. Larger cohorts are holed up in red-cushioned booths. Pints, pens, and answer sheets abound.
Tonight’s host informs players that there are two rules to Trivia Mafia: no shouting out answers and no cheating with a cell phone. (Indeed, Trivia Mafia’s slogan is “Use your noodle. Not your Google.”) And with that, they’re off. Questions are posed at the mic, jouncing from which band is named after a strap-on steam-powered dildo to which country is the world’s leading producer of coffee to which book of the Bible features the great flood. Each query is followed by a few minutes of hushed discussion among the groups as eclectic music plays and players scribble down their responses.
None of this would be happening if Trivia Mafia founders Sean McPherson and Chuck Terhark hadn’t been thrown together one night in 2006 by 331 Club co-owner Jarret Oulman. McPherson, a musician, and Terhark, a writer, editor, and co-creator of the Zombie Pub Crawl, each had designs on hosting Sunday night trivia. Though they’d never met before, they joined forces to run it together.
“We hit it off and started having pretty good crowds pretty quickly and realized that this was something that had some legs beyond one neighborhood trivia night,” McPherson says.
They soon introduced their trivia to another bar in Northeast and a couple more in St. Paul. Then Paul Dzubnar, the CEO of Hightop Hospitality, which runs the Green Mill Restaurants, brought Trivia Mafia to its Eagan, Lakeville, and St. Paul locations. As sales numbers improved, Green Mill corporate decided to fund a month of complimentary trivia for all Twin Cities Green Mill locations. McPherson and Terhark went from doing trivia three to four nights a week to 19 trivia nights in one week in March of 2008.
That’s when they realized this wasn’t just a phenomenon—it was a business. They formalized the operation and now boast Trivia Mafia events in over 100 locations.
“It’s an underserved market,” McPherson says. “There’s a whole lot of things to do for folks who really want to go catch bands or go dance. But for folks who want to still relate to pen and paper and use their brain and capitalize on all the information they’ve gathered in their life, but they want to do it in a fun, non-scholastic environment, we’re an important part of a lot of those people’s social calendars.”
In addition to bars, Trivia Mafia has grown thanks to the uptick in local breweries and taprooms. “What happens at taprooms really aligns with trivia players,” McPherson says. “There’s a lot of similarities between the two customer bases.”
Matt Schwandt, CEO of Bauhaus Brew Labs, is a self-proclaimed “trivia geek.” He recalls the first night he attended Trivia Mafia in February 2008 at the 331 Club. He and his friends had so much fun, they returned week after week, and two years later advanced to the Tournament of Champions at Amsterdam Bar & Hall, where they beat out 30 other teams. When Schwandt opened Bauhaus in 2014, putting Trivia Mafia on the schedule was a no-brainer. “The format is a really tried-and-true format,” he says. “Everybody has some set of useless knowledge. If you can contribute a piece of knowledge that no one else in the group has, that’s kind of empowering and cool and fun.”
Bad Weather Brewing introduced Trivia Mafia to its taproom in January of 2016 in the hopes that it would perk up its slow Wednesday nights; it worked. With an average of 30 teams on trivia nights, the taproom tops capacity of 200 people. Co-owner and lab manager Logan Giambruno says she’ll walk into the taproom at trivia time and recognize 90 percent of the guests there. “It’s pretty entertaining to watch every week,” she says. “The people who attend the trivia nights are die-hard fans. That’s been really fun to see that part of our clientele come out and bring in new people. It’s also just been really successful for the business, too.”
“The math of it is pretty comparable to hiring a band,” McPherson explains. While trivia is happening, customers linger longer at the venue, resulting in more drinks poured or desserts ordered. New customers are enticed to try out these venues when they have Trivia Mafia on the schedule. “We bring in business. That’s the real push for venues,” McPherson says.
While Trivia Mafia’s bread-and-butter are venues that serve alcohol, the concept has also proved popular at unconventional and non-alcoholic settings like coffee shops, corporate events, private parties, and holiday gatherings.
“Trivia Mafia definitely creates community,” McPherson says. “There are so many situations where folks waste what could be a great social experience still continuing to interact with their own phone.” Rather than an isolating experience, these events encourage face-to-face conversation and collaboration. When everyone’s racking their brain for an answer, they bond. Entire social groups that met at, and revolve around, Trivia Mafia are not uncommon. McPherson himself met his wife at the 331 Club, where she frequented his Sunday night trivia.
What makes a killer trivia night? Good questions.
“As a student, I was always an inch deep and a mile wide, and the thing I love about being a trivia writer is that I can maintain that level of curiosity over a wide range of topics,” Terhark says. Magazines, Wikipedia, and online lists and rankings inform Trivia Mafia’s content.
Terkhark and McPherson are careful to vary questions so that no one player dominates the game. If they do a round on martial arts, for example, they’ll throw in a couple of tangential questions on movies or history to keep players engaged. “My aim is always to keep the content hard enough that the teams have something to argue about, but not so hard that they’re just throwing their hands in the air in frustration,” Terhark says.
In addition to factoids, Trivia Mafia incorporates pop culture, current events, and “on this day in history” style questions. “We want to leave this space for discovery, so we want to have a very diverse set of questions that rewards different types of intelligences,” McPherson says.
But content isn’t the only reason Trivia Mafia has built a solid brand name—that’s also due to the hosts. “We’re very proud of our questions, but if somebody was just to deliver them in a really dry way or in a really boring format, we don’t think that would be very fruitful,” McPherson says. Trivia Mafia looks for enthusiastic, confident hosts who can keep the momentum of the evening going. “We work to make most of our trivia nights run between an hour -and-a-half and two hours so people can enjoy some food, enjoy some company, but not have to come home and apologize to the babysitter,” McPherson says.
As for the players, Trivia Mafia conducts a survey on them every three years. Slightly over half are men and the average age of players is early 30s. They count craft beer and cycling among their interests. Those are the stats, but McPherson’s anecdotal take: “We get a lot of really positive people who want to be rewarded for their intelligence in a way that they don’t always feel rewarded for at their day job or perhaps at a bar where there isn’t trivia happening. When they’re in this environment, they feel like there’s a celebration of their intelligence and a challenge of their intelligence, but still a fantastic social experience.”
Owning a business with a buddy could be risky, but the fact that McPherson and Terhark weren’t friends before Trivia Mafia is why McPherson thinks the partnership has endured. “We’ve always been working friends. I think that really helps expectations. I know that if the phone rings and it’s Chuck, he’s probably not calling to go, ‘Hey, man, how you doin’?’ He’s calling to discuss business.”
McPherson considers himself “the mouthpiece” of Trivia Mafia, while Terhark is the managerial mastermind. Both continue to host Sunday nights at the 331 Club where it all began. Constantly changing content keeps the gig from getting stale, and McPherson never tires of interacting with players. “You get to have a conversation that is the absolute opposite of small talk,” he says. “It’s not standing at a bar and talking about whatever happened to come on the news channel next. It’s a really great opportunity to connect with people and with knowledge in a really unconventional way and that’s what keeps me coming back to it as opposed to just being completely burnt on it.”
As for the future of Trivia Mafia, the partners are looking to grow the business in the Midwest. They want to service more bars, throw more themed events, and continue to expand—but have no agenda of world dominance. “We’ve seen some trivia companies get so large that their content suffers and we’ve always been a content-first oriented company,” McPherson says. “There have definitely been some growth opportunities we turned down because we didn’t know if we could provide the type of trivia we wanted to do. Our main mission is to find places where what we do works and keep on bringing this content and this experience to our audiences.”