Growth | August 2011 | By Luke DeCock

The Hunger Games

With a little groundwork, quick serves can boost business by feeding minor-league and collegiate sports teams.

When sportswriters arrive at Duke University’s Brooks Practice Facility during the fall for the school’s weekly media luncheons with football coach David Cutcliffe, they sit down to a selection of Jimmy John’s sandwiches. The food is delivered every week without fail as part of an arrangement between the local Jimmy John’s franchisee and IMG College, the agency that sells Duke’s media rights.

In exchange for providing food for the football media luncheons, as well as the staff meals at other Duke athletic events, Jimmy John’s receives advertising on Duke radio broadcasts—including the local coverage of the elite men’s basketball team—and strengthens its relationships on campus.

“Duke is an excellent partner at all levels, so we do our best to match that and execute as needed,” says Dan Mall, the operating partner for Fox Development Corporation, which has 20 Jimmy John’s stores in North and South Carolina. “For us, it’s not so much about generating business as simply being a good partner in both the campus and community. Quite frankly, it’s that dedication that we hope drives business.”

Jimmy John’s isn’t the only local quick-service restaurant that has a productive relationship with Duke. Domino’s and Chick-fil-A are both available at concession stands inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, the school’s famous basketball arena. “For example, Domino’s is the official pizza of Duke athletics,” Art Chase, the school’s sports information director, says. “We serve that in all of our home venues.” When visiting teams need food on the bus for the ride home, the school gives them recommendations from a list of preferred vendors that advertise with the school.

Clearly, Duke’s athletics department has an insatiable appetite for food, and offering catering for Duke events and functions is a lucrative source of business for restaurants around the campus. “Generally, what we try to do is have them talk to IMG and then we can go from there,” says Mike Sobb, Duke’s assistant athletic director for external affairs. “Some of our partners worked with us on concessions before they started working with IMG.”

Domino’s takes it one step further, with cooperative marketing among Duke, the University of North Carolina, and N.C. State University, all within 15 minutes of each other, that reaches the entire Raleigh-Durham market regardless of university affiliation.

What’s true of Duke is true of any school, large or small, that has an athletics program. And it’s also true of any town that has a minor-league baseball, basketball, or soccer team. Athletic competition creates hungry mouths that need to be fed. And feeding them can be a business-builder for any quick-service restaurant.

The sports teams that travel the most—the major-league professional teams—are largely self-contained when it comes to what they eat. Their charter flights are often catered by near-airport locations of national full-service restaurant chains—Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s are the most popular among pro teams. They stay at hotels with full-service catering departments accustomed to handling the specific dietary and nutritional requirements of professional athletes. And most stadiums and arenas are capable of handling any other catering needs these teams might have.

Yet there are thousands of college teams from schools large and small, playing any variety of sports, that need food on their bus after games, in the press box, or for team functions. Minor-league teams that travel by bus are similarly in need of food to eat on their way. Targeting these types of customers can provide a lucrative boost to an already-established catering or delivery business. Almost every market will offer opportunities to initiate, build, and develop relationships with local college or sports teams that can last decades.

Some of those relationships are more formal than others. In Colorado Springs, Colorado, Jessica Bennett, the internal marketing manager at Colorado College—a 2,000-student school that competes in Division III in most sports and Division I in hockey and women’s soccer—prepares a guide for visiting teams listing recommended hotel and restaurant partners.

“In that guide, there are people in town who have identified themselves as people who support Colorado College, or I’ve reached out to them because they would be a good fit,” Bennett says. The recommendations range from casual Italian to pizza and sandwich shops, and the school’s teams use them as well—when they get sandwiches to take to the airport on their way out of town, for example.

While many schools and teams steer business toward advertisers, there are ways to generate business without that relationship, as well. Bagel & Deli Shop is an Oxford, Ohio, institution. Since it opened in 1975, a generation of Miami University students and graduates have flocked to the sandwich shop for its trademark steamed bagel sandwiches. For many, a to-go order on the way out of town is all part of the experience. That includes sports teams that come to Oxford to play Miami, which competes in the Mid-American Conference and Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

“That’s pretty much what everyone in the world does when they come to town,” Bagel & Deli owner Ned Stephenson says. “We do volleyball. We do baseball. We do hockey. We do football. I know that [the business] is there. It’s just how bad I want to hustle after it.”

Hustling after it isn’t as easy as it might sound. For years, Bagel & Deli was the caterer of record for the Miami football team, supplying bus meals for the team as it rode to away games and setting up postgame snacks for visiting teams in their locker room. But Bagel & Deli doesn’t advertise with the university—with its reputation, its marketing consists of frequent visits from Food Network celebrities—and has since been frozen out, Stephenson says.

“Now all that stuff goes to the big franchises,” Stephenson says. “The local guys, the little guys, are kind of left out.”

Those who do advertise can find their patronage rewarded. For the Moe’s Southwest Grill in Asheville, North Carolina, advertising with the local minor-league baseball team pays off in late-night food orders. The Asheville Tourists play in the Class A South Atlantic League, where all the teams travel by bus. After games, whether heading back to the hotel or on to the next city, visiting teams need to eat. General manager Rosalind Nickell says the restaurant pulls in about 60 percent more than it spends with the Asheville Tourists of the Class A South Atlantic League.

On a typical night, a member of the visiting clubhouse staff will deliver a list to Moe’s with orders for 25 or 35 players. Each player gets a custom, prerolled burrito with his name written on the foil wrapper and bag, along with a scoop of tortilla chips and a side of salsa. The food is then laid out on a table in the clubhouse for the players to eat at the stadium or take on the bus with them on their way out of town. The major-league parent Colorado Rockies provide the Tourists with a budget for postgame meals to ensure their prospects are eating properly, and those are often ordered from Moe’s as well.

For some, a relationship can grow into a sponsorship. Four years ago, Florida State’s baseball team started ordering from the Firehouse Subs store Keith Hurtado owns near the university’s campus in Tallahassee. Now, he’s not only the provider of team meals during the season, but also a sponsor of coach Mike Martin’s weekly television show.

College baseball teams typically play on a Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule, with a few midweek games thrown in, as well. Firehouse is the regular Friday night pregame meal for the Seminoles, which typically means food for about 60 people. Sometimes, Hurtado sends Firehouse subs; other times, he’ll send materials so the players can make their own sandwiches. He also often handles postgame meals for visiting teams, sometimes for all three games of a series, as well as meals for Florida State before road games that are only a short bus ride away.

“It is a fair amount of our catering,” Hurtado says. “Generally speaking, when you have a relationship with someone, good things happen. I’ve fed several of the visiting teams from baseball. It’s beneficial, especially during the summer months when the students go home. There is a significant amount of business that comes from relationships you’ve built with people over the years.”

This season those relationships led to becoming a sponsor of the coach’s TV show. Hurtado’s sponsorship of the program is partly fee-based and partly in trade, but he says Florida State ends up purchasing far more food than he’s contracted to provide.

In these days of budget cuts and penny-pinching, however, some of the lower levels of the sporting pantheon are feeling the pinch. That’s especially true when it comes to spending money on food.

At Yuba College, a junior college in Marysville, California, north of Sacramento, teams are lucky to stop at all for food on their way out of town. Players don’t get meal money to spend, and coaches don’t have the funds to buy food for their teams.

“With the budget issues that we’ve been faced with, there are not too many teams that have any meal money anymore,” Yuba athletic director Rod Beilby says. “A lot of teams just bring their own food.” Beilby says on the rare occasions a traveling team needs food, one of his coaches is likely to call a local restaurant on their behalf and try to work out a deal.

So sometimes, getting a catering order for a sports team is just dumb luck. After Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball team lost in the semifinals of the ACC tournament in March, a team manager frantically made calls on his cell phone trying to order enough food for the two-and-a-half-hour bus ride back to Blacksburg, Virginia. “I need 40 chicken sandwiches, 40 orders of nuggets, and I need it in 15 minutes,” he says after reaching a Chick-fil-A near the arena. “Can you do that?”

Playing the Game

5 Tips for Driving Catering

  1. Most colleges and minor-league teams look first to their business partners when placing catering orders or recommending providers to visiting teams. Becoming a sponsor may be one way to generate catering business. In some cases, the value of the referred business may exceed the cost of the sponsorship. It also may be possible to receive advertising or other promotional consideration in trade. The usual point of contact at a school or team is the marketing department.
  2. Even without a sponsorship, it’s possible to contact visiting teams directly before they visit the local school or team, offering to deliver food upon their arrival or departure. A little time spent checking team schedules, looking up contact information on team websites, and sending out letters or making phone calls can pay off in business down the road.
  3. Be prepared to understand and address any nutritional or dietary requirements sports customers may have. The higher the level of competition, the more likely specific foods or food groups will be required. Some Major League Baseball teams, for example, provide their minor-league affiliates with a food budget to ensure their prospects are eating properly after games.
  4. Think broadly. While college teams and minor-league teams have the most consistent schedules and demands, any large-scale sports event may be an opportunity to create new business. Keep an eye on the local newspaper for any large high school or youth soccer, basketball, or volleyball tournaments, and make the organizers aware of your availability to cater for out-of-town teams at their hotels or after games.
  5. Games run late. Teams arrive and depart at odd hours. Be prepared to fulfill and deliver late orders. A minor-league baseball game that starts at 7 p.m. could end anywhere between 9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. A college-basketball game that starts at 7:30 p.m. is likely to finish around 9:30 p.m. In both cases, teams will want food available for their players 30−45 minutes after the game ends.