Menu Innovations | May 2011 | By Sam Oches

Foodservice at the Bat

Concessions at sports venues no longer stop at hot dogs and popcorn. In fact, arenas and ballparks are becoming food destinations.

Fans of the Philadelphia Phillies have several food concession options.
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Four quick serves cluster near one another in a small corner of Seattle, dormant aside from the activity buzzing around them preparing them for their grand openings. All four are set to open on the same day in April, and all four plan to deliver premium quick-serve options to the people of the Emerald City.

There’s Apizza, a New Haven–style pizza concept developed by renowned pizza chef Bill Pustari. Then there’s Hamburg + Frites, a burger joint using humanely raised beef, and La Crêperie, a Parisian-inspired concept that wraps ingredients into a triangle-shaped crêpe stuck into a cone; the latter two have been developed by chef Ethan Stowell, a stalwart on the Seattle restaurant scene. Finally, there’s Flying Turtle Cantina/Tortugas Voladoras, a Mexican restaurant selling tortas, or Mexican sandwiches.

Customers of these four new concepts will be able to sample the home-spun quick-serve options—all of the concepts use local ingredients in some way—and watch a hometown Seattle Mariners ballgame while they’re at it.

Heck, they can even catch a homerun ball from Ichiro. That’s because the four new quick serves are nestled into the outfield section of Safeco Field, home of the Mariners, and are debuting for the 2011 season.

The quartet of concepts at Safeco Field are the brainchild of John Sergi, chief design officer of Centerplate Stir, the strategy arm of Centerplate, the foodservice provider for Safeco Field and dozens of other sports venues. Sergi’s very position, which was created just a year ago, suggests that sports venues are no longer just wanting standard food offerings from their foodservice providers—they’re demanding better food, better hospitality, and a better service strategy.

(From left) Hamberg + Frites at Seattle’s Safeco Field uses humanely raised beef for its burger patties. Flying Turtle Cantina/Tortugas Voladoras is a Mexican concept that will shop tortas to fans. Apizza will bring a taste of the East Coast to Safeco. It is a New Haven–style pizzeria developed by renowned pizza chef Bill Pustari. La Crêperie, a Parisian-style creperie, wraps ingredients into a triangle-shaped crepe and sticks it in a cone for portability.

“Food is a heck of a lot more than a revenue source; it’s truthfully one of the most palatable ways to talk to people,” Sergi says.

“Yet in the business of sports, the perception of food is primarily that of a revenue source. That never made any sense to me, because here you are, you’re in the business of entertaining people, and if there’s one thing you have at your disposal that can completely seal that deal every time regardless of how well anybody plays on the field, it’s food.”

Of course, food has always been a vital element to sporting events. Grabbing a beer and hot dog at the big game is just as cliché to sports as the terms “we’re giving it 110 percent” and “it’s a game of inches.”

The food cliché, though, is not just a broad generalization of what sports fans like to consume at games—it’s what they buy in mass volume. Pizza, hot dogs, burgers, pretzels—all are menu heavyweights at stadiums, arenas, and ballparks around the country.

But just as quick serves and fast casuals are upping the ante on the food they serve in their stores, sports venues are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in the food department.

“People are looking at the Food Network and they’re becoming more culinary savvy, and they’re looking for some of the items that used to just be served in premium areas,” says Andrew Shipe, vice president of marketing for Aramark Sports & Entertainment.

A look at foodservice offerings at sports venues around the country confirms that venues are hearing fans’ cries: fried walleye at the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field, toasted ravioli at the St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium, and a kielbasa grinder at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ CONSOL Energy Center are just a handful of the gourmet items that have graced stadium concession menuboards.

Aramark runs food and beverage services for 12 Major League Baseball stadiums, including PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Turner Field in Atlanta, and Fenway Park in Boston. Shipe says these operations include a mix of recognizable restaurant names and original brands designed specifically for the ballpark experience.

It’s with these original brands, Shipe says, that Aramark has begun to diversify its offerings and give fans something beyond the staples.

“They’re looking for fresh food, so a lot of the food that we’re serving at some of our venues is grilled right in front of the customers,” Shipe says. “We have carving stations to create our meats, whether it’s a rib that’s being carved in front of them, a smoked brisket, a pulled-pork sandwich; we put the action right in front of them. That was something we used to see in premium [areas], but we’re seeing it trickle down into general concessions.”

Aramark is also offering more local options in each of its venues—“We make sure we represent the local culinary talent,” he says—as well as healthy options to account for increased demand. Grilled chicken sandwiches, gluten-free items, and fresh sushi have all found their way to Aramark-run ballparks.

“Women are becoming a hard demographic on our baseball menus—it’s almost 40 percent,” Shipe says. “So we have to look at the dietary piece that they’re looking for.”

The premium food trend isn’t limited to big-city venues. At the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, North Carolina, local barbecue and craft beer are included throughout the concessions, as well as healthy options like vegetarian hot dogs and black-bean veggie burgers. Tammy Scott, general manger for Centerplate at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, says customers have asked for a range of other foodservice offerings, including empanadas, fried pickles, and turkey legs.

While the Bulls strive to provide the food customers crave, Scott says a balance still needs to be struck between standard offerings like hot dogs and burgers and more outside-the-box offerings. For instance, a healthy food cart that made its way around the 10,000-seat park in 2010 after customers asked for healthier offerings, she says, was discontinued because of poor sales.

“You have people screaming for healthier options, yet two thirds of them want something else fried,” Scott says. “We’re trying to find that happy medium between the healthy eaters. I think the healthier eaters are more of the season ticket holders, the ones who are here game after game after game. They want to see some real options and some healthier options instead of eating a hot dog or chicken tenders game after game.”

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