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Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, says sports fans today are expecting gourmet and ethnic offerings, including churros, empanadas, tortas, and gyros. While original concessions offer a chance to truly diversify the menu, Tristano says, fans more often than not are looking for recognizable brands.
“We’re very brand-oriented; as consumers we want brands that they know, that they trust, that they know what to expect,” Tristano says.
In its efforts to bring local flavor to its venues, Shipe says Aramark partners with local brands to give fans that food familiarity. Primanti Bros. and Quaker Steak & Lube, for instance, are a pair of Pittsburgh-area brands that opened in PNC Park.
Even Shake Shack, the massively popular New York City–based burger joint, has found its way into sports foodservice; the concept opened a unit in the New York Mets’ Citi Field in 2009.
Mark Maynard-Parisi, managing director of operations at Union Square Events, the restaurant company owned by Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer, says Shake Shack opened in Citi Field to capitalize on New Yorkers’ love for the brand.
“We want to be in places where we believe the fan base can really appreciate what we’re doing,” Maynard-Parisi says. “We don’t just want to go to some random place just to make some money. That’s really not that important to us. We want to create a really special experience for people.”
While menu options at sports venues are becoming increasingly diverse, much of the strategy behind foodservice operations at the venues is beginning to include elements such as marketing, branding, and positioning.
“When you go to develop food concepts strategically, you can’t do what they do when they design food for a sports stadium. … The first thing they do is start working the menu,” Sergi says. “At any great restaurant you’ve been to, the menu was conceptual for a long time. You start with an identity, the attitude of the thing, and who you’re trying to talk to, what you’re trying to say.”
At Safeco Field, the Mariners were trying to appeal to the “20-somethings” who are attracted to the 10-year-old ballpark, Sergi says. The Bullpen Market—or “The Pen,” as it’s usually referred—was redone for the 2011 season to become a place for fans to congregate. The four concepts Sergi helped design were a big part of that.
“We’re not doing food design, we’re doing hospitality design,” he says. “When you’re designing a restaurant concept, you strive to connect all the dots, from the menu cover, to the uniform, to the music, to the lighting in the room, to the style of the food; you’re trying to get everything to speak in one voice to the customers. What I’m trying to do in this world is absolutely the same thing.”
Much of that “hospitality design” includes positioning concessions so fans don’t have to go far from their seats to get their favorite food, and even locating food stands where fans can watch the game while they order, Shipe says. Packaged deals that include food and tickets are also a convenient way to encourage fans to check out stadium concessions, he says.
Something else sports venues are leveraging is social media. Many ballparks are notifying fans of foodservice options through Facebook and Twitter.
Aramark even partnered with MLB Advanced Media LP, the interactive media and Internet company of Major League Baseball, to develop an app for Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies. The At Bat app allows Phillies fans to check in at the park, interact with the stadium’s foodservice operations, and even order food to be delivered to their seats.
“By utilizing [teams’] social media or their websites, they can gain access to fans and be able to tell them about a specific promotion, a new sandwich that we’re creating, and what stand to go to,” Shipe says.
Although putting so much effort into foodservice operations that open only seasonally—and even then only for half of that season—might seem like a waste, Scott says there is a big reason why foodservice is such an important investment for ballparks and stadiums.
“I don’t think [customers] see it as just a ballpark anymore,” Scott says. “They see it as another outlet for competition of great food. They just want to see better options, more options. We have the restaurants across the street that we’re competing with, and we want to bring customers in to have dinner here instead of going across the street.”
Indeed, sports venues, as they continue to diversify their foodservice offerings and improve the settings in which they’re offered, might become a food destination in their own right.
“Ballparks last a long time, and you’ve seen a whole trend in the way food and sports are connected,” Maynard-Parisi says. “It used to be just for the luxury suites, and now it’s for the average ticket holder. Whether it’s Comiskey Park or Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, you’re really starting to see a lot of venues where the designers are … sacrificing some seats to create a better fan experience. That has been a lot with food and beverage.”
As old stadiums are renovated and new stadiums are built from the ground up in the next few years, Maynard-Parisi says, foodservice operations will continue to get better and better.
“Those that aren’t upgrading their facility and upgrading their offering will be left behind—even by loyal fans, because people will just bring in a sandwich,” he says.