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    How Sports Stadiums are Upping Their Foodservice Game

  • In culinary, service, and operations, professional sports stadiums are taking their offerings to the next level.

    The Baseball Club of Seattle, LLLP / Ben VanHouten
    Seattle’s Safeco Field features food from local chefs and brands, like burgers and fries from Seattle-area favorite Great State Burger.

    With three of the nation’s four prominent professional sports leagues in action, the May calendar is abuzz with action.

    The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League playoffs remain in full swing, while Major League Baseball has hit the one-month mark in its summer-long grind to the Fall Classic. Fans are pouring into stadiums from coast to coast and partaking in treasured rituals rooted in team, civic, and familial pride.

    But amid that energy, fans are enjoying something else beyond the competition: an increasingly dynamic foodservice environment that’s invigorating a once-mundane element of game day. For decades, stadium concessionaires largely existed to feed the masses. They dispensed hot dogs and pizza, cotton candy and nachos, beer, soda, and packaged goods. Game-day foodservice stood a utilitarian experience and a secondary consideration to the competitive action.

    Those days, however, have evaporated alongside baseball’s three-inning save and basketball’s low-post game.

    Across all four professional leagues and in cities dotting North America, stadium foodservice has become something far more diverse and daring. Stadiums are now employing executive chefs, roaming mixologists, and pastry artisans; leaning on new technologies to provide in-seat delivery and to power kitchens; creating environments that drive convenience and social interaction; and serving inventive, locally inspired cuisine more often associated with upscale restaurants than bleachers.

    For Chris Bigelow, who has been involved with stadium foodservice for more than 40 years, including the last 30 as a consultant to arenas looking to elevate their foodservice game, the winds began shifting about a generation ago when stadiums began adding club levels. In developing a premium strata of seating, Bigelow contends, stadiums began targeting premium foodservice to match. Suddenly, steaks and sushi appeared alongside hot dogs, and imported Italian wine alongside Old Style beer. And as foodie culture intensified over the last decade, the pace only accelerated.

    “You can still get hot dogs, beer, and nachos because that’s what’s associated with the ballgame, but there’s so much more available now to create a more engaging, special experience for fans,” Bigelow says.

    At the same time, new stadiums emerged with hospitality baked into the design. Thinking beyond a bowl with a playing surface in the middle, many team owners, stadium designers, and their foodservice partners rallied around the total fan experience, which included elevated food and beverage. That prompted partnerships with James Beard Award–winning chefs, food hall–like environments, clever culinary promotions, and black tie–caliber service.

    “When you start thinking about how you can make it better to be at the game, you can strike gold,” says Diana Evans, vice president of marketing at Centerplate, a stadium hospitality provider whose portfolio includes noteworthy spots such as Safeco Field in Seattle and the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

    And the evolution continues to chug along.

    Brand names, local goods, and “unique” offerings

    One of the more notable trends in the broader restaurant industry of late has been the marriage of celebrity chefs with the quick-service model. It was inevitable, Bigelow says, that this rising trend would flow into stadiums and arenas.

    “It’s rare that a stadium will start a foodservice trend, but it will certainly emulate one,” he says.

    Seattle’s Safeco Field, for instance, features culinary concoctions from award-winning chef Ethan Stowell, while Michael Mina–crafted dishes are available at Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers.

    Hungry to further represent their city’s unique culinary flair, stadiums have also partnered with heralded local concepts. Both Chicago baseball stadiums, for instance, serve Italian beef sandwiches from Buona, an established Windy City staple, while Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia serves Philly cheesesteaks from Campo’s and Tony Luke’s.

    “We started going hyperlocal as a counter to the sameness out there,” Centerplate’s Evans says. “When you walk into a New Orleans Saints game, you’ll see the expected core items, but also some unique options singular to New Orleans that you won’t find in Denver, Miami, or Indianapolis.”

    That can also lead to some creative offerings characteristic of the local scene. Playing to Seattle’s sophisticated beer market, Safeco Field hosts the wildly popular “Firkin Fridays” with local brewers. In Boston, Fenway Park recently debuted Crème Brûlée French Toast, a house-made pastry cream and chocolate ganache with Vermont maple syrup and Fenway Farm’s strawberry sauce.

    On another novel culinary front, Aramark has experimented with bringing fans into the R&D process with its pop-up-style Launch Test Kitchens outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and digital signage. At Launch stands, which are now present in six U.S. venues, Aramark tests menu concepts and gathers real-time feedback from guests with the most successful programs rolled into permanent operations.

    More powerful concessions—and more of them

    In years past, much of a stadium’s culinary creativity or operational capacity was largely limited by infrastructure. Increasingly, however, new stadiums have unveiled high-powered kitchens with hoods, grills, and fryers, while older stadiums have incorporated ventless hoods to bring cooking capabilities to once-ignored stadium corners.

    Not only have stadiums supported more robust concessions spaces, but they’ve also invested in more of them. Bigelow says old stadiums might have had one cashier for every 1,000 fans; today, that ratio is trending toward one-to-100. Concourse spaces that might have typically been reserved for customer service or first aid are being replaced by concessions. By increasing points of service, stadiums boost convenience and speed for fans, while often capturing higher sales, as well.

    “A 25 percent increase in concession sales at a new stadium is not all that unusual given the added points of service alone,” Bigelow says.

    In addition to the fixed concession spaces, stadiums continue embracing mobility, giving a modern-day spin to the old-time hawker. Last year, Aramark debuted its Sip & Soar cocktail concept. Modeled after airline carts, Sip & Soar features bartenders who move throughout the stadium and concoct craft cocktails. Aramark also developed a Tuk Tuk program, outfitting three-wheeled electric vehicles with different concepts, including a cookie and ice cream concept called Jane Dough.

    “These types of innovations allow us to move with fans,” says Danielle Lazor, vice president of design and development at Aramark’s Sports & Entertainment division, which caters to some 100 million fans each year across more than 30 professional sports arenas.

    A tech infusion

    As in virtually every corner of American society, technology is making a significant impact on stadium foodservice. With an ability to track fans through WiFi as well as fulfill orders through mobile, cashless, or various ticket options, venues are getting closer and closer to their guests and unleashing new innovations.

    “Everything related to connecting fans and personalizing their experience is on the table,” Aramark’s Lazor says.

    Last year, Aramark unveiled Zoom Food at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. The concourse-located, cashless kiosks available in five venues allow fans to self-order and then pick up their food and drink at designated pick-up areas. It’s only the beginning of tech’s rush into stadium foodservice, Lazor says, adding that Aramark’s data science group continues analyzing information it can translate into operations, including experiences with fewer transactions and more all-inclusive programs.

    “We’re trying to figure out how to remove friction and get closer to our fans through technology,” she says.

    To that point, there’s Uptix, which transforms traditional printed tickets into stored-value tickets. With Uptix, venues can load money directly onto a fan’s ticket as a cashless payment method at stadium concessions and also push real-time promotions—a $5 discount on concessions after a home run, for instance. More than 20 major college venues and professional sports stadiums use Uptix.

    With technology edging out of its infancy in stadium foodservice, Evans foresees more mobile ordering, express pickup lanes, handheld devices, self-ordering options, and kiosks in the coming years.

    “And in time, you could see things like facial recognition coming out of the pipeline, too,” she says.

    EVERYBODY'S IN THE CLUB GETTIN' TIPSY

    With the number of people inclined to sit in a normal seat for the entirety of a game declining, Bigelow says more stadiums are responding with accessible party decks and clubs scattered around the stadium.

    “There could be 10,000 people who just want a place to hang out after buying the cheapest seat to get inside,” Bigelow says.

    Next to the Seattle Mariners bullpen at Safeco Field sits The ’Pen, an expansive space that features happy-hour specials, a fire pit, and cocktail lounge. At Coors Field in Denver, The Rooftop—described by one media outlet as “The Vegas hotel of Coors Field”—boasts an expansive beer and food selection and cabanas.

    Hard Rock Stadium, home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, hosts an assortment of private clubs, including some field-level spots featuring all-inclusive menus highlighted by grilled-to-order filets and fresh seafood bars. Characteristic of Miami’s over-the-top hospitality, Hard Rock Stadium also includes a satellite outlet of LIV, one of the hottest clubs in South Beach. The eating, drinking, and dancing space includes personal cabanas and bottle service.

    “It’s about crafting programs to the demographics and character of the community we’re serving,” Evans says.

    Sourcing, sustainability, and transparency

    Though rather commonplace in the broader restaurant landscape, supply chain traceability is the next big wave in stadium foodservice, Evans says. Centerplate, for example, has shifted to sustainable seafood offerings and cage-free eggs while its tuna supplier, Ocean Naturals, allows guests to scan a QR code and receive information on the boat that captured the tuna.

    “These types of things will become much more mainstream [in stadiums] because people are accustomed to seeing it elsewhere,” Evans says, adding that such information can be communicated on menuboards and a stadium’s dedicated mobile app.

    Lazor, too, predicts the rise of sustainability and transparency in stadium foodservice. Aramark is exploring hydroponic gardens, while the company unveiled a pre-packaged compostable peanut bag last fall with the Kansas City Chiefs.

    “We see a huge uptick in sustainability moving forward,” Lazor says.

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