Concessions Play Ball!
By Megan Pellegrini
Sports stadium vendors are finding success offering bold, ethnic flavors and healthy options.
At the end of last summer, a new competitor stepped up to the starting line for the popular Klement’s Sausage Race at Miller Park. Wearing a sporty sombrero, Chorizo sprinted out ahead of his experienced counterparts Bratwurst, Polish Sausage, Italian Sausage and Hot Dog. Ultimately his overexcitement did him in, causing him to drop back to a third-place finish. Yet a new mascot was born on the Milwaukee Brewers’ inaugural “Cerveceros Day” — Brewers Day en Espanol — and revealed the Brewers organization’s efforts to reach out to the nearby burgeoning Hispanic community (up 23 percent from 2000 to 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).
Coinciding with Cerveceros Day, the Brewers launched a fully cooked chorizo link sausage sandwich, created from scratch by Klement’s, and offered a chicken dish called Pollo al Carbon, with caramelized onions and melted Chihuahua cheese.
The Brewers aren’t alone in customizing their menus to the local community. Other sports stadium vendors are finding success offering bold, ethnic flavors and healthy options.
“Today’s sports fans are very sophisticated and diverse,” says Kathleen Keenan, spokesperson for Aramark, based in Philadelphia. “They are looking for high-quality products and experiences at sports venues — on and off the field, court and ice.”
Through its Sports and Entertainment Group, Aramark provides a wide range of professional services to more than 130 premier sports stadiums, arenas and concert venues across the country, including Atlanta’s Turner Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, Denver’s Coors Field, New York’s Shea Stadium, Oakland’s McAfee Coliseum and Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium, among many others.
It’s fair to say, however, that hot dogs still rule at ballparks and football stadiums.
“In fact, it’s estimated that Americans will eat enough hot dogs at Major League ballparks this year to stretch from RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., to AT&T Park in San Francisco,” says Tonya Allen, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.
Despite the fanfare of the Brewers’ new chorizo sandwich, it is only pulling in 3 percent of sales, compared to the big boys — brats (40 percent), hot dogs (30 percent), kosher dogs (15 percent), Italian (7 percent) and Polish (5 percent), said Tom Olson, general manager for Delaware North Companies (DNC) Sportservice, a division of foodservice provider Delaware North Inc., in Buffalo, N.Y.
Sausages are clearly popular in Milwaukee, but Allen points out that a survey of Major League Baseball parks revealed that ballparks are serving about half as many sausages as hot dogs to baseball fans. “Sausages are enjoying unprecedented sales in the United States, as new flavors, convenient products and many great tasting old standards have enjoyed steady category growth,” she says.
The most popular sausages served at ballparks remain Italian, Polish and bratwurst, says Allen. However, a number of unique sausages are available for sports fans today, such as jalapeno-smoke sausages for Houston Astros fans and chicken andouille and chicken Italian sausages for Los Angeles Dodgers fans.
Even chicken products are becoming spicier. Although chicken tenders remain the No. 1 poultry item, barbecue options are multiplying on menus, notes Richard Dobransky, vice president of food & beverage, DNC Sportservice. The supplier provides concessions, gourmet catering and fine-dining services to more than 50 sports venues, including the homes of the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Bruins, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Bears.
“There are so many different styles such as Carolina, Memphis and Asian that lend to increased variety,” says Dobransky. “BBQ is really replacing burgers in our concessions. The fan sees it as an upgrade.”
He notes that tenderloin is out, and now DNC’s guests are favoring hanger, flank and skirt steaks in many of its clubs and suites. In addition, turkey wings in concessions are also becoming more popular.
Non-primal cuts of beef and poultry, often referred to as street food concepts, are the norm for all sports venues. According to DNC Sportservice’s corporate chef Rolf Baumann, the list of his current protein items is topping 20, and the “creativity of our chefs to use them only enhances the appeal. Another key trend is smaller portions and healthier ingredients in our proteins.”
Sports fans have a larger range of products to chose from today, as some ballparks offer more than 100 stock-keeping units (SKUs). “In the past, we offered about 25 to 40 SKUs,” notes Olson. “People want different options today — some healthy and others not so healthy.”
Hot dogs vs. short ribs?
Many new culinary trends are thus able to peacefully coexist with traditional stadium fare. While standard favorites, such as hot dogs and peanuts, are clearly still popular among fans, “upscale and premium dining options are growing in popularity and widely available to fans throughout the stadium,” says Keenan. “With fans’ eating habits and tastes becoming more sophisticated, executive chefs are taking offerings, once only thought of as being available in suites and on the club level, and adapting them for the general concessions menu.”
DNC Sportservice, for one, is seeing success with its Asian stir fry and noodle bowl concepts, pizza, strombolis, calzones, and gyros. “It is interactive and a perfect alternative to more traditional ballpark fare,” says Dobransky. “We predict that South American cuisine will continue to grow in the ethnic category.”
Baumann concurs that interactive cooking with local, regional and world flavors, such as Spanish, Mexican, Mediterranean, Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Asian, is a key trend and well-suited to stadium cooking.
Asian flavors lend themselves well to poultry products. And Brett Lewis, corporate executive chef for Centerplate, based in Spartanburg, S.C., says that Asian and Caribbean dishes are naturally the next step in foodservice. He notes that short ribs, for example, are now mandatory on menus, and he rarely used them in the past. The use of such “seconds” or lesser cuts of meats are coordinating well with strong flavors.
“Fans can get an enjoyable product at a good price, and it shows we care what we’re feeding our customers,” he says.
In general, consumers are also looking to incorporate healthier eating habits into their everyday lives. While many fans use a trip to the ballpark or stadium as an opportunity to check their diets at the gate for one night, foodservice vendors are also providing healthy options. According to Keenan, fans can find assorted salads, fruit bowls, wraps, grilled chicken sandwiches and veggie dogs at most sporting events.
“In fact, Citizens Bank Park in Philly was recently named the Most Vegetarian-Friendly Ballpark in North America by [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] for its selection of vegetarian and Vegan menu options,” she says. Aramark has also converted to a trans fat-free frying oil in all of its ballparks, stadium and arenas.
Many foodservice suppliers are also placing a greater emphasis on using locally grown and sourced produce and ingredients in recipes. In an effort to promote sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices, Aramark is beginning to use more organic product, as well as biodegradable service ware, says Keenan.
In stadium suites catered by Centerplate, fans are given the opportunity to upgrade their hot dogs to organic, natural or all-beef, says Lewis, which has received a lot of interest. He notes that the overall health trend also ties into consumers’ desire for fresh, regional products, as well.
On the West Coast, all-beef products are popular, particularly humanely raised and antibiotic-free meats and poultry. “Customers are comfortable with regionally grown products and feel closer to them,” says Lewis.
Plus, they also tie in well with local, ethnic flavors. For example, Centerplate serves Italian sausages in the Northeast, game sausages in the Midwest and Mountain states, and Hispanic dishes such as carne asado and chili verde with beef and Asian flavors on the West Coast.
Regionalization can complicate the supply-chain process on the local level, notes Dobransky, but he notes their suppliers work hard to make sure the products selected by DNC are available nationally through local distributors. “We source much of our produce and local favorites in the local market,” he says. “We attempt to use local farmers and packers, which sometimes means more work for our chefs to source, but ultimately provides a great product for the fan while supporting the local community.”
DNC also tries to partner with local restaurants to feature the favorite foods of the area. In Cincinnati, for example, DNC has partnered with Montgomery Inn to serve its famous BBQ. “Our rule of thumb is 30 percent of our menus should reflect local and regional favorites,” says Dobransky.
Flam to the plate
Fans also want fresh food served according to their preferences. Today at ballparks, many menu items are made-to-order in front of customers, instead of being pulled out from an under-counter steamer. In the next three to five years, Dobransky predicts almost 80 percent of DNC’s food will be prepared with some element of display and guest interaction.
“Front the pan, grill, flam to the plate,” says Baumann. “That’s our motto. Cook it and serve it. the more control the fans have on a food item, the happier they are.”
He notes that Generation Y is demanding more variety, higher-quality ingredients and quicker service. The Food Network, in particular, has made a huge impact on this demographic, which may consume as much as 70 percent of its meals at a restaurant each week.
“That is a guest with a lot of dining experience with high expectations, that we must meet even in the sports venue with how we prepare and present our menu items,” says Baumann.
On the premium levels and in stadium restaurants, a definite shift has been made to display cooking. Aramark, for example, is using more action stations, “which not only allows the customers to see the food being made in front of them, but engages and involves them in the cooking process,” says Keenan.
Carving stations are still popular, because they provide customers with a good, quality product in a clean, interactive environment. “Consumers gravitate to traditional foods, but want to help create the final product,” says Lewis. “It’s all about choices. And people want to be involved in the decision-making.”
As stadiums and arenas attempt to reinvent their concession stand image from brats and beers to Filet and Merlot, there is an increasing need to maximize space at minimal cost, says Beth Cretors, marketing communications manager, C. Cretors and Co, based in Chicago. They are also required to install a venting system for popcorn machines to meet new building codes. “Many pre-existing kitchens and stands were not required to have these systems in place, or are out of date when they begin a remodeling project,” she notes.
Cretors, which has been designing and manufacturing foodservice and concession equipment for more than a century, is seeing franchises add equipment for a gourmet level of snack foods, such as gourmet popcorn made famous by giants such as Garrett’s Popcorn in the Chicago Loop.
Sports venues are definitely trying to keep up with independent restaurants’ quality and sophisticated entrees. As luxury suites dwindle, they are being replaced with a shared premium experience for all. Miller Park recently opened a “Club in the Club” concept, which is an all-inclusive experience with an elaborate buffet before the game, traditional fan favorites during the game, in-seat service, and desserts down the home stretch, notes Dobransky.
“The premium customer wants an all-inclusive experience,” he says. “Our hope is that someday, one ticket will cover everything: admission, parking and your food and beverage.”
The old college try
Collegiate sports and leisure venues are also taking a page from their professional counterparts. According to Jim Jenkins, a division vice president of Sodexho Sports & Leisure Services, of Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho, foodservice providers are “kicking up food and beverages a notch.” Sodexho is a provider of food and facilities management services for professional sports venues and universities such as University of Tennessee, University of Texas, The Ohio State, Auburn, Arizona State, and University of California, Berkeley.
The traditional concession menu continues to be popular, but college sports fans can also now choose from carved prime rib or turkey sandwiches from interactive carving stations, foods right off the grill and healthy chicken wraps. Sodexho personalizes its menus, so UC-Berkeley fans can order gourmet chicken sun-dried sausages, while Texas students may pick up Tex-Mex dishes.
Universities are adding additional amenities at the club level, such as better views of the field, access to clubs and premium foods. “At bigger schools, everybody is renovating their stadiums and trying to one-up each other,” says Jenkins. “Athletic departments are trying to generate more use of their facilities with clubs and restaurants, and full-service restaurants are operating throughout the year.”
It may be just exciting enough to make students want to leave their tailgating parties.
The name game
It turns out there’s a lot more to the standard hot dog than meets the eye. Toppings make the dog, and vary radically from city to city.
Manhattan to Coney Island: When you buy your hot dog in the Big Apple, it will come served with steamed onions and a pale, deli-style yellow mustard.
Chicago: The possible antithesis to New York dogs, Chicago hot dogs are layered with yellow mustard, dark green relish, chopped raw onions, tomato slices and, finally, a dash of celery salt and served in a poppy seed bun.
Atlanta: Buy a hot dog at the Atlanta Braves’ Turner Field — and elsewhere in the South — and it will be “dragged through the garden,” and topped with coleslaw.
Boston: The Fenway Frank is boiled, grilled and served in a New England-style bun with mustard and relish for Red Sox fans.
Denver: The Rockie Dog, served at the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, is a foot-long dog with grilled peppers, kraut and onions.
Houston: The Texas Dog comes with chili, cheese and jalapenos at Minute Maid Park.
Kansas City: Sports fans can enjoy hot dogs served with sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese on a sesame seed bun.
Information provided by the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council
Sports stadiums: Hazardous to your health?
When sports foodservice vendors are dealing with suppliers, “food safety” can take on new meanings.
After 9/11, much media attention was paid to the safety of sports fans at large stadiums, particularly during high-profile championship events. While the media periodically hypes possible bomb threats or airplane attacks that sound as though they came straight out of a Tom Clancy novel, foodservice vendors have remained worried about biochemical contamination of their food ingredients, which would prove just as deadly.
“We want to make sure our food is safe for consumers and protect our liability,” says Brett Lewis, corporate executive chef for Centerplate, based in Spartanburg, S.C. “Food safety is in our top five priorities. So, we make sure our suppliers are certified, licensed and insured to meet our needs.”
Foodborne illnesses carry their own set of risks as well, and certainly all of the federal, state and local regulations are a must, “especially in terms of sanitation and eliminating any source of foodborne illness,” says Richard Dobransky, vice president of food & beverage, Delaware North Companies (DNC) Sportservice, based in Buffalo, New York.
Over the last few years, trans-fats guidelines have also been an interesting challenge for the industry to meet, he says. “Our focus for the future will certainly be country of origin,” says Dobransky. “We need to ensure that the product we serve is 100 percent safe for our guests.”