With the advent of food on TV and a celebrity chef-inspired culture, consumers want better food everywhere they go, and that includes at the ball park. That’s why today’s stadium foodservice needs to be flexible enough to handle changing menus and have enough capacity to feed large crowds in short periods of time.
When it comes to specifying and designing for sports venues, not all facilities are alike. From baseball fields to basketball and hockey arenas to football stadiums, each have their own schedules, seat numbers, suite layouts and peak periods.
That said, there’s one pervasive similarity as of late.
“Many team owners, franchises, facilities managers and universities have realized in the last five years or so that foodservice is not something you can just think of at the last minute,” says TracyTaraski, FCSI, of The Bigelow Companies, Inc. Foodservice designers and consultants “are getting involved much earlier in the design process than in years past.” The Bigelow Companies’ portfolio includes sports venues for the New York Jets, Toronto Blue Jays, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Padres, among others.
With the advent of food on TV and a celebrity chef-inspired culture, consumers want better food everywhere they go, and that includes at the ball park.In short, the traditional hot dog in a foil wrapper no longer satisfies today’s sophisticated palates. “People who go to sporting events are looking for new, unique, fresh and local food,” says Bill Caruso, FCSI, president and founder of William Caruso & Associates, Inc. “They want home-grown products, free-range chicken, and other food cooked in front of them so they know it’s fresh.” Stadium foodservice has slowly become the new Vegas.
As part of that strengthened food-focus, many sports-oriented facilities now showcase branded concepts from their areas. Citi Field in New York features Shake Shack, Danny Meyer’s popular quick-serve better burger concept as well as Tribeca Grill.
Many fields, stadiums and arenas also take a more regional focus to their food offerings. Taraski points out that East Coast venues tend to place an emphasis on seafood, while steak, barbecue and other meat-focused meals continue to remain popular in the Midwest. In California, you might see lighter fare with Mexican influences.
Increases in funding for sports venue foodservice also point to this redirected focus on good eats. A redesign in this arena (no pun intended) could easily add $15 million or $20 million in annual revenue, depending on the stadium size, says Caruso, who is working on renovations at the world famous Madison Square Garden. In the old days, most of the foodservice funding came from concessionaires, but recently, operators and authorities have gotten smarter. “They understand that money isn’t free and have decided to self-fund many of their projects.”
Sports venue foodservice also differs greatly from other types of foodservice because consultants have a hand in every aspect of the process, from pre-planning, financials, projections, estimates and other business fundamentals to negotiations with caterers, dealings with construction crews, architects and facilities managers and even working with the quasi-governmental agencies responsible for initiating the project, Caruso says.
“Often in sports venues there is more than one operator involved to handle the various aspects of foodservice, including general concessions, premium spaces, suites and even branded concepts,” says Kristin Sedej, FCSI, co-owner of S2O Consultants, Inc., who, like Caruso and together with partner Harry Schildkraut have renovated dozens of sports facilities around the country.
Because of the diversity of these operations and the volume they handle, sports foodservice places a greater focus on the project’s engineering aspects because of the many different points of service. “You’re less focused on aesthetics than on engineering and coordination,” Sedejadds.
Flexibility, durability and production capability are the most important considerations when it comes to sports venue equipment, according to Sedej and Taraski.
Oftentimes, Sedej explains, staff will prep food the day before in the main commissary, then cart it upstairs for finishing near the suite or concession stand. Countertop combi-ovens, in particular, have grown in popularity because they can do everything from steam hot dogs to toast buns in the same space as other equipment.
Taraski points out that operators tend to favor flattops over charbroilers, too. That’s because operators can use flattops to cook breakfast and early morning items like pancakes and eggs for special events, in addition to the traditional burgers, dogs and paninis.
Flexibility is also important because of the number of events different sports events will hold throughout the season and year. Baseball games, for example, happen more frequently than football games. University football stadiums might only see 8 to 10 games a year with full closures in the wintertime. And then there are the concerts and other special events that pop up from time to time and might draw in outside caterers. Equipment, as a result, should be powerful enough to handle large influxes of eaters but flexible enough that staff can change items out from season to season as necessary. “We want equipment that’s easy to turn off and doesn’t take a lot of effort to charge back up or shut down for a two-week period,” says Taraski.
Typically, sports teams will choose to renovate roughly every five years or so, according to Caruso.
“One thing we’re seeing now is a lot more a la carte preparation,” Sedej says. “There is more cooking going on in the suite pantries as opposed to everything made ahead of time.” Burgers and fries, for instance, just don’t hold as well as other foods. And people like to see more of the cooking in action, or taste something that has clearly been cooked just-for-them.
As a result, “we’re putting in more small kitchens closer to the point of service to allow for this increase in real-time cooking versus pre-cooking,” Sedej says. This might mean more build-out in the pantry and concession area.
Back in the commissaries, blast chillers are becoming more popular for preserving higher volumes of fresh food, like produce and fruits bought in season, says Taraski. “Blast chillers aren’t just for bulk cooking anymore,” she says. “There’s a push toward managing foodservice more closely to get more bang out of your buck.”
In fact, says Caruso, planning menus strategically has become much more important than just producing a whole bunch of food randomly. Once the area closes, any perishable food leftover goes straight to waste. “You can’t reuse inventory as easily in sports foodservice so that’s why you’re seeing operators cooking smaller batches of food, and cooking to-order in front of the customer,” he says.
Food safety also factors into this change in food management. “We try not to store hot or cold product for a long time,” says Caruso. Anything prepared earlier in the commissary, such as pulled pork, must be transported in mobile, warming cabinets and under constant temperature surveillance, he says. This way smaller batch cooking also helps put a lid on potential food safety hazards.
Beer is big at sports arenas. So big, that beverage companies have moved to improve efficiencies with the drop-off and change-out of draft systems.
“You’re basically figuring out how to get draft beer from the depths of a building all the way out to right field somewhere,” Caruso says.
Central beverage systems are key for most sports facilities, he notes. These systems work such that kegs and soda machines are set up in the basement of the building near a loading dock where distributors can simply pull in, hook up or change out the kegs and drive off. In fact, some of these docking areas might see 350 or 400 kegs hooked up to a line at one time. The facility then might use recirculating glycol pumps to push out the beer to other parts of the arena.
Many facilities have switched to this centralized draft beer setup not only because it’s more profitable than bottled or canned beer, but because it can save an enormous amount of space and waste.
The only controversy as of late, says Taraski, is around the temperature of draft beer. “From a taste perspective, some people think you beer should be served at or below 32 degrees F, while others feel that if the beer isn’t at least 36 degrees F it doesn’t taste right.” Long draw beer systems, as these centralized draft beer setups are also referred to, can risk warmer temperatures because of the length of travel from the keg to the point of service, though they save on labor. Cleaning can also be a challenge with these systems because all of the beer in the lines must be dropped during a change out. “If the facility shuts down for two weeks between games you can’t just have beer sitting in those lines,” Taraski says. “They (manufacturers) haven’t come up with a way to fix that problem yet.”
Fun fact? Hockey games run through more draft beer than any other sports event, says Taraski.
When it comes to hood systems at sports venues, more operators are going with ventless systems to reduce costs and duct work needs, Taraski says.
With many hood manufacturers making marked improvements to hood design and monitoring, exhaust has improved among renovated arenas. Still, exhausting with ventless systems requires a little extra finesse.
“In an open air situation like that, if you don’t exhaust just right, you have smoke blowing back onto the customers,” Taraski says. “A little smoke is good because it gets people hungry and makes them want to buy more food, but too much is not good.”
Ventless systems can also reduce the load on energy consumption. While more sports arenas are recycling, even composting and going for LEED certification, the greening of sports stadiums continues to be an open market.
Welcome to the next wave of sports foodservice.