Welcome to the new era of stadium — er, sports venue — foodservice.
Foodservice aside, stadium construction is back on the rise after the big pause in 2020. According to IBISWorld, the $14 billion sports stadium construction industry revenue fell at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3% over the past 5 years. But in 2023 alone, the study estimates a 2.2% CAGR jump, while profit margins are expected to remain stable at 4.4% of revenue.
Industry research firm Technomic also predicts a bump back up to pre-pandemic rates for the sports and recreation segment, forecasting a 6.8% growth in 2024 compared to a 3.7% growth from 2022 to 2023.
Narrowing it down to food, according to a report by Datassential released in August, 78% of consumers ordered food the last time they were at a sports venue or concert arena. Specifically, 69% ordered non-alcoholic beverages, and just 37% ordered an alcoholic beverage, which shows the important role foodservice offerings play in the fiscal success of these venues. Indeed, consumers spend a pretty penny when they do go out to these venues: Datassential found that the average spending hovered around $32 per person.
At the same time, Datassential also found that only 44% of consumers surveyed who ordered food and/or beverages were very or extremely satisfied with their choices, even if 75% were satisfied with the overall event experience. In addition, sports and concert venue patrons said they would purchase more on-site food if presented with a wider selection and bigger portions, as well as more healthy snacks and unique options.
This means chefs and foodservice operators have their work cut out for them. Pre-pandemic, many sports and concert venues increased the quality and variety of their food and beverage offerings by partnering with local restaurants and even celebrity chefs. These newer items stood alongside the traditional hot dog or slice of pizza — longtime staples at these venues.
For example, back in 2019, sports venue menus included items like grasshoppers in the form of Mexican chapulines at the Seattle Mariners’ T-Mobile Park; loaded Impossible Burgers at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, home to the Oakland Athletics; lobster corn dogs at Minute Maid Park at the Houston Astros’ field; gourmet hot dogs at Coors Field in Denver; arancini at the Mets’ Citi Field in New York; and a special lineup of artisan pizzas from Marc Vetri’s acclaimed Pizzeria Vetri at Lincoln Financial Field, home to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Just this year in San Francisco, Levi’s Stadium executive chef Alvin Kabiling oversaw the development of some new menu items that include everything from loaded picadillo sirloin nachos to foot-long cheddar bacon brats, crab sandwiches, pastrami burgers, Nashville hot chicken sliders, Filipino lumpia and spicy ahi bowls.
Still, the venue staples remain important; Datassential’s research found that 73% of consumers expect burgers, 71% expect other handhelds and 70% expect pizza to be an option when they go to a game or concert.
As chefs and menu makers embrace the challenge of enhancing the variety of food offerings at sports venues, foodservice designers and other industry players must back them up with solid designs and the right equipment choices to maintain menu flexibility. It also means designers and the supply chain must get involved in the earlier stages of architectural plans, as foodservice becomes one of — if not the most — important amenity at these venues.
“The big difference over the years is how much more involved the ownership is in food and beverage, and especially the food,” says Chris Bigelow, FCSI, president of The Bigelow Companies Inc., which provides both design services and management advisory services (MAS) for sports venue clients. “In the past, they knew they had to have [food], but they didn’t spend a lot of time on making it part of the initial plans. Now, we’ve had a lot of meetings with ownership earlier on in the process because they realize just how important food and beverage [are].”
Kristin Sedej, FCSI, principal and owner of S2O Consultants Inc. and another foodservice consulting firm working in the sports venue arena, agrees. “Big picture: Our clients want an elevated fan experience, and that’s directly tied to the food and beverage,” she says, noting that menu diversity, as well as how the food is offered (via concessions, marketplaces, clubs, bars and suites), both play equally important roles these days.
Sedej notes that she likes to refer to these facilities as sports venues in general because of the differences between football stadiums, which have only one season in the fall and maybe some concerts throughout the year — versus arenas for basketball, which have a longer season that coincides with hockey, and baseball fields, which can have more than 100 games a year.
Phil Landgraf, FCSI, executive principal, Ricca Design Studios, sees another pattern in the sports sector. “The general trend in sports entertainment that we’re seeing is a lot of differentiation or stratification of fan experiences, with 5 or 6 ticket levels, or even 10 or 12 ticket levels tied to clubs, premium clubs and even ultra-premium clubs,” says Landgraf, who worked on the renovation of Sonoma Raceway in California. “It’s all about those incremental amenities and experiences that drive ticket prices and provide unique fan experiences with differing levels of engagement.”
New builds and renovations for sports and concert venues also drive development outside the venue walls. “We’re seeing more developers and sports owners create entertainment districts outside of the stadium,” says Landgraf, who points out McGregor Square in Denver across from Coors Field (home of the Colorado Rockies) where his team designed a food hall to service a hotel and nearby residents as well as sports fans. This opens up even more opportunities for foodservice development in the form of restaurants, bars and cafes — even outdoor viewing areas with snacks and beers. This type of development has spurred the growth of entire neighborhoods and districts, like Wrigleyville in Chicago outside Wrigley Field, Navy Yard outside of Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and the Deer District outside the Milwaukee Bucks’ Fiserv Forum.
So just how are architects, consultants and other industry players responding to these growth opportunities? Here’s a look at some of those areas within sports venues that are getting extra attention.
Remote Ordering Continues to Trend
Mobile ordering remains “huge” for the sports venue segment, says Landgraf, whose clients “are actually seeing a 30% to 40% average check growth thanks to mobile ordering. And because people aren’t paying with cash, and it’s all on their phone, they don’t realize how much they’ve spent until afterward.”
While some sports arenas tinkered a bit with in-seat dining pre-pandemic, it has proven to be a labor nightmare post-pandemic, Landgraf says. Instead, he notes, the remote ordering aspect of it has stayed the course, but sports arenas are asking customers to retrieve their food.
The good news, Landgraf says, is that operators of sports venues are open to creating separate pickup lines or areas that use cubbies or even lockers to store food until spectators retrieve their orders. “The lockers are great because they can be heated, so the item will stay warm longer versus relying on the customer to get there faster,” he says. This helps if fans want to see their favorite player hit that home run or wait for a break at halftime at football games. The closer these lockers sit to the food production area and “the more you can have these loaded from the back the better; that cuts down on the need for extra labor or food runners,” Landgraf adds.
The other nice thing about mobile ordering is the sheer data operators can collect that can lead to better insights into which areas see traffic and when, Landgraf says. They can shut down certain concessions at certain times or open up more mobile concessions based on that feedback to cut down on labor and maximize sales.
Marketplaces are the Place to Be
Markets are big right now, says Sedej, and both Bigelow and Landgraf agree. What started with Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology has branched into many other technology solutions offering heightened convenience and frictionless service for customers, including self-checkout kiosks. The sheer volume and revenue potential of markets is enough for most sports venue owners to want to offer them, adds Sedej.
Another advantage of these markets, or marketplaces, is that they mitigate or even eliminate congregating and lines forming in concourses. “Before, with traditional concessions, you always had people lining up outside, but with markets, you queue up on the inside,” Sedej says. They’re also very self-supported, so they can be loaded up with pre-packaged goods and beverages, and rear-fed gravity shelving cuts down on the need to have staff going into the physical space.”
When it comes to any on-site cooking that might happen in these spaces, “the more automated the better,” she says. “And ventless, of course, is huge and a great solution for markets.”
The trick to making unattended, self-serve market spaces work effectively, Landgraf says, is to size them to meet the anticipated volume and to plan for that space in the initial buildout. Sometimes ceiling height matters, if a camera-based checkout solution is used, and because technology changes so much these days, ensuring the right IT support is imperative.
Locations are Closer to the Customer
While commissaries remain central to sports arena foodservice programs and serve as the centralized landing point for incoming food and beverage, Sedej points out that many of her clients seek less bulk cooking and fewer carts being wheeled to suites.
Instead, she finds her clients expressing more interest in cooking or finishing at small remote outposts positioned closer to the suites. “No one wants a four-hour hot dog from a preloaded pantry,” as she puts it. “You don’t need a kitchen for every inch of space; you can stack premium suites on one side for vertical connectivity.”
Once again, to properly integrate these smaller cooking or finishing areas, it’s wise to consult with the foodservice designers from the start, instead of adding these spaces after the fact. Ventless equipment can play a huge role when designing and equipping these stations. Landgraf notes, “Simply by adding ventless cooking, you offer a better-quality product that elevates the fan experience. Ventless offers you so many options.” This equipment is especially helpful in a renovation because it’s more challenging to retrofit for black iron in an older facility where you might be limited in terms of where you can cook. Plus, with some sports venues committing to lowering their carbon footprint, electric-powered, ventless equipment replaces the need for more gas-fired pieces.
Clubs and Bars Are a Bigger Deal
One major thing Bigelow’s noticed as of late is that “owners don’t want a suite with 16 seats in there because then they think they have to fill those for up to 81 games or more.”
With the advent of smaller businesses and less big-ticket corporate suite deals, more companies are fine with smaller-sized suites so “most venues have actually gone in and reduced the number of suites they have by blowing out walls to create clubs that continue to grow in popularity,” he says.
“In the olden days, you might have one central kitchen servicing these clubs, but now, typically each club will have its own kitchen kind of like a public restaurant,” Bigelow says. Not all of it is public, however; “Exclusivity is really important with clubs.”
Most of these clubs have a large bar as the focal point because that’s where most of the sales happen; but the flexibility to shift from more stand-up gametime service to seated events on non-game days has to be there. “You have to think about how you’re using these spaces for catering or even opening them up to the general public on non-event days,” says Sedej. “They can be used for parties, weddings; people rent them out all the time.”
Better Beverage Solutions
Sports arena operators have moved away from long-line tap systems in favor of localized taps and bottled or canned beverages. “Draft beer was once huge, but everyone has moved to package products; the faster [operators] can rip out those long beer lines the better,” Bigelow says.
Landgraf agrees. “[Long draft beer lines] are just too hard to maintain, and beer that sits in the lines needs to be used frequently,” he says. “Plus, bottlers love to sell more ready-to-go products because they’re profitable.” To add variety without the long tap lines, Landgraf says many sports venue operators now use upscale merchandisers in the aforementioned market areas and in concession areas. They also use smaller kegs that staff can change on the spot in the clubs and bars. “We’re also seeing more portable concession kiosks with more refrigeration and variety in cans,” he says.
Case in point: Operations at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Folsom Field now include wireless, mobile cooler stations holding beer and other beverages after the items proved successful during a three-day music event this summer. Jason DePaepe, the university’s deputy athletic director, said the units became a permanent fixture of the facility and are being used during the fall football season. The mobile, top-loading workstations feature a large, temperature-controlled, refrigerated cooler area that holds up to 576 beverages and supports the power needs of additional capabilities such as a POS system. Concessions staff simply plug in the workstations overnight, and on game day they roll them out across the stadium on all types of surfaces with less physical force thanks to motorized casters.
Stepped-up sports venue food doesn’t stop with the chefs and menu planners; owners, operators, architects, consultants, dealers, manufacturers, manufacturers’ reps, IT specialists and technology providers have all played a role in the evolution of this segment. As these players continue to work together more collaboratively, expect the fan experience to grow.