SBJ/Dec. 14, 2009/This Week's News

Panthers talk to likely food service partners

The Carolina Panthers are talking to three firms about taking over the food and retail operation at Bank of America Stadium as early as the 2010 season, according to team officials.

Stadium Food and Beverage, a division of the team, has managed food service in-house for 12 years in Charlotte. Volume Services America, now Centerplate, ran concessions and premium dining during the Panthers’ first two years at their facility, before the club bought out its food and retail contract.

The Panthers have talked with Aramark, Delaware North Sportservice and Levy Restaurants, part of Compass Group, the world’s largest food provider, whose North American headquarters is in Charlotte. Levy runs the food service at Time Warner Cable Arena, home of the Charlotte Bobcats.

Todd Smoots, director of Stadium Food and Beverage, has been involved in the discussions and said a new deal would involve some type of partnership between the two firms. The Panthers acquired the Smoots family business, Eli’s Catering, in the late 1990s, and together they developed Stadium Food and Beverage.

“We are obviously very happy with Stadium Food and Beverage … but there is always room to improve,” said Richard Thigpen, the Panthers’ general counsel involved in the discussions. The team expects to make a decision on a new concessions partner in the next two months, Thigpen said.

The Panthers have managed their food service
in-house for the past 12 years.

Carolina is one of only three NFL teams operating concessions on their own, along with the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. The Panthers went “self-op” to gain greater control of food service, said former president of stadium operations Jon Richardson in a 2003 interview.

But it’s a big challenge for any club due to the tremendous amount of time and money required to invest in equipment, staff and training to run a smooth operation, said Bill Caruso, a consultant the Charlotte Bobcats hired to develop their arena food operation.

“Traditionally, NFL teams have focused on outside management professionals to provide the level of quality fans expect,” Caruso said.

The Panthers feel it makes sense to seek alternatives for concessions, Thigpen said.

“Part of it is good practice to take a look at what other venues have done, and part of it is the economy,” he said. “Times have changed now versus five years ago. That’s why we’re taking a look.”

In a recession that has affected most teams in pro sports, the Panthers could be seeking a cash infusion. Concessionaires have traditionally provided millions of dollars in guarantees above the normal contract terms and revenue splits, Caruso said.

At the same time, food and merchandise vendors are also feeling the pinch, he said.

“If the team needs money, there might be a little more leverage to the concessionaire, but in reality, the competition [for food contracts] is still great,” said Ken Young, president of Ovations Food Services. “The percentages given to the team just may not be as high.”

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