SBJ/May 7-13, 2012/In-Depth

Food-driven facelifts

Venues get creative with concession areas, turning underperforming and underutilized spaces into revenue machines

The Texas Rangers’ fast start this season extends to the revamped outfield plaza at Rangers Ballpark.

Over the first three homestands, as soon as the stadium gates opened, team officials saw Rangers fans sprint to a new outdoor bar above center field to grab a seat against a protective railing where they could hang out, enjoy a cold beer and watch the game.

The Budweiser Bowtie at Vandergriff Plaza, the name of the new 12,000-square-foot bar, has four new concession stands plus aluminum tables and chairs for fans to congregate in a sports bistro setting outdoors under protective cover.

Texas Rangers fans watch the action from the Batter’s Eye Club, one of two indoor lounges added to the outfield area.
Photo by: Texas Rangers
“It has become a race for the seats in the deck area for the drink rail and bar seating,” said Rob Matwick, the Rangers’ executive vice president of ballpark operations.

The Bud bar is part of an overhaul of the park’s outfield area, a project spanning 55,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space. The Rangers and Delaware North Sportservice, their food provider, shared the cost of the $12 million investment.

The Rangers are not alone in their efforts to bring new life to tired food and drink areas to generate more revenue and keep fans moving through the turnstiles. Across Major League Baseball, teams, vendors and their marketing partners are repurposing concession areas, creating vibrant destinations.

Many food-driven facelifts are taking place at the larger ballparks built in the 1990s that now have too many unsold seats. Those seating areas are being redeveloped into branded bars and clubs that cater to all ticket holders. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Progressive Field, Coors Field and Safeco Field, as well as Rangers Ballpark, were all born in that era. As those facilities grow older, teams and food providers are looking for ways to shrink capacity and increase concession points of sale.

Sports architect Populous originally designed three of those ballparks, and recently has done work to redevelop outfield spaces at Rangers Ballpark and Safeco Field.

In Seattle, Populous teamed with the Mariners and Centerplate, the team’s food provider, to redevelop a center-field space into The ’Pen, a standing-room space featuring higher-end concessions that has become one of the hottest singles spots in town.

“We have done a lot of work over the last three years with these older ballparks trying to reinvent themselves, creating comprehensive master plans,” said Greg Sherlock, a senior architect and principal with Populous.

“The key to the success of any food and beverage spot is thinking ahead to develop a complete overlay of a particular vision,” Sherlock said. “At these stadiums over time … patterns have changed with viewing habits, presenting us with opportunities for reinventing spaces.”

On average, Populous finds a half-dozen nooks and crannies in older, bigger parks that are ripe for new food and drink
destinations, Sherlock said. The key is thinking ahead for redesigning spaces to provide fans with a connection to the game apart from their seats.

“It’s not just about building a stand with a glamorous name,” he said. “The problem is teams don’t have a boatload of money so it’s about developing an entire vision for projects that could be completed for the next four to five years.”
Teams short on cash turn to their concessionaires and food and drink partners to help pay for renovations that can run seven figures depending on the scope of the project.

In some markets, malt beverage partners drive the need for branded destinations. Anheuser-Busch, as part of its official MLB beer deal, is tied to about a dozen new Budweiser-branded bars and roof decks at stadiums. In the spirits category, multiple MLB teams have deals with Captain Morgan and Familia Camarena to theme indoor and outdoor spaces, including Rangers Ballpark, Wrigley Field, Coors Field and AT&T Park.

Rangers cool things down

In Arlington, Budweiser and Captain Morgan each have a brand presence at new outfield bars, the first major structural improvements since the ballpark opened in 1994.

The Southwest climate drove the adjustments, according to Matwick. The Rangers relocated office space and a kids zone, and removed aluminum bleacher seats, to make room for upgrades in an outfield where fans had been completely exposed to the Texas sun.

Rangers fans have rushed to the outfield area to try to secure a coveted seat along the railing of one of the team’s new bar areas.
Photo by: Texas Rangers
“There was one Icee stand and a second stand that served kids snacks,” Matwick said. “Nothing of substance for adults and all were exposed to weather with zero sun protection.”

That has all changed this season. The covered Bud bar, plus the Batter’s Eye Club and Captain Morgan Club, the Rangers’ two new indoor lounges, provide shade and air conditioning, a premium amenity in North Texas.

The new development eliminated about 900 outfield seats but the new concession stands, bars and clubs will offset the loss of ticket revenue, Matwick said.

For the first 18 years at Rangers Ballpark, the batter’s eye area was just a green wall before the new structure was built, featuring a roof overhang on both sides that provides more shaded outfield space near the statue of Nolan Ryan, the team’s owner and former star pitcher.

After studying batter’s eye clubs at Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium, the Rangers decided to dynamically price the new 150-seat lounge. The team markets the club for groups and individual sales, starting at $75 a person per game, a fee covering food and drink.

The Rangers installed an 11-foot-tall video board on the back wall behind the club, and early in the season the team has seen another trend developing, Matwick said. Families are spreading blankets on the grass landing to watch the game on the big screen while grabbing dinner from Ryan’s Express 34, a new stand serving burgers from team owner Ryan’s meat company, one of four new concessions behind the Batter’s Eye Club.

“It’s almost become like an outdoor movie theater,” Matwick said.

Fans cannot see the game from behind the Batter’s Eye Club but they can “still hear and feel the atmosphere of the park,” said Shawn Mattox, Sportservice’s general manager at Rangers Ballpark. “They are still engaged in the senses of the game.”

Giants set Anchor

In San Francisco, the new Anchor Plaza & Tap Room serves a similar purpose at AT&T Park, widely known for having some of the best food in baseball despite having one of MLB’s smallest footprints on an 11-acre waterfront property.

The challenge for the Giants and Centerplate has always been to find extra space to grow revenue, which led to concourse clutter blocking fans’ views to the game. Populous resolved some of those issues by designing small
The new Anchor Plaza at AT&T Park doesn’t offer fans a view of the game, but is still a popular gathering place.
Photo by: San Francisco Giants
alcoves next to rest rooms to fit portable carts.

In the center-field food court, right behind the scoreboard, there was some open space to fill between Orlando’s Caribbean BBQ, Crazy Crab and Outta Here Cheesesteaks. The result is the new tap room and plaza designed after the Anchor Brewery in town, a 116-year-old brand. Anchor Brewing Co. signed on last season as a new Giants sponsor and expanded its stadium presence this year with the tap room.

With the Giants approaching their 100th consecutive sellout, the Anchor tap room provides the focal point that had been missing in center field, said Alfonso Felder, the team’s senior vice president of facilities.

“We needed something in the middle to join everything together, and Anchor, one of the oldest breweries around, is right down the street,” said Bill Greathouse, Centerplate’s senior vice president of sports.

Centerplate officials visited the original brewery to match the same wood, brass and marble finishes for the ballpark site. Fans can’t see the game from the Anchor bar but they can watch it on television while enjoying one of the best ballpark settings in America.

“On a nice day game, it’s great to just eat and drink out there, watch the game on the screens and look at the bay,” Greathouse said. “We are getting great feedback on this from the fans already.”

Local flavor

In St. Petersburg and Toronto, two markets where the Rays and Blue Jays face the challenge of drawing fans to aging domes, the challenge for concessionaires is to create a pleasurable food experience in a sport synonymous with having fun outdoors in the summer.

Centerplate and Aramark, respectively, have developed in-house brands at Tropicana Field and Rogers Centre, piggybacking on local flavors and traditions.

The Everglades barbecue theme brought new life to a restaurant at Tropicana Field.
Photo by: Ronert Crum
The Everglades BBQ Company Smokehouse in St. Petersburg, run by Centerplate, and Muddy York, Aramark’s neighborhood market concept in Toronto, have transformed underperforming spaces at those indoor stadiums.

At Tropicana Field, Centerplate shook up the menu and decor at the old buffet-style Batter’s Eye Restaurant, which is open to all fans. To create a more inviting space, the concessions firm brought in the Florida barbecue theme first launched a few years ago at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

The issue in St. Pete was not the restaurant’s location as much as it was the atmosphere, said Bill Tracy, Centerplate’s regional vice president.

“A lot of fans had the preconceived notion that it was an exclusive club,” Tracy said. “It was seen more as a stuffy area. We sat down with the team and said, ‘You can’t beat the view; how come we can’t get people in here?’”

Centerplate found the right answer by softening the space, providing a casual, neighborhood dining feel with paper towels and barbecue sauces adorning tables, a 180-degree turn from the old layout. The vendor installed three 1,000-pound smokers to cook ribs, pulled pork, brisket and chicken. Centerplate charges $7 for sandwiches and up to $22 for a half smoked chicken/half rib combo. The core item is a pulled pork sandwich with wedge fries for $11.

The revamp, financed by Centerplate for less than $20,000, has worked out well. Foot traffic has increased by 40 percent over the old dining format, with a high of 350 to 400 diners coming through the Everglades on a typical game night, Tracy said.

Its success led Centerplate to expand the Everglades barbecue theme to a pair of concession stands elsewhere at Tropicana Field.

In Toronto, a cosmopolitan city that takes food very seriously, Aramark adapted several international food themes at the old SkyDome that reflect the eclectic neighborhoods in Canada’s largest market.

The free-flowing setup and menus inside the roomy Muddy York market on the main concourse are a dramatic shift from a building where McDonald’s ran the Blue Jays’ concessions for the dome’s first 10 years, before Sportservice took over in 2000.

The need for a total refresh of Rogers Centre’s concessions led Aramark down a path to provide a strong connection to the city’s heritage after surveying fans to find out their tastes and preferences, said Jeff Curley, the firm’s general manager.

Muddy York, an old nickname for Toronto, has ties to the city’s downtown market dating to the 1930s. At the dome location, Aramark’s food per caps have grown steadily over the past two to three years, due in large part to the renovation and native foods, Curley said.

“Toronto is a food mecca where people love to go out and eat, and part of the success we have had here is understanding what our fans do when they are not at the ballpark,” he said.

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