SBJ/May 13-19, 2013/In Depth

Chefs continue to spice things up

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Sports concession deals with celebrity chefs are hotter than ever as teams, vendors and fans recognize the upgraded quality and brand recognition those deals bring to stadiums and arenas.

The trend dates to 2000 when Levy Restaurants became one of the first sports food providers to get into that space, signing a deal with Wolfgang Puck to serve his line of gourmet pizzas in the suites at Dodger Stadium.

Fast forward to 2013 and most big league food vendors across North America have deals in place with celebrity chefs to improve the fan experience and boost sales for a team’s second-most important revenue stream behind ticket sales.

In general, fans drive the trend with increased expectations for how food should taste at sports events, according to concessionaires. In addition, the immense popularity of food shows on television has brought greater awareness to chefs and their signature recipes.

Chef Andrew Zimmern (above) opened a portable cart at Target Field in Minnesota that sells his custom goat-and-lamb butter burger.
Photo by: The Brooks Group
“As food in general has become so mainstream in pop culture and part of the everyday experience of a community, we’ve seen this great opportunity to connect the fan experience to these chefs,” said Carl Mittleman, an Aramark regional vice president.

Colleges are also embracing the trend. Last year, Fort Worth chef Tim Love, an “Iron Chef” winner on TV, signed a partnership with Sodexo to serve food in regular concessions and suites at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium, which completed a $164 million renovation in 2012.

“You saw this customized food program with chefs in small numbers 20 years ago when a local product would be featured at a ballpark,” said Andrew Zimmern, host of The Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” show. “Now you can’t go to any sports venue without finding them.”

Add Zimmern to the list. This season, Zimmern, a Minnesota resident, Twins season-ticket holder and a self-described “sports geek” who visits stadiums all over the world as part of his food show, opened a portable cart on the main concourse along the third-base line at Target Field that sells his custom goat-and-lamb butter burger. The meat is blended by New York butcher and food show personality Pat LaFrieda, Zimmern’s friend who has his own deals with Aramark, including a new chop house concept at Citi Field, home of the Mets.

In Minneapolis, the AZ Canteen, a revenue share deal with Delaware North Sportservice, Target Field’s food provider, is an extension of Zimmern’s branded food truck that debuted at the 2012 Minnesota State Fair and now travels the streets of the Twin Cities.

The partnership was driven in large part by the Twins and Sportservice. They both reached out to Zimmern on more than one occasion over the past few years to see if he was interested in doing something concessions-wise at the park, said Twins President Dave St. Peter. They both knew of Zimmern’s general distaste for sports food, which he has made known through his Twitter account. After striking out in 2012, Sportservice reached an agreement for Zimmern to put his mark on a menu already heavy on local flavors.

“I was firmly convinced you could do really good food at a ballpark,” he said. “I think most of the offerings, not just at

Target Field, but all over the country, are garbage foods and it doesn’t have to be that way. I was convinced as well that people would be happy to do whatever they could to access food like that.”

To date, Sportservice, operator of the AZ Canteen, is selling about 200 burgers a game, a number St. Peter believes all parties involved can improve upon with more promotions as they continue to push the brand. The burger sells for $13 and got a thumbs-up from local food critics.

“There is an entertainment element with Andrew Zimmern and his brand, which brings value from the client side to the fan,” said Larry Wittenberg, Sportservice’s chief operating officer. “It has to be Andrew’s flair, which means it has to be a little bit different. It is still a burger, not some crazy item. Fans want hamburgers and hot dogs, French fries, peanuts and popcorn. That’s still the main element of our business.”

Keeping it simple is key for celebrity chefs as they bring fresh ideas to concessions menus. They recognize the challenges that traditional food vendors face in feeding tens of thousands of people within a three-hour window compared with the leisurely pace of a restaurant setting.

“We’re not re-creating the wheel with the things we’re putting in stadiums,” said Bryan Caswell, a Houston chef and restaurateur in his third year of working with Aramark and the Astros at Minute Maid Park. “We’re trying to do things that are simple, tasty, fast and quick and make sense in the ballpark. I tell people all the time, I don’t know anywhere else where food is so ingrained in our nation’s mind historically as it is with baseball. They talk about peanuts and Cracker Jack in the song and we have to be careful not to tread on that history.”

Caswell, showcasing his new Caz Grill burger concept in Houston, has seen his ballpark business double the first two seasons between concessions and suite catering. In concessions alone, his operation has grown from two small kiosks to four concession stands this year. Aramark has a professional services and consulting agreement with Caswell and pays him a fee in lieu of a revenue share, Mittleman said.

Aramark initially contacted Caswell about doing a stadium deal a few years ago when Drayton McLane owned the team. Caswell, a lifelong Astros fan who attended Nolan Ryan’s fifth no-hitter in 1981, jumped on the idea. Recognized by the same orange Astros hat he’s worn since high school, Caswell can be seen high-fiving fans as he walks through the park.
Running three restaurants in town, Caswell makes it to about 20 games a year but has staff members, who work with Aramark to ensure quality control, making regular visits to the park.

This year, Aramark folded Caswell’s catering side into a new entity called Houston Astros Hospitality Group, part of the vendor’s effort to upgrade ballpark food under new team owner Jim Crane.

“The focus on Bryan’s signature items is starting to change the food service experience at Minute Maid Park,” said Astros President George Postolos. “We can see the change in conversations with customers and in our surveys and focus groups.”

Across Texas, Love, operator of steakhouses in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, saw an opportunity to get into the sports food business at TCU as part of the stadium’s renovation. After attending the first meeting where he was the little guy in the room with officials from Aramark, Legends Hospitality and Ovations Food Services, among others, Love teamed with Sodexo to submit a joint bid for the business. Sodexo already had the school’s campus dining deal, and together, they won a multiyear contract starting last year at the upgraded facility.

“The first game was a little rough,” Love said. “The only elevator we had broke and we had to push all the food up the ramps. We lost electricity to a lot of places. From that point on, it got better and better. I enjoyed it and it’s been a great new challenge for me.”

Love would not get into the details of his agreement with Sodexo but he did say he has more skin in the game than other celebrity chefs whose deals are tied to the vendors operating their branded food stands. His company runs the suites exclusively and helps Sodexo develop concession items such as the Big 12 Burger made with beef brisket and tenderloin.

“The trend has been around for awhile but I think the hybrid that Sodexo and I have formed is much different,” Love said. “I’m actually there cooking; we’re not just handing out recipes. That’s not how we operate. It’s a vested interest, and we feel there is an opportunity to grow.”

The Twins also see room for expanding the AZ Canteen concept at Target Field, especially with the ballpark playing host to the 2014 MLB All-Star Game, where they can leverage Zimmern’s national profile, St. Peter said. Zimmern is also targeting other markets.

“Whether it’s the three to four [sports facilities] here or nationally, we’re aggressively looking for partners to take this concept out,” Zimmern said. “We’ve had incredible reaction from fans and the price point works.”


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