Losing some wait
|Concessionaires are innovating to better handle peak sales periods.
Sports food vendors have battled long lines at concession stands for years. For the concessionaires, slow speed of service is not conducive to generating revenue. For the fans, nothing is more frustrating than missing a chunk of the game waiting in line to buy a hot dog and a beer.
The issue is “the one thing everybody can agree on ... fans, teams and food providers,” said Jaime Faulkner, CEO of E15, the analytics group owned by Levy Restaurants.
But easy solutions for cutting wait times are rarer than a 50-cent beer, for many reasons.
For one thing, the dynamics of congestion at concessions stands depend on the sport, vendors say. Baseball’s leisurely pace provides many opportunities to grab food and drink between innings. Football, basketball and hockey have fewer breaks, however, which means stands can get slammed.
Plus, every building is unique in its design and flow, presenting operational challenges regardless of the event and forcing vendors to make adjustments.
“Our challenge is how do we make it better and minimize it and make it less of an inconvenience for people,” Sportservice President Carlos Bernal said.
To resolve the issue, food providers are exploring new technology for self-serve stations and using research data to support the reconfiguration of food stands.
Some of this may sound familiar. Self-ordering kiosks have been in place at MLB ballparks since at least 2005, when Centerplate tested a system at old Yankee Stadium. The technology provider, Fanunlimited, eventually went out of business, but the technology brought efficiency to concessions with limited points of sale at the New York Yankees’ former home, said Dan Smith, president of Legends Hospitality, who worked for Centerplate at the old ballpark.
“The problem in existing stadiums is unless you’re designed for the proper fulfillment, you’re back to square one,” Smith said. “If you don’t have the production coming through the windows, people are still waiting in line.”
In theory, self-serve streamlines the process by having fans make their selections on a touch-screen kiosk and swipe their credit card to pay for the order, which is sent directly to the kitchen behind the concession stand for preparation and delivery.
The downside to self-serve includes the kiosks’ limited menus. Expanding the technology to cover a greater variety of food options defeats the purpose by slowing the process for fans having to make more decisions before placing their order, food consultant Chris Bigelow said.
In addition, in some markets, vendors face issues with unions over the potential loss of jobs due to automation. Plus, some food providers feel many fans still prefer personal interaction with concessions staff and bartenders operating beer stands (see related story).
“Like everything else, you have a variety of applications that you introduce, and not all of them are going to be home runs,” Bernal said. “We kind of joke about it: If it doesn’t work, let’s fail fast [and] do something else.”
Both Levy Restaurants and Aramark are testing the newest generation of self-serve stations at ballparks after rollouts last season.
At Dodger Stadium in 2016, Levy split in half a large barbecue stand in the outfield featuring 20 points of sale. One side was converted to a self-serve kiosk where fans placed their orders by selecting items on touch screens. The other half was kept intact as a traditional walk-up stand.
After the season, E15’s data showed the self-serve section produced a higher volume of transactions per 15-minute increments. Compared with the walkup portion, the average check size was $5 higher for self-serve, driven largely by dinner baskets, Faulkner said.
“Amazon is one of our clients and they will tell you when people have the ability to place the order themselves, they order more items, for whatever reason,” she said. “We see the same thing with food and beverage in sports.”
The kiosks, produced by point-of-sale supplier Appetize in a partnership with Levy and the Dodgers, have expanded to other parts of the ballpark, which at 56,000 seats is the largest in MLB and gives them ample opportunities for more testing.
|Aramark’s efforts at self-serve include Fastball Foods, with arrows to help guide fans through the ordering and pickup process, at Minute Maid Park in Houston; and Zoom Food at Rogers Centre in Toronto (below).
The Dodgers like the technology, which puts the fans in control of their experience at the concession stand, though team officials support additional testing before deciding whether to make it a permanent feature, said Tucker Kain, the team’s chief financial officer.
Aramark has seen an uptick in sales as well for its self-serve kiosks at stadiums. Last year, the vendor introduced its version of self-serve at Minute Maid Park, and has since expanded it to Citizens Bank Park and Rogers Centre, plus NRG Stadium, where it was tested for the 2017 Super Bowl.
Last season at the Astros’ ballpark, the average check at the new self-serve layout on the mezzanine level increased by 13 percent and transactions during peak periods jumped by 64 percent over 2015 at the same location, said Danielle Lazor, Aramark’s vice president of design and development.
The purpose behind the system, branded as Fastball Foods in Houston and Zoom Food in Philadelphia and Toronto, was to see whether it could escalate speed of service during peak periods, Lazor said.
The idea was to expand the point-of-sale system apart from the stand to a convenient spot within reach of more customers. Because no transactions are conducted at the stand itself, all that square footage is freed up as cooking space, she said.
“What we realized was the footprints of the concession areas in the buildings are pretty standard and we don’t have the opportunity to expand beyond those footprints,” Lazor said. “Essentially, what we’ve done in some cases is more than double point-of-sale by adding these self-ordering kiosks.”
At Minute Maid Park, there are two teams of cooks and chefs working Fastball Foods and everything is still cooked to order, similar to when it was laid out as a traditional concession stand, she said.
Most important, fans can still see their items being prepared at the self-serve stands. Those visuals remain important to customers and are one thing Lazor thinks can pose a barrier for those resisting mobile ordering and in-seat service.
“Even if you’re ordering at a kiosk, you’re there, you’re seeing the food being made fresh and it’s getting to our fans faster,” Lazor said. “There’s still a lot of value in that piece.”
Aramark’s self-serve system is a three-step process. Fans place their order at the kiosk on a digital menu board that informs them how to slide their credit card and add items to the order. The machine then spits out a receipt and the fans walk to the stand to pick up their order.
For those ordering soft drinks, the final step is arriving at the self-serve soda fountain at the end of the stand to complete their order. At this point, there are no free refills but it’s something the vendor is considering for the future, Aramark officials said.
Part of making the system work is making sure fans know how to use it. Aramark has digital boards and fixed signs to guide users through the process.
“What we’re hanging our hat on is the ability to have your order ready, due to increased expediting capabilities and efficiencies in the stand … and you’re not waiting in an additional line,” Lazor said. “It’s a quick pickup.”
Levy Restaurants took a tack opposite from self-serve for reconfiguring concession stands at AmericanAirlines Arena. As part of a test, the vendor reduced points of sale at a core menu stand in Miami to streamline the process for getting fans’ orders filled.
About three years ago, E15, in conjunction with the Miami Heat’s business intelligence division, analyzed the stand’s transactions and discovered that 70 percent of all sales were beverage and snack items with no cooked items ordered. The sales data showed that most fans were waiting to buy drinks behind others placing orders for burgers, which take longer to prepare.
The solution was to simplify the layout, with one point-of-sale reserved for drinks and snacks only and a new single-line structure. One Levy employee, serving as the stand’s “captain,” stands at the head of the line to direct patrons to the correct space for their order (see diagram below).
Three years later, most of the arena’s permanent concession stands have been converted to the same layout, and wait times have been cut in half, said Kim Stone, the Miami Heat’s executive vice president and general manager of the facility.
As part of the reconfiguration, Levy adjusted its labor force to fit the new model. With fewer cashiers required, some who used to work the register focus on filling orders to expedite the process. More beer portables have been added to support the main stands, which also helps reduce wait times.
“Now, it’s similar to a TSA queue line where it snakes back and forth,” Stone said. “Psychologically, people see the line and think it’s longer, but it’s not a deterrent. It goes faster and moves very quickly.”
It may seem like a simple conversion to increase speed of service, but without the data supporting the change, it would have been guesswork, according to Faulkner.
“We had a 50 percent reduction in point-of-sale for those stands, which goes against everything we can think of,” she said. “We really let the math dictate the setup … and it’s been successful. Now what we’re doing is taking that concept and starting to test it elsewhere to see if we get the same results.”
|Research by E15, the analytics group owned by Levy Restaurants, shows single-line queues move faster but aren’t perceived that way.