Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 46
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Seahawks, Jazz take new paths to food service

The Seattle Seahawks and Utah Jazz have both undergone a seismic shift in food service, arriving at opposite ends of the operational spectrum.

Fifteen years after the Seahawks opened CenturyLink Field in 2002, the team made the plunge to go in-house with food and drink. The Seahawks formed a new company, First & Goal Hospitality, to run concessions and premium dining at their stadium.

The Jazz veered in the other direction, signing a joint venture with Levy to run the food at Vivint Smart Home Arena starting this fall. The deal with the Chicago concessionaire ends a nearly 25-year run during which the Jazz self-operated food under the old All-Star Catering.

A $125 million renovation to Vivint Smart Home Arena encouraged the Utah Jazz to bring in Levy as the food operator. 
The Jazz like the analytic insights Levy can bring to the table.
For both teams, regardless of the business model, the bottom line is to maintain control over the second-highest revenue stream behind ticket sales, improve the quality of food service, and meet the demand for more local flavors, said officials from the two clubs.

Teams are pushing for greater input into concessions and suite catering, said food consultant John Sergi, who worked with the Jazz to select a vendor.

“The best food experiences come from ownership being highly involved,” Sergi said. “The complexity of trying to deliver that experience to meet the demands of today’s fan has changed rapidly over the last five years, and it requires everything a team knows to meld it all together.”

In Seattle, First & Goal Hospitality, named for First & Goal Inc., parent company of the Seahawks and Sounders, launched in March at the start of the MLS season. Four months into the new operation, the new vendor now has the flexibility and freedom to experiment with new dishes, said Peter McLoughlin, president of the Seahawks.

“You don’t have to negotiate with a third party to say we’ve got some new ideas we’d like to try,” he said. “Not that we necessarily met resistance in the past, but now we can make decisions in real time, on the fly. We have much greater touch points directly with our customer.”

For the Seahawks, the expenses tied to forming a food service company are basically a wash compared with their old deals with Levy and most recently Delaware North Sportservice, the two vendors they used since McLoughlin was named president in 2010. Under those two agreements, First & Goal Inc. covered food and labor costs and paid the concessionaires a management fee, he said.

As a result, startup fees were “zero,” McLoughlin said. The management team of 15 full-timers were already on the teams’ payroll, whether they worked for the Seahawks or the previous vendors. In addition, First & Goal Hospitality rehired most part-timers from the old regime.

“We looked at the expenses as ‘net neutral,’” he said. “We generate a lot of revenue from our food and beverage operation, which provides a reasonable profit for us and we’ll continue to do that.”

McLoughlin would not disclose food revenue figures. But he said the stadium complex books about 150 events a year between the two teams, concerts, corporate events such as the recent two-day Amazon conference for 32,000 employees, and trade shows filling the exhibit hall next door.

The Seattle Seahawks brought food service in house to gain more control.
“We’ve had a lot of success managing the two teams’ business, so we really like our chances of being successful in the food business,” he said.

First & Goal Inc. made the decision to go in-house midway through 2016 and made some moves toward that end last year, which included forming a partnership with local steakhouse operator John Howie as part of upgrading the club level. Doing their research, the Seahawks spoke with the Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots and Vancouver Canucks, all of whom run food in-house at their facilities. McLoughlin said their feedback was unanimous in that “the teams that are doing it [themselves] would never go back to not doing it, for all the reasons we stated.”

First & Goal Hospitality has three seasoned executives in charge: David Young, the stadium’s vice president and general manager; Zach Hensley, the facility’s vice president of venue operations and guest experience, and Centerplate’s old general manager at Levi’s Stadium; and Dawn Wheeler, managing director of hospitality, who previously worked at the stadium complex for both Sportservice and Aramark. On his own, Young worked at Disney World before getting into stadium operations.

“We have three highly skilled, professional people who are managing the business day to day which allows us to hire and train people with a heavy emphasis on customer service and quality,” McLoughlin said.

In Salt Lake City, the arena’s $125 million renovation played a key role in the Jazz’s decision to bring in Levy as the food operator after issuing a proposal to multiple vendors, said Jim Olson, the team’s chief operating officer. The ability to tap into E15, Levy’s analytics group, was another driving factor, Olson said.

Last month, the Jazz announced the move, teaming with Levy to brand the business locally as Salted Honey Hospitality. The name reflects two natural resources in the region plus the Salt Lake City Bees, the minor league baseball team owned by Larry H. Miller Entertainment, owner of the Jazz.

The deal extends to Smith’s Ballpark, home of the Bees, where Levy-owned Professional Sports Catering runs the food, and the Tour of Utah professional bike race, where Levy took over the catering deal. Olson would not discuss specifics of Levy’s overall agreement.

The teams are also hoping for more flexibility when it comes to trying new concepts.
The makeover of the 26-year-old arena encompasses several new concession stand concepts, including local barbecue, pizza and Mexican brands, some of which the Jazz brought into the building last season and worked into Levy’s agreement moving forward, Olson said.

The renovations, designed by Brisbin Brook Beynon/Stadium Consultants International, “kick-started” the process for hiring a third-party vendor, he said, but the Jazz also felt there was real value in getting to know best practices across Levy’s 20-plus NBA accounts.

The move brings “more depth and bench support” to the Jazz, plus Levy’s comprehensive data program, Sergi said.

Having that knowledge and support in hand from other NBA markets was something the Jazz missed during all those years of running food on their own, according to Olson.

“It’s your operation, you’re calling the shots and making the decisions,” he said. “There’s some control there, but I think you lose the ability to tap into expertise and best practices.”