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Volume 21 No. 30

In Depth

Al “Bubba” Baker was a defensive lineman with five NFL teams from 1978-90 before retiring and opening Bubba’s-Q barbecue restaurant in Cleveland. His business took off after an appearance on “Shark Tank.”
Photo: getty images

Athletes have always been involved in the culinary arts. But now, as the food world has exploded and celebrity chefs are as much in demand at the Super Bowl as the players, there are more sports figures on the food scene than ever.

 

Two primary reasons for this shift are cited by those involved — social media and TV shows about cooking. They are the same potent accelerants that have made foodies as rabid about their favorite restaurant or chef as sports fans are fervent about their favorite team or player.

“Social media came in, and if there was a new restaurant, everyone knew about it right away,” said Al “Bubba” Baker, who played for five NFL teams, and opened Bubba’s-Q barbecue restaurant in suburban Cleveland in the early 1990s. “The other thing that really set it off was cooking shows. Food Network and the rest gave everyone the chance to be a star.”

Baker’s patented boneless ribs are the star of his food empire. An appearance on “Shark Tank” in 2013 gave Baker a national profile, taking his business from $154,000 in sales to more than $16 million a year ago. His boneless ribs are now available in more than 3,000 stores across America, and have been sold nationally through the Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s quick-service restaurant chain.

“So much of social media is about sports, and if it isn’t about sports, it’s about food,” said former Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks, now fighting in the Professional Fighters League, after a stint with the UFC. Brooks, an aspiring restaurateur, has a YouTube cooking channel. Raised by a single parent who often worked three jobs, he developed culinary skills by necessity.

“Culinary is almost like sports now,” said Octagon Senior Vice President Christine Franklin, who handles culinary marketing for Octagon clients, including Mastercard. “You’ve got these huge social media followings for both, and the fans of both watching their favorite stars on TV. The lifestyle component is huge  — you’ve got chefs getting in the business to become celebrities, not to work in a restaurant. People are interested in what their favorite chefs do over the weekend totally independent of what and where they ate.”

Competitive nature

Like Baker, Food Network host Eddie Jackson practiced his trade in college, selling fellow football players homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes and fried chicken, “all the stuff the guys were missing from their moms for $5 a plate.” Just as an appearance on “Shark Tank” led to Baker’s multimillion-dollar success with boneless ribs, Jackson also got help from a TV show. He was the winning contestant on the “Food Network Star” reality show in 2015. Since then, he’s hosted various Food Network shows, in addition to owning Rosehill, a three-acre food truck park and beer garden, in Cypress, Texas, near Houston.

Former NFL cornerback Eddie Jackson was a food truck owner before becoming a winner on “Food Network Star” in 2015.
Photo: Courtesy of @fitchefeddie on Instagram

“What draws a lot of athletes to this business is that it’s very competitive,” said Jackson, an undrafted cornerback from the University of Arkansas who played for the Carolina Panthers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. “At first, I didn’t realize it was that difficult, but the trends are always changing. Now I’m seeing a lot of sushi/Mexican restaurants. You have to stay educated on your craft and keep up to date. That’s something athletes are used to.”

Longtime celebrity chef marketer Lonny Sweet, who heads The Connect Group in New York City, offered a few more reasons. “It’s like rap stars and NBA players. A lot of chefs want to be in the athlete space and vice versa,” Sweet said. “So many pro athletes are on the road all the time, in season, so they get to know what’s good and which chefs are hot.”

David Ortiz pours some of his Arias wine for Christie Brinkley at the MLB FoodFest in April.
Photo: getty images

Wine that's a labor of love

The Arias wine brand is personal to both David Ortiz and winemaker Peter Ianniello as a tribute to their mothers.

The brand is named after Ortiz’s mother, Angela Rosa Arias, who died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic in 2002. He remembered her after each home run, pointing his index fingers to the sky as he crossed home plate. On the wine label’s website, Ianniello recalls that he was in his vineyard when his mother called to say she had pancreatic cancer. In that moment, he raised his eyes and arms to the sky in prayer. He attributes his passion for his vineyard for helping him to cope with his grief. The wine’s label recreates that gesture in memory of both women.

Arias’ wine lineup consists of a merlot, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, and a bottle Ortiz calls “Christalan” named after a statue in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The Christalan stands for resiliency and overcoming adversity to turn into a positive.

There’s long been athletes lending their name to wine labels, along with those who are actually involved in the process, like Greg Norman Estates, Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback Winery or Tom Seaver’s Seaver Vineyards. More recently, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have partnered with winemakers.

“Every high-end athlete is in tune with high-end culinary and wine now,” said Diane Karle, CEO of Wine by Design, which produces wine under license for MLB, NBA and NFL teams. “Another developing area for athletes is in the collector markets. You’re seeing guys like Phil Mickelson, LeBron James and Derek Jeter spending significantly there.”

After a Big Papi’s Grille restaurant and a line of salty snacks and salsa during his playing days, former Red Sox David Ortiz also has turned his attention to wine, with the Arias label, in which he’s an investor (see related story).

“We’re still looking at another restaurant, but David’s passionate about wine now,” said Alex Radetsky, marketing agent for Ortiz. “But we know an athlete’s name can only sell a bottle of wine once. It has to be more than that.”

It’s all about barbecue

While there’s been an explosion of barbecue restaurants in America over the past 20 years, barbecue has long been a staple for retired athletes, like Boog Powell and Billy Simms. Baker grew up in the business, learning by working summers at his uncle’s place: Jenkins Quality Barbecue, with multiple locations around Jacksonville, Fla. The lightbulb went on when, as a Detroit Lions rookie in 1978, a veteran offered Baker $10 for a pork chop sandwich he’d brought on a team flight.

“To me, what makes barbecue so beautiful is that it’s uniquely American,” Baker said. “There’s a Southern twist to it, so you don’t see a lot of Harvard grads in the barbecue business. You get guys like Boog Powell, from Arkansas.”

Baker’s boneless ribs are available in more than 3,000 stores across the U.S.
Photo: getty images

There’s also a theory that the deprivation that’s part of athletic training makes some turn to food as a career.

“Athletes have to watch what they eat their whole career,” Jackson said. “When they no longer have to do that, some just naturally gravitate toward food as a career.’’

Echoed Brooks, “For fighters especially, when we’re cutting weight, there’s periods of like eight to 12 weeks when we just can’t eat anything we want. I’m living through Instagram food posts then, and after a fight, I’m trying to eat all that good food I saw online.’’

There will always be plenty of top-tier athletes who will simply license their name to restaurants. Those who actually want to be an operator must be prepared to toil.

“Too many athletes get into restaurants as a vanity piece,” Radetsky said. “It has to have a great location and be authentic, because the novelty only lasts so long. Even restaurants with Michael Jordan’s name on them have failed.”

“The restaurant business is like being a policeman,” Baker said. “In both cases, you’re really looking for trouble. But it’s not the people with the best recipe or the most money to start with that succeed, it’s the ones with passion. They don’t care if one of their smokers breaks down first thing or if they run out of brisket during a holiday. They use their passion to find a way; that’s what’s been driving us.” 

“Dinner & A Drive” featured “Top Chef” cuisine and Aston Martin luxury.
Photo: miami dolphins

For the Miami Dolphins’ Todd Kline, connecting the food and sports worlds can be the perfect intersection, especially when leveraging celebrity chefs, new sponsors and luxury brands.

“Using food and using celebrity is a great way to get the attention of a target audience,” said Kline, Dolphins chief commercial officer.

The Dolphins teamed last month with Aston Martin and local chef Jeremy Ford — who won Bravo’s “Top Chef’” competition in 2016 — for a culinary- and sponsor-focused event at Hard Rock Stadium.

A chance to drive an Aston Martin inside the stadium and sample Ford’s creations awaited the 75 attendees at the exclusive, invitation-only event. They also were pitched on a new high-rise condo Aston Martin is developing with G&G Business Developments, a real estate group in Miami. The “Dinner & A Drive” event was developed after Aston Martin and G&G became Dolphins sponsors in 2017.

“We all focused on delivering that can’t-buy experience,” Kline said of the event. “What are luxury buyers into right now? They are into celebrity chefs, and high-end name brands matter.”

Kline and the Dolphins aren’t alone in trying to connect the dots between the sports and food worlds via partnerships with prominent chefs and restaurants and booking more culinary events.

“The food just opens you up to every echelon of society,” said Harry Hardy, vice president of events for sports and entertainment marketing agency Octagon, of the potential upside.

Hardy said food and drink events — including those held at sports venues outside of game days — have a wide audience and market reach and are becoming integral to team and venue business models. They are looking to enhance experiences for fans, book more events when venues might otherwise be dark, and reach out to non-sports fan demographics. “It’s become the norm and it’s almost essential to have,” Hardy said.

Teams and venues also are turning to food events to fight declining sports attendance by attracting younger, casual fans and bridging gaps with women and more urban and diverse demographics that aren’t showing up for games, according to Linsey Smith, director of consumer insights with Levy Restaurants’ analytics arm E15 Group.

“There’s not a lot of overlap with those groups,” Smith said of the traditional gap between white male sports fans and the more diverse food culture.

Smith said some teams, however, aren’t sure what culinary trends are next in line and who they should be targeting with food events outside of their existing fans. She said teams often don’t have the business-side analytics bandwidth to always know who they are missing at their ballparks, who they should be targeting for events and what food, drink and event trends might work in their market.

Choosing wisely

Some sports teams and leagues are aggressively on board with booking culinary events, said Scott Swiger, vice president of culinary excellence for food and beverage concessionaire Spectra. But it depends on their culture and whether they have staff that is specialized and dedicated to food events.

“Some teams are very particular on who they allow on their pitch,” Swiger said, but others are open to having events on the field for premium and VIP audiences and having food offerings and events that enhance fan experiences.

Such events require scheduling expertise at venues already hosting games and concerts, as well as sales and marketing commitments from teams, venues and vendors.

“You’ve got to think about the staffing. You’ve got to think about the equipment. You have to think about what it looks like, what it feels like,” said Lonny Sweet, CEO of The Connect Group, a New York-based culinary marketing agency.

“You need to think about tenting, you need to think about the permits. You need to think about everything,” said Sweet. He previously had a sports agency background and now represents prominent chefs such as Michelle Bernstein, a James Beard Foundation award winner in Miami, Food Network’s “Iron Chef” Marc Forgione in New York, and food blogger and author Ali Maffucci, an early evangelist of “spiralized” vegetables whose @inspiralized Instagram account has 196,000 followers. He connects them to teams and leagues and their sponsors to put on events.

Sweet said the challenge for sports is reaching out to foodies who aren’t in the typical sports fan mode and getting them to an event. “You focus on where you can find that audience,” Sweet said.

Sweet and Hardy said it helps to invite food bloggers and influencers with big Instagram and Facebook followings to events. Hardy said the influencers provide free social media marketing to tell the story.

Sweet said he hasn’t paid influencers to attend events but will provide them with complimentary tickets.

In with the new

New and renovated buildings can also build demand for private corporate and food events.

The Milwaukee Bucks have ambitious event plans for their new $524 million arena opening in August. “We will have about 80 events in the first 90 days,” said Justin Green, vice president of hospitality for the Bucks.

Green said the outdoor plaza in front of the new arena can accommodate event crowds as large as 10,000 people. Other areas of the arena are geared toward hosting events with as many as 1,100 people and as a few as 600. Bucks Senior Executive Chef Ken Hardiman and Green said they’ve been receiving inquiries about event bookings since last year for the new building. Green said it helps that the Bucks have a new dedicated team of four people focused only on special events. He expects private event and culinary bookings at the new arena to far outpace that of the NBA team’s old home, the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

Near Chicago, Spectra has recently launched Top Chef Quickfire, a premium food area inside Toyota Park in partnership with Bravo’s “Top Chef” cooking show. Swiger hopes to host non-game-day food events in the space and to see the Bravo partnership spread to other markets.

The Top Chef Quickfire area at Toyota Park was developed through a partnership led by Spectra Food Service and Hospitality with the Bravo cable network.
Photo: Rafael Alvarez / Chicago Fire Soccer Club

The 1,600-square-foot food area is open to all ticket holders at the main concourse of the Chicago Fire’s stadium. The menu features items such as a beef ribeye skewer with roasted asparagus and mushrooms, pork green chili poutine, and a pop-up bar that serves seasonal cocktails such as watermelon mojitos and habañero margaritas.

Such food partnerships can take time and patience to craft, and the chef and restaurant partners need to be comfortable with the quality of food being prepared at larger events.

Swiger said Spectra first pitched the “Top Chef” food area to Bravo last year. Spectra’s chefs worked with the cable network and chefs from the competition show for several months on menu items for the Chicago space as well as their preparation and quality.

“Spectra chefs have worked hard to execute the menu items in an environment that welcomes all fans at the stadium,” said Therese Maloney, general manager of Spectra’s Food Service & Hospitality at Toyota Park, who was instrumental in launching the new culinary concept

Swiger said that effort required numerous trips to New York to run menus by and have tastings with Bravo. Like with other food efforts involving local restaurants or celebrity chefs, the biggest challenge can be translating signature items in a sports venue setting. But they also have to coordinate staffing an event that might be outside the box of the sports realm and schedule.

The Royals’ Diamond of Dreams hosts 1,500 at Kauffman Stadium. Eleven restaurants partnered with Aramark on the fundraising event.
Photo: Suzy Stratton Photography (2)

Staging culinary events at sports venues can often spawn more events, Tim Witkowski, Aramark district manager in Kansas City, has learned.

In Kansas City, Aramark stages the Kansas City Royals’ annual 1,500-person on-field fundraiser, Diamond of Dreams, at Kauffman Stadium in June. In concert with that same event, Aramark also staffs a separate 400-person VIP event. 

“It takes a lot of coordination because you only have a certain amount of time on the field to get set up,” Witkowski said of this year’s event. “It is done between homestands. We had a game Wednesday. We had a game Friday.”

The Big Slick Celebrity Weekend charity softball game at Kauffman led to Aramark’s work on a separate food event at a downtown Kansas City theater.
Photo: Getty Images

He said hosting food events for the Royals helped Aramark forge links with K.C.-based actors Paul Rudd, Rob Riggle and Eric Stonestreet for their Big Slick Celebrity Weekend charity events to benefit Children’s Mercy Hospital. Witkowksi said the actors had held charity games at Kauffman Stadium and turned to Aramark to provide food for a 600-person event June 2 at a downtown Kansas City theater.

Aramark staffed that event with 40 people and pulled staff from convention centers and other venues it manages in the region. “We pulled assets and chefs from those locations. At the same time we were pulling this off there was a baseball game going on,” he said. 

For Amanda Vandervort, there’s a clear connection between two of the biggest passions in her life — working at Major League Soccer and baking cakes.

 

“I like the ephemeral nature of cake; it reminds me a little bit of social media in that you can post a tweet, it’s out there, and then it’s gone. I love that I can create something that can bring people joy and happiness, and then it’s gone,” said Vandervort, who is MLS’s vice president of fan engagement.

Vandervort, who rarely ate dessert and was not a baker, discovered her love of cake making about four years ago, when a friend invited her over for dinner and asked her to make something for dessert. She thought she would challenge herself by baking an almond cake and topping it with decorations made with marzipan.

Vandervort enjoyed the decorating experience so much that she later enrolled in a six-hour cake class where she learned to make and roll edible icing, known as fondant. Almost immediately after, she cashed in wedding gift cards to outfit her kitchen with baking supplies. Since then, she has never made the same cake twice, producing dozens out of her home kitchen in Brooklyn.

“It’s a lot of practice, and hours and hours of trial and error, but the creativity brings me back to it,” she said, noting that this particular cake to celebrate the United Bid Committee winning the 2026 World Cup took her roughly 40 hours to make. She confessed that she originally made a cake to celebrate the submission of the bid, but it collapsed and “never left my apartment.”

Vandervort’s cake creations have helped celebrate the league’s 20th anniversary season and MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s birthday (it was topped by a miniature version of his dog, Boo Radley, that was molded out of Rice Krispies), as well as her co-workers’ weddings and newborns. She doesn’t ask to be paid for her work — only to cover the cost of the ingredients — and said that her goal is not to become the next “Cake Boss,” but rather to “make more people happy.”

“I like bringing people together around special moments in their lives,” Vandervort said. “It allows us to bring a little bit of our outside lives and humanity into the office and celebrate each other as people, and to me that’s important.”