These delicacies rise to the top in stadium food
After much encouragement and support from my Twitter following, I am pleased to offer my take on what I consider the best food that I have consumed at sporting events over the past few years. This column is limited to those venues I have visited and not intended to slight or offend anyone. I haven’t made it to Atlanta to see their new venues and enjoy the culinary offerings, but I have heard great things. So here we go. I don’t think I’ll enjoy writing this as much as I enjoyed the research that went into it.
My favorite food items (these are the items I would order again):
Burger — The Parlor Burger at Target Center (Minneapolis). A brioche bun, two patties and two slices of cheese. No condiments, but it is simply amazing. Hodad’s at Petco Park has an interesting take on a double bacon cheeseburger — it’s so loaded and sloppy that you almost need a towel to accompany the feast.
Poutine — Amalie Arena (Tampa). I have always been an aficionado of French fries and gravy, but this Canadian interpretation is among the best.
Specialty Sandwich — PNC Park (Pittsburgh). My hometown bias is at work here, but any sandwich from Primanti Brothers with French fries ON the sandwich is just a great idea. If you want the traditional experience with the attitude, go to the original location in Strip District. Cardiff Tri-Tip sandwich at Petco Park offers worthy competition.
Hand-carved sandwiches — Prime Rib Sandwich, Amway Center (Orlando) and Scotiabank Centre (Toronto). The only drawback is the line, which attests to the popularity and quality of the sandwich.
Nachos — FedEx Forum (Memphis). Had these years ago at the Pyramid but still enjoy them every time I am in Memphis. Barbecue pork and sauce mixed nicely with the nacho cheese. Tri-Tip Nachos from Petco Park are outstanding as well.
Hot Dog — Wrigley Field (Chicago). Nothing like a Chicago-style dog with a cold beer. But it would be even better with Cleveland’s Ball Park or Stadium mustard.
Cheesesteak — Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia). So obvious there is no need to comment.
Fish Tacos — Petco Park, the original and still the best.
Fish Sandwich — Benkowitz, PNC Park. I don’t care for fried fish, but this one gets my attention.
Sausage, Peppers and Onions, the most heated battle of any category — Fenway Park (Boston), Citi Field (New York) and Yankee Stadium (New York) lead the way in a crowded race.
Barbecue — Phil’s BBQ (Petco Park) followed closely by Boog’s BBQ at Camden Yards (Baltimore).
Pizza — Would not have made my list until last baseball season, but the Roman-style pizza at Buona Forchetta at Petco Park is the best pizza I have been served at a sports venue.
Best Chain Concept — Shake Shack (Citi Field and several others) is such a great consistent product accompanied by a black-and-white shake and delivered to your seat. Outstanding.
Best Overall Concessions — While I really enjoy Citi Field, Amalie Arena, and Miami’s American-Airlines Arena, Petco Park has emerged as my clear overall favorite because of the sheer number of quality offerings that make me really ponder my decision. The aroma at Phil’s BBQ always pulls me in, but the fish tacos from Blue Water Seafood Market, burgers at Hodad’s and the very tasty Cardiff tri-tip sandwich or tri-tip nachos from Seaside Market are always delectable. If this wasn’t enough, the Craft Row has enough quality selections to wash down whatever you choose to consume. The weather is great and you can bring your dog to every game.
Scott Marshall, chief hospitality officer at the Padres and the person responsible for managing the Delaware North relationship, describes the Petco Park culinary philosophy as “creating a true San Diego neighborhood feel throughout the ballpark where our fans have already developed tremendous dining experiences and deep personal relationships with all of our amazing branded partners. We want our fans to walk in and say ‘Wow, the Padres have (fill-in-the-blank) at Petco Park.’”
Premium — This category has a runaway winner. The Legends Club at Yankee Stadium has far and away the best selection, quality and service I have experienced in a premium-seating area. A seafood buffet with king crab and lobster tails, sushi, carving stations, fresh pasta, a bakery, gelato and a variety of other options with white table cloth service and a great wine selection. It can be argued that due to the cost of the seats there is more financial allocation to the food items and service — and that is fair — but the presentation, delivery and consistency are there to support the food quality and selection. This place is on par with many of the fine restaurants in New York.
Here are some other observations I have made about concessions at sports venues:
Local branded foods — My favorite concept is at Petco Park. They offer visitors a local sampling and it satisfies locals by being consistent, no-surprises comfort food. The key is finding the proper mix with non-branded food provided by the concessionaire.
Pay for Quality vs. Arthur Blank pricing. Whatever we wind up calling the pricing model that Blank has installed at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, he has proved that consumers are enticed by the opportunity he is providing — for example, paying the same price for a Chick-fil-A sandwich at the arena as they would at the local restaurant. I have always been willing to pay a higher price for a quality food item, and in the ideal F&B venue, you would offer both pricing options, along with family-sized (and priced) options. I believe the tipping point here is making F&B purchases planned rather than an impulse buy, and when that happens revenue increases.
Couponing, sampling and special discounts — I have always wondered why couponing and sampling are not common practices in sport venues. Couponing can be used to encourage trial and drive traffic to locations around the stadium that would not normally get as many customers.
Apologies to cities and venues I haven’t visited and I promise to continue to be a food explorer. As my close friends will tell you, I don’t eat to live — I live to eat.
Bill Sutton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.