In designing the new Stanford stadium, university officials decided to shrink seating from 85,000 to 50,000, but added wider seats, more legroom, bigger walkways and upgraded concessions.
A POS system with 120 registers helps speed lines at University of Maryland concession stands.
HEALTHIER KIDS' FARE. University of Montana, Missoula, debuted a Bear Bites Kids' Zone window at the stadium last year in response to requests for healthier fare for children attending games with their parents. The menu features whole fruit, raisin boxes, granola bars and turkey franks and pulls in adult visitors, too.
The stakes are high, the margin for error razor thin. In the adrenalin-powered college concessions business, the lion's share of the annual profit typically hinges on just a half dozen football games a year, with full-time staffers generally limited to one to three people. The potential for disaster—or at the very least, chaosis mind-boggling.
So who wants to do this? Not everyone, that's for sure. It takes a certain mindset, management style and personality to juggle the myriad logistics—using mostly temporary and volunteer help—to successfully pull it all off within an extremely short window of time. But those who love the game, and play it to win, wouldn't have it any other way.
Dave Bullock, assistant director of dining services at the University of Maryland, College Park, concurs.
"Concessions is a concentrated experience. The numbers are all bigger, and you see results immediately. It's a lot of excitement squeezed into a little bit of time."
The real key to making it all work, and to running an efficient, successful concession program, is having the right manager, according Theresa Traulsen, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Concessionaires (NACC) and owner of Concessions Solutions, Inc., based in Seattle.
"For in-house operations, it's important to find a manager with concession experience; someone who knows the business and how to make every minute count."
The Labor Pool
One of the main "nail-biting" factors is labor. With an average of just one or two full-timers devoted to the program, colleges must rely on temporary help for staffing food stands on game days. And although they use student workers to some degree, the majority of colleges prefer to tap into non-profit organizations (or "NPOs" in concessions parlance) for the bulk of their labor force.
Made up of volunteers who want to earn money for their causes and associations (they're paid a percentage of the sales from their stands, generally 10 to 12 percent), these community, school and other groups are headed up by a team leader who attends two to three training sessions at the college prior to opening day. The team leaders, in turn, train their group workers. Once they're onsite, the groups typically are supervised by a handful of the university's own student workers or on-call foodservice managers.
Many schools maintain long-term arrangements with key NPO groups, and those that prove especially reliable during the football season then get priority for running stands at basketball, hockey and other games, when fewer numbers of staffers are needed.
While this arrangement can create its own set of headaches (e.g., an entire group not showing up on game day), most college concession managers report that if the approach is well managed, it usually results in a favorable and mutually beneficial relationship.
"We need 250 people to staff a football game," says Paul Flaherty, concessions events manager at Boston College. "Groups of 15 to 20 will come down every Saturday to run the concessions. The regulars become so good at it that it's very productive for us to work with them. It's also a good community service for Boston College to offer a percentage of sales to these charity groups. It's how some of them earn a significant part of a year's funding."
Hope Kaser, concessions operations manager at the University of Notre Dame, offers 15 percent of sales to her NPOs to ensure longevity. "We're one of the highest payers, but then, I ask more of my groups," she says. "I expect them to come and get all their supplies to stock their stands; other colleges will take supplies directly to them."
At the University of Maryland, Bullock has NPOs sign a contract that spells out expectations and also notes that they'll receive 10 percent of their sales—except that they only get nine percent after each game, with the final one percent issued at the end of the season. "That helps make sure they show up for the last game," he says.
BYU's Black acknowledges that "you do give up some control with NPOs, but on the other hand, with just 30 contacts, you can pull in 800 people to work a game."
Low vs. High-Tech Systems
While universities take pains to advertise the advancing state of technology on their campuses, touting the extent of wireless capabilities and so on, their concessions operations are quite frequently and very decidedly low-tech. Think: cash boxes and good old-fashioned brain power for making change.
Traulsen, the NACC industry trade association director, estimates that fewer than 10 percent of colleges and universities have POS systems for their concession programs.
"With just a few games a year in the stadiums, most universities can't afford expensive POS systems. If they do, they generally implement them in the basketball arenas, where there are more events scheduled and more opportunity for a return on the investment."
Even Stanford University, which just unveiled a spiffy new stadium last fall, replete with gourmet fare, comfier seats and other amenities (see sidebar), declined to spend the money on a POS system.
Notes Executive Director of Dining Rafi Taherian: "The stadium is used for only limited activity, primarily football. Last year, we had just five games there. At a cost of $3,000 to $4,000 per register to install a POS system, the limited return on investment does not make financial sense."
Although it may be low-tech, the cash box approach is by no means slapdash. A rigid inventory control system which involves "counting every single cup that goes out into the stands," as Notre Dame's Kaser put it, keeps cash accounting accurate.
"The NPOs are responsible if there is any shortage," she explains. "If they have someone in their group who can't make change, it's their loss."
Gale Coffey, general manager of concessions for Stanford, notes the system takes care of itself. "In eight-and-a-half years here, we have held our non-profit organizations accountable for any ‘missing' funds," she says. "It provides an additional incentive for them to have close scrutiny of the cash handling procedures.
"The NPOs generate money for their organizations and want to come back; they know they have to meet certain requirements to do so."
The entrenched NPO labor force is a second reason college concession managers frequently cite for their reluctance to implement POS systems. "New people move through the NPOs all the time, and they would have to be trained over and over again on the system," says Kaser. "We tried cash registers at the basketball arena once, but the groups didn't like it—they thought it was slower and they didn't make as much."
That view is not universal, however; some schools that have implemented POS systems report favorable results. At the University of Montana, Missoula, Assistant Director for Retail Operations Byron Drake says when dining services took over concessions several years ago, one of the directives was to establish logs and computed systems.
"As a state-run institution, we have to answer to a higher authority and the rules called for a paper trail," he says. "The first step was to put in a simplified POS that could run an audit tape at the end of the night."
Drake downplays the training issue. "Some machines have keys with icons, so they're very easy to use. You just combine the training with the orientation process."
University of Maryland's Bullock agrees: "When we first set up a POS system in the basketball arena in 1996, I was terrified that we were starting in the middle of the season," he recalls. "But the simple systems are actually easier for some people to work than adding in their heads. Besides, many have been using computers all their lives."
During the very first game with the new POS system in place, Bullock says the lines moved noticeably faster. "Plus, there's the added benefit of software that runs back-of-the-house inventory control and auto restocks."
Rather than taking the costly plunge into POS, however, some say a more logical technological step for concessions programs is to install credit card readers. NACC's Traulsen notes that's a "hot button issue right now" in college programs. BYU concessions began using readers in 2003, and GM Black reports higher check averages as a result.
"In the basketball arena, 40 percent of our sales are on plastic – people don't carry cash like they used to. The cards are faster than cash, and they cost us less than handling cash now, too."
Game Day Challenges
So the NPOs have all shown up, no one has forgotten to arrange for CO2 for the soft drink dispensers, and the concessions team is primed for action. With all bases covered, what could go wrong?
"Your biggest enemy could be beautiful weather, which means lots of tailgating," and an unexpected falloff of business, says Boston College's Flaherty.
The only recourse for managing staffing numbers and food supplies, when facing unpredictable factors like weather, uneven seasons, or low-draw opponents, is to maintain meticulous notes and learn from experience, managers agree.
"You have to keep excellent records from years past," explains Flaherty. "Log the weather, the time of the game, the particular opponent and the kind of crowds they pull in. Log anything that you think might be a factor if you have to analyze performance later. We know, for instance, that noon is a good game time; a 3 p.m. game will mean people might have already eaten. A 9 p.m. basketball game means they're going to go more for snacks."
Sometimes, several uncontrollable forces conspire simultaneously against concessions. "In football season, if there's rain—a real wash out—coupled with a poor opponent, we're done for," says Flaherty.
And with more college contests broadcast on cable TV now, game times can change with little notice. Says Black: "College football games always used to be Saturday afternoon. Today, we're getting Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday night games. The time of day and day of the week can be a major factor in sales."
Handling concessions in-house offers certain side benefits, such as partnerships among departments, that create an all-round stronger team, managers and directors note.
"When the weather dictates a menu change, it really helps if the dining halls can produce 500 gallons of hot chocolate and move it over to the stadium," says Flaherty.
The connection also pays off when dining services can provide culinary staff for luxury box catering, and concessions has the ability to work closely with the onsite accounting office and laundry services, he adds.
One of the most important relationships to foster is with the athletic department, says Stanford's Taherian. It allows both organizations to partner in achieving common objectives.
Traulsen agrees, noting that, "Often, whether the concessions business remains in-house or gets outsourced, depends on the opinion of the athletic director."
BYU's Black says that whether or not the concessions are run by a management company or are self-operated, it's crucial that each party knows they are part of a team whose goal is to make the whole program successful."
For instance, when the concessions department puts popcorn coupons under the seats, uses the team mascot to toss out free ice cream containers into the crowds, and generally helps out with promotions, "athletics loves it," Black says.
In turn, the athletic department is more amenable to working out arrangements for games that might not pull in as many fans and thus won't generate the sales realized with football. For instance, in 2004 Black asked athletics to cut their royalty in half on concessions for Olympic sports, while he lowered food prices 25 percent.
"Sales more than doubled; athletics made as much money as before, and we broke even on the greater volume," he says. "Now, athletics feels we really care about their success. So when remodeling at the stadium comes up, they'll actually call to say, ‘how will this affect you guys?' It's a nice partnership."
Feeding the Fans
Lots of attention these days gets paid to high-end, specialized concession fare, but many managers say the majority of fans still want traditional hot dogs. That's sometimes the case even in luxury boxes and suites, which many colleges handle through their catering departments, rather than the concessions program.
"We provide menu choices for a wide range of discriminating customers," says Stanford's senior associate director of retail operations, Eric Montell. "While the concession stands on the mezzanine level serve such items as sushi, pasta and panini, they also offer fan favorites like hot dogs, popcorn and soft pretzels."
In the suites, "we have an expanded gourmet menu that brings fine dining to the concessions environment, but which is designed with portability in mind," says Montell.
Nevertheless, most venues do tout some specialty and signature items. Some examples:
- Stanford offers personal pizzas, sushi and organic, all-beef "Farm Dogs" on whole wheat buns;
- Notre Dame markets locally-produced ice cream and barbecue;
- At Boston College, fans can buy New England clam chowder and pulled pork sandwiches;
- The University of Montana at Missoula offers state-produced beef dogs on Wheat Montana buns;
- BYU sells 16-inch maple donut "Cougar Bars" and Chicken Fiesta Salads served up in 12-inch, grilled and warm tortillas draped over a tin;
- and at University of Maryland, Curly's Pit Beef sandwiches honor a well-loved, former coach-turned-university president.
When Black arrived at BYU in 2003, he heard plenty of admonitions that fans wouldn't spend money on more expensive, higher-end foods. Black tried some anyway in the $5-8 range, "and now that's our biggest growth segment," he says.
Griping about prices is a common fan pastime, but most managers agree customers will pay for premium quality as well as versions of foods they can't get elsewhere, such as stadium pack sizes of candy or super-long or extra-plump, brand name brats not available in grocery stores.
As Black cautions, "Don't make excuses for the prices. Concessions departments are responsible for doing two things: making fans happy by providing a good experience at the game, and earning money for the athletic department."
Concession programs at some schools, however, are expected to just break even, with customer service being their main purpose.
Either way, by buying food, customers are "helping support their teams and the infrastructure, such as the significant investment in foodservice equipment that sits idle in the stadium most of the year," Black says. "But they need to be kept happy while they're doing that. The key is to make sure you're offering them quality, top of the line products, presented in an attractive, professional atmosphere that builds confidence in the food."
Stanford Stadium Stampede
It was the final game of the football season, stanford vs. notre dame, december 2005. "Bulldozers sat in the corner of the stadium, ready to tear up the ground the moment the final player left the field," recalls Executive Director for Stanford Dining Rafi Taherian.
In under 10 months—294 days, to be exact—the old "Mine shaft" stanford stadium was demolished and a brand new, "super fan-friendly" one built in its place, just in time for the 2006 season opener.
"This was not a fast-track project—it was hyper-track, just unprecedented," taherian says. "no college or professional stadium has ever been built between two seasons."
Because of that, certain procedures progressed a little unusually. "We had the demolition permit before the design was completed," he says, as an example. The concessions/foodservices facilities at the new stadium would make many other college operators envious. among the big foodservice plusses, the new facility features:
What's the top seller at college concession stands? According to the National Association of Collegiate Concessionaires' (NACC) 2006 member survey, the seven most popular products are:
# 1. Large soda