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Catering to the Suite Life | Sports Arena Foodservice

The upscaling of ballpark foodservice is migrating from the majors to the minors and the college game.

Traditionalists may decry it, but big-time sports in this country has undergone a fundamental shift in the past decade or so. What was once mainly the province of Joe Sixpack and his sometimes salty passion for the home team has been gentrified and made to wash behind its ears.

Where Joe and his buddies merely went to see a ballgame and were content with beer and hot dogs, today’s more affluent fanbase seeks “the ballpark experience,” which had better includemore than just seeing a game. That goes especially in the pricey premium seats and luxury boxes that are now a common feature of most big league sports venues—and an increasing number of minor league and even college ones as well. It also better include a broader variety of food options than the “peanuts andCracker Jack” of TakeMe Out to the Ballgame fame.

The trend to upscale stadiums and arenas began sometime in the 1980s, initiated by the need for teams to find additional revenue sources to pay escalating player costs prompted by the advent of player free agency. The original idea was to market a few “luxury boxes” as onsite corporate suites that might appeal to big companies willing to pay extra for a place to entertain clients at sporting events. What teams soon discovered, though, was that there was a huge market for upscale amenities at the arena or stadium, even among the general public, amenities these customers were willing to pay premium prices to get.

At first, teams tried to meet the demand by retrofitting existing facilities with skyboxes, but it was soon clear that the much more profitable alternative was to build new facilities that incorporated premium seating and luxury suites from the ground up.

The great success of the first wave of new sports venues, such as Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards, opened in 1992, confirmed the notion that premiumseats and suites were big-time revenue generators and the rush was on. Soon, just about every big league team was demanding its own personal stadium or arena through which it could generate profits from as much “premium” space as it could shoehorn into the building.

All this upscaling is making demands on venue operators and teams tomeet the expectations implied by the soaring ticket prices, as well as to find ways to upsell the newly affluent pool of spectators in order to keep revenues going up. This is where amenities like the quality of the foodservice operation comes in, especially for the elite customers in the club seats and luxury boxes. Hence the new niche market in sports venue foodservice: upscale F&B.

A Pervasive Trend

When one thinks of luxury boxes and club seats, the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball naturally come to mind. The four leagues have made plenty of recent headlines (not all favorable) by opening scores of new ballparks, stadiums and arenas. Some days, it seems that every team will soon have its own venue that was built in the last decade.

But further out of the public eye, others are jumping on the premium seat/luxury suite bandwagon.

At Fifth Third Field in Dayton, Ohio, premium seating includes 30 private side boxes and 1,400 club seats with in-seat waitstaff service, features usually associated with major league venues. But FifthThird is the home of theDaytonDragons ofminor league baseball’s Class A Midwest League. In baseball terms, Class A is a step up from the short-season rookie leagues where pro prospects generally get their first taste of pay-for-play baseball, and a long way from “The Show” (the major leagues).

But even here, in what was once called “the bushes,” the urge to splurge is in full flower. Fifth Third is in the vanguard of the trend to bring major league luxuries to minor league communities. Currently the only Class A ballpark with a second tier of seats, Fifth Third in a few years may be regarded as Class A’s Camden Yards, the pioneer facility that spawned a host of imitators looking to get in on the upscale gravy train.

Fifth Third’s 30 luxury boxes, which sold out a year before opening day this past April, are more than some big league venues currently have, and they are certainly more luxuriously appointed, since they were a major part of the facility’s design.They have their own kitchen (a separate kitchen serves the general concessions), for example, from which suite attendants can fetch made-fromscratch orders on short notice. Pampering the customer is the name of the game, just like in the Bigs.

The in-suite menus are “restaurant-style full-service dining,” says General Manager Dave Levey of SportService, the contractor that manages foodservice at Fifth Third. “Everything is set up as a kind of little party for the people in each box.”

“The suites are a relatively new thing that are just starting to come into minor league baseball with the new parks,” says Jeff Behr, generalmanager of the SportService operation at RogerDean Stadiumin Jupiter, Fla., which has six corporate suites.Three-yearold Roger Dean is home to the Jupiter Hammerheads, a Class A Florida State League affiliate of the Montreal Expos. It also hosts spring training for the Expos and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Although the suites are upscale at Fifth Third and Roger Dean, the fare tends toward the traditional. Snacks like peanuts, pretzels and nachos, entree sandwiches featuring chicken, beef and, of course, the ubiquitous hot dog, and beverages emphasizing sodas and beer make up most of the sales. Fifth Third also hosts a pair of picnic areas where three levels of foodservice—charged per person—are available, froma basic hot dog and potato salad selection to amore elaborate sausage or fried chicken dinner.

At the college level, Ohio State University’s new Schottenstein Center is illustrative of where things are headed at the college level. “The Schott” is practically indistinguishable from any of the new NBA or NHL arenas, bristling as it does with 52 luxury boxes (the most in any current university arena) and 4,500 club seats. For those in the premium seats, the expectations are high considering the prices (up to $65,000 a year for a box while a club seat requires the purchase of a personal seat license in addition to the tickets).

“There are major expectations—just look at who’s there!” admits Scott Baumgartner, vice president of concessions and arena management for Sodexho Marriott Services, the contractor that manages the foodservice at the Schott. “You get some major figures coming to these games, and there’s heavy-duty entertaining going on. As the caterer, you have almost no margin for error.”

The guests may be upscale, but their sports venue tastes are traditional. Baumgartner says that while his chefs have upscale selections available for the suite catering menu, the most common orders are in the hot dogs and popcorn range.

The Bar Keeps Rising

While the trend permeates the minors and the colleges, the originators of the “suite life” phenomenon have their own concerns: how do they top themselves? “When we started, in-seat service was new, but now it’s old hat,” laments Kevin Kenney, general manager for contract services provider Aramark at Camden Yards. “So we have to keep raising the bar.” Kenney says he does that by tinkering with the menu and increasing service levels.

At Coors Field in Denver, another Aramark account, General Manager Richard Hesse says one of his challenges is that the suite clientele has evolved since the park opened in 1995. “We’re seeing a lot more families rather than business people now, especially on weekends.”

That kind of trend has prompted some suite caterers to add kids menus to their suite offerings and to put more emphasis on traditional ballpark favorites. Of course, every venue has its regionalmust- haves. AtCamden Yards, it’s crabcakes and Boog’s Barbecue, the barbecued beef and pork offerings from the restaurant located behind the centerfield bleachers that is owned by former Orioles star Boog Powell. Texas venues like The Ballpark in Arlington and the new Enron Field in Houston emphasizeTex-Mex. In California, Pacific Rim cuisine is a must, while in the Midwest it’s sausages and other heartland food.

While the older venues adapt to changing expectations and demographics, the new parks coming on line hope to hit the ground running by riding the established trends.

For example, at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco, which opened this April as the new home of the Giants, contractor Volume Services America provides a private concession area for the 5,200 club seat holders and suite guests where they can patronize exclusive concepts like Edsel Ford Fong, featuring sushi and Asian-style rice and noodle bowls; Joe Garcia’s Cart and its Tex-Mex menu; and Guiseppe Bazurro’s pizzas. Of course, traditional amenities like a private club, in-suite catering for the luxury boxes and in-seat service for the club seats are also offered.

With more than two dozen new NFL, NBA, NHL and major league baseball facilities planned for the next decade, and who knows how many college and minor league arenas and stadiums, this may be onsite foodservice’s most dynamic growth niche.

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