Leveraging new technologies that allow for flexible menus, made-to-order preparation and enhanced speed of service, stadium foodservice providers are scoring points with consumers.
As the competition on the playing field heats up, the same is happening at the concession stands. Stadium owners are striving to deliver an immersive experience their customers can't replicate at home.
"The overall trend is that each stadium is trying to outdo all of the others," says Harry Schildkraut, owner and principal of S2O Consultants, located outside of Chicago. "There are better products and ingredients being used in concessions items. We're seeing foods in these venues that used to be exclusively served in premium foodservice operations."
Although these venues still offer hot dogs, popcorn and beer, many menus now include gourmet dishes and healthier fare designed to sharpen their competitive advantage as they aim to win over a greater percent of consumers' disposable income. For example, S2O Consultants is working on Pittsburgh's Heinz Field expansion, which will include Burgatory, a gourmet burger stand. This concessions area will offer menu items from the city's restaurant of the same name, including a ½-pound gourmet burger topped with fried onions and cheese.
With the stadium foodservice of the past, expectations were low, and prices were high. "Now consumers are more educated," says Kristin Sedej, owner and principal of S2O Consultants. "These venues are taking the same concepts and improving ingredients and processes, which relates to both preparation and holding equipment."
Today's stadiums also focus more on meal-replacement items than snacks at the concession stand as well as for premium seats and suite levels. In many cases, traditional dishes get a facelift. S2O worked on a stadium project where a container of macaroni and cheese sold for $8 to $12, but contained ingredients like sausage or lobster to create a gourmet meal.
The incorporation of more digital menu boards helps concession stand operators showcase their expanded offerings and allows them to customize food offerings for various fan demographics. This development has been key at venues that host a variety of events, since baseball fans seek different types of food items than concertgoers. "Many of these venues are hosting different types of events that attract various demographics with different levels of disposable income," Schildkraut says. "Digital menu boards allow operators to easily change the $7 price of a baseball game beer to $6 for a rodeo, for example."
From an operations standpoint, digital menus can help control inventory by allowing vendors to immediately take items off the list when they sell out.
The use of smart phones for taking food orders has also increased. "Professional sports leagues have been pushing programs where people can place a food order and pay for items on their personal wireless device, which would eliminate point-of-sale systems," Schildkraut says.
Technology also has been front and center in stadium equipment. Last year, S2O Consultants completed a new baseball stadium where all walk-ins included temperature-monitoring systems attached to a central computer. "This system notifies the appropriate people if there are temperature issues, to prevent the loss of thousands of dollars in products," Schildkraut says.
Stadium menu expansions also have benefited from versatile equipment. "More combi oven manufacturers are coming out with smaller units that accommodate four to six pans that are competitively priced," Schildkraut says. "This is a much more flexible piece of equipment in terms of cooking. Where we used to use a small steamer, now we can incorporate a small combi that can perform more tasks for about the same cost.
Schildkraut says, "Food is no longer just a function, but also is now a driver for customers purchasing higher-level services. As equipment technology continues to improve, so will food quality in this segment."