Food and Dining Options: Feeding the Crowd and Keeping them Happy
31 Aug, 2012By: Tom Funk
"Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don't care if I never get back..."
If you're going to sit in the stands for a sports event, you're probably going to eat. And times were, the fare was generally crowd-pleasing cookout food: burgers, hot dogs and nachos -- along with, of course, peanuts and Cracker Jack.
But these days, fans want more options. And as we in the food service industry have always understood, you either keep up with what the people want, or you get left behind. Today's spectators -- and the planners who are putting together the events they attend, not to mention the athletes who are on the field -- think their choices should be more expansive than whether or not they want fries with their entree.
Working at Cifi Field has given me the chance to see a wide range of concessions. The fact that we're in New York City, which of course has the reputation of being an enormous melting pot of cultures, lends itself to the need for a wider range of offerings.
ARAMARK has been at the forefront of designing innovative hospitality and dining programs to enhance the experience of fans attending games. Over the years, we've learned to listen to what our customers want, and we've learned some key principles. We're pleased to share them with you.
We always advise people to know their audience when they get ready to work with potential food service vendors. While many individuals, when traveling to an out-of-state tournament or sports event, will be adventurous and willing to try the local specialties (think of sweet tea in the south, a cheese steak in Philly or a pastrami sandwich in New York), others will want to stick with what they know. In those cases, having items people are familiar with can make a huge difference in their overall feeling about the event.
Ethnic and religious beliefs also must be considered. For example, spectators may want or need kosher food, which requires special preparation. They may not eat meat. They may eat meat, but only certain types. Meet with any potential vendors, and have a list of questions ready. Think about the people on your team, the fans in the stands and others. What would they want?
A Place for Everything
Something else people want? Convenience. Speed. The ability to get back to the game as quickly as possible. These days, we are seeing increased requests for vegetarian options, and people want to find them at the same counter where their friends (or the rest of their family) is ordering. Nobody should have to run to more than one concession stand -- and particularly not to separate sections of the stadium or event area -- in order to find something they can eat. It takes them away from the on-field action, and results in unnecessary delays in getting food back to hungry kids or friends. Think about it. Do you think a mom or dad want to go to multiple places to find a regular burger, a vegetarian hot dog, bottled water and sodas? (By the time they get back to their seats, nothing will be hot, and the drinks will be warm -- not a very appetizing prospect). Ask your vendor if a variety of game-time options can be served in one place.
Nobody needs to be told that America is more health-conscious now than it ever was. More people are watching what their kids eat, and they're watching what they themselves eat. As a result, it is more important than ever to provide healthful options. We've had requests for options like salads and crudités and bottled water, and once we started providing it, people started eating it. Fresh fruit, corn on the cob and similar items provide a nice change for people who are interested in avoiding processed foods.
While there is an interest in organic foods, those do tend to add substantially to the overall price tag of your food and beverage. Talk to your food service partner about whether this option is feasible for you.
Another thing to think about? Food allergies. We're seeing more requests for food that would be acceptable to people with celiac disease (a condition which is exacerbated by eating foods that contain certain grains, including wheat), so these days, most ball parks will try to accommodate that. Peanut allergies area always going to be a concern, as are multiple other types of food allergies and reactions. We always strive to keep people aware of the ingredients in various food and snacks.
As you can see, there are a lot of things to be taken into consideration when you're trying to feed your spectators. Working with a knowledgeable food service provider can help you navigate through the maze of choices. See what other sports events organizers have had to say about the providers they've worked with. They will likely have good recommendations -- and maybe even some very candid advice.
What to Bring to the Table
By now, you're probably a little overwhelmed by all the various options and needs. But here's something to think about: You can get started by providing as much information in advance as possible. This will include
• Name of event
• Hours game(s) will be played
• How many people you anticipate (break these numbers down by athletes, spectators, etc.)
• Ages of your players
• Any demographic information about them that might affect food choices (religion, etc.)
• Any food allergies or other conditions
• Whether people will be at the tournament site all day long (necessitating food for breakfast, as well as lunch, etc.)
• What was served at any previous events
• Whether your group had any comments or complaints about those foods
• Are people allowed to bring their own food or coolers into the sports event?
• Will alcohol be served?
• Will tailgating be allowed?
All these questions will help provide an excellent overview of your event and the type of food you will need. One note: Find out when your food service provider needs guarantees, and stick to those. It goes a long way toward keeping your event flowing smoothly.
Once you have the specifics on paper, meet with your vendor. You will, of course, need to discuss budgeting, staffing, method of serving and so on.
If you provide sufficient options, your spectators should be happy. But what about your athletes? Are you holding a welcome dinner, a closing banquet or a meet-and-greet? Once again, it's time to make a list of your needs.
Using the above template as a guideline and add in a few options. Do you want a plated dinner or a buffet? Or are you interested in food stations scattered around the room, lending to more people mixing and mingling? The choices are up to you. And again, your food service provider is there to help you.
Something we can tell you? Keep your ear to the ground. You know more about your group than anyone. We've read literally thousands of comment cards that fans fill out and leave for us at Citi Field. Through reading up on what they say, we've learned what they like, and what they don't. You too can give your teams exactly what they want. Just listen to them. They'll never steer you wrong.