Food at Arenas, Stadiums, and Performing Arts Spaces: Catering Operations that Cater to Individual Tastes

It used to be that feeding a large crowd was as easy as peanuts, crackerjacks, a hotdog and a soda. It still is in many stadiums and arenas, said Chuck Kovach, director of food and beverages for Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pa., where the old favorites are still top sellers. Still, “in newer arenas, upscale items are more popular sellers,” he said.  Food and beverage directors and catering companies that serve many large venues, from stadiums and arenas to amphitheaters and performing arts centers, are aware that sitting in the seats are patrons with individualized tastes, new norms and demands for local and sustainable foods. To entice food item sales, whether old favorites or new, special meal deals are offered in a variety of forms. According to Kovach, specials help drive ticket sales. “It’s all about value, whether offering a ticket in a meal package or as a loaded ticket.”
Many of the Mohegan Sun Arena fans, approaching 250,000 in number, that come through the doors for 40 games each season, have the opportunity to purchase a group package that is offered through the team. The purchaser receives a ticket to the game and a meal ticket voucher for a soda, popcorn and hotdog. Acknowledged Kovach, “We serve traditional ballpark food, and at the same time offer gyros, cheese bread sticks and funnel cake fries.”
A smoker, added to the kitchen at PETCO Park in San Diego, Calif., enhances the food product, said Executive Chef Ambarish Lalay. “We used to offer ready-made chicken wings, now we smoke our own. Also, a slow oven in the kitchen allows brisket for short ribs to be braised all night long at a low temperature until especially tender.”  
As a ballpark in the San Diego community, many of the 1.9 million Padres fans that Lalay cooks for there are from the surrounding area. He therefore pays attention to local flavors and infuses them into the restaurant food mix. Menu items include a signature Sonoran dog, premium burger featuring local flavors of poblano peppers and avocados, and a chorizo corn dog.
At each of the park’s five restaurants, fans find a specialty sandwich and at concessions, signature items at each of the locations, from the senora dog to carne asada fries, which take the place of chili cheese fries and are smothered in melted jalapeno cheese, seared steak, scallions, cilantro and tomatoes.  
There is a mix of old favorites and some new food items available for the choosing at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta, Ga. In the main concession area, fans can choose from hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken sandwiches and chicken tenders and specialty items such as chicken wraps, Caesar blue cheese wedge salad with bacon and a balsamic glaze or an Asian Teriyaki salad, according to Lacy Fink, who manages concessions for Ovations Food Services, the catering company that prepares food for the park. “The chef also makes his own Southern pound cake,” noted Fink. She added that only gourmet items are served at the VIP club, which features two gourmet entrees at every event.
A particular attraction for Amphitheatre attendees, who numbered an average of 211,000 over the last three years, are the picnic basket specials, available to order ahead of time or at the ticket window.
Prices range from $35 to one for $1,000, which can be pre-ordered to serve two to four people, and includes Maine lobster, a filet of Kobi beef steak, caviar and champagne, and a $500 donation to the symphony. Other lower-priced baskets brim with grilled chicken on a salad or specialty pizza. One of the most popular is a $60 Sunset Basket of the balsamic chicken breast on field salad greens, orecchiette pasta and a dessert of lemon cheese cake.
Families can feast together on the family four packs offered when picking up a prepaid ticket at the window. The packs are a type of meal deal basket that includes a soda, fries, and specialty concession item such as a cheeseburger or a specialty wrap.  
Epicurean Catering of Centen-nial, Colo., is on top of things for the individualized tastes and pocketbooks of patrons attending events at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts in Denver, Colo.  “We customize to what the client wants,” said Epicurean General Manager Brooke Schmidt. “Many have specific needs. We keep it simple and cheap. Meals are cost driven and when we get an opportunity to go creative we create new menus according to the event theme. For example, it may pertain to a particular region of the world, or to a performance, such as for A Midsummer’s Night Dream or Mama Mia, we’ll design a Greek or Mediterranean menu.” For the past few years, said Schmidt, food has not been trend driven, rather lead by the budget of the event.
Another way to work with budgets is paying special consideration to food options based on seasonality and availability. A team of chefs work on cost, watching quality and which foods are going up in price and they research the cause, such as a crisis where the food item is sourced and communicate that to the sales team. For example, climate can influence purchases, as when flooding occurred in Mexico and the quality of asparagus was poor.
Schmidt explained, “During certain times of the year, we won’t offer foods that are not in season and are for some reason more expensive. We steered customers to sea bass because it’s inexpensive and similar in texture and flavor to halibut, which is currently overfished.”
The average number of customers that have enjoyed Epicurean cuisine over the last three years at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, which is owned and operated by The Denver Center, is upwards of 50,000. Epicurean also provides meals for events in the ballroom and at club level parties in Denver’s Invesco Field at Mile High. –

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