There's a fierce battle raging in the seats of America's sports venues, and it's got nothing to do with the game on the field. It's the uncompromising struggle to satisfy the hunger and thirst of the fans. Not for good refs, but for good food.
Cornichon attended a preview for members of the media at CenturyLink field.
Those beer and hot dog vendors? They're cannon-fodder, the front-line foot soldiers. Back in the safety of their lavish headquarters, the executives of Compass Group, Aramark, Centerplate and Sodexo are like Cold-War generals playing high-stakes war games. Every stadium, every hospital, every convention center, prison, college, airport and zoo is a strategic target. You build a campaign to win the contract, then you maximize your advantage by forging alliances with the local management.
Compass Group, the industry leader, takes in $10 billion a year by serving 13,000 locations (imagine! that's a huge number!) Their entry in the Recreational Food Service Industry, as it's known, represents a minor segment of that total (they're into hospitals, convention centers and college campuses) but it's still huge. Their food-service subsidiary, Levy Restaurants, founded in Chicago 30 years ago, has contracts at over 50 ballparks (football, baseball, basketball, soccer) including CenturyLink Field and Key Arena in Seattle. Its competitor, Centerplate, has a lock on Safeco Field. Aramark has the Washington State Convention Center.
Now, you'd think that these big bruisers would be content to sit around and pick their teeth, but you'd be wrong. Quite the contrary. Over the years, "stadium food" has become a synonym for tired and unimaginative. But that's clearly not the reputation the home team wants to have. There's pressure on the industry--from the public, from the teams, from the chefs themselves--to be both hipper and tastier. Revenue from concessions is a fundamental element of the sports industry, so it's crucial for fans to be well fed and happy.
As we saw earlier this year at the Safe, one solution is to bring in local celebrity chefs like Ethan Stowell, local ingredients and more local food. At the Clink, they're amping up the excitement by bringing food trucks into the plaza, by serving Uli's Famous Sausage and Beecher's Mac & Cheese, and by pouring northwest wines at the stadium's Cadillac Reserve wine bar.
Guiding those efforts at the Clink is executive chef Jon Severson, a 12-year veteran of Levy Restaurants. There's a Salmon BLT, a Seahawks Hot Dog (complete with cream cheese and caramelized onions), and a Trophy Cupcake named for Marshawn Lynch. Some of the items are destined for the upper-end suites, but others, like the sampler trio of Uli's sausages ($9) will be served throughout the stadium.
Severson, a Midwesterner who studied at the CIA in California, had to make some tough decisions. A Seahawks game doesn't draw the same fans as a Sounders game, and he can't change the menu every week. So he has to anticipate. At the Clink, football's a more leisurely game (less so than baseball, obviously), it's more social (think tailgate parties, think food trucks) and, in terms of food preferences, more of a hot dog event. Soccer fans tend to be more adventurous but the game is more intense, so it's important to offer cooked-to-order food from mobile carts in the stands. In the suites and sky boxes, there's more leeway because the counters and bars are mere steps away. Sandwiches stuffed with prawns, that salmon BLT, elegant desserts, premium wines from Efeste and Sparkman) by the glass.
Everything's on the menu for every event, though. Severson's workforce is well trained, many of them long-term and full-time. It's nothing like running a quick-serve restaurant downtown, but the challenges are similar: the food's got to be fresh and tasty or the fans will eat elsewhere. Helps a lot, too, if the home team wins.
Note: this post also appears today on Crosscut.com