PERSPECTIVES: “Diversifying menu options for our fans at CenturyLink Field”

This guest blog is part of our “Perspectives on the Food Business”series. This comes from Matthew Krauss, Assistant General Manager and Operations Director for Sportservice at CenturyLink Field (home of the Seattle Seahawks and Sounders FC). Krauss was formerly Operations Manager for Sportservice at U.S. Cellular Field (Chicago White Sox), the first MLB stadium to heed Veggie Happy’s request for veggie dogs in concession stands. This season, Veggie Happy helped to facilitate vegan frankfurters and burgers at CenturyLink Field from Seattle’s own Field Roast Grain Meat Company. (See CenturyLink Field’s full veg menu listing in our Venue Guide.)

The sports hospitality landscape has changed drastically in the last 20 years. Consumer demands of dietary needs and healthy menu items have grown with everything else in the sports hospitality industry. With bigger business and higher price tickets comes a heightened expectation by the fans. Our goal is to always meet and hopefully exceed their expectations. Original menu creation and diverse food options give the venue character and excitement. It’s not just hot dogs, peanuts, chocolate malt cups, and stale beer in wax cups (see Tiger’s menu from the early 70’s below). I witnessed the movement the first 10 years as a paying consumer (suites, new stadiums, in-seat service). The last 10 years I have been fortunate enough to actually get paid to influence the movement and manage the growth within the industry.

Tigers Menu from 1970s
Tigers Menu from 1970s

As a leader in the industry my philosophy has been to bring what’s best of the city to the venues. The soul of a city is through its food and that food can create character and warmth that the steel and concrete do not. I have also learned diversifying menu options is a must in this competitive industry to match the diversified tastes and wants of our fans.

Vegetarian and Gluten Free options have been a big push over the last 5 years.  The key to these menu items are to provide and serve them in a quality way. Gummy bears (gluten free) and nachos (vegetarian) were the norm not too long ago in regards to special dietary needs menus in stadiums.  With help from fans and vendors availability and quality of these options have grown exponentially.

As an operator there are quite a few challenges when planning dietary menus in concessions at stadiums. Most people don’t realize the preparation, logistics, and the planning that goes into servicing tens of thousands of people in a time span of a couple hours. Maximizing service and keeping food quality consistent are the focus once doors open up. This can only be done if menus are planned out properly and organized in locations that can properly serve these items.

This past summer while taking over operations of CenturyLink Field in Seattle fans were vocal about our decision to remove “veggie burgers” from the club level. The reasoning behind the decision wasn’t because of financial numbers, but because of standards to keep these items to the quality the fans deserve. Not only is it beneficial for an operator to keep special items (like vegan and gluten free) in specific areas for pure logistic reasons but it also insures quality and consistency of these items as they need to be prepared properly. I ended up changing the veggie burger to a vegan burger and to assure proper preparation this item needed to be prepared and cooked at separate grills to prevent cross-contamination.

A good operator will not only find a diverse creative menu and incorporate vegetarian options around the venue but will also look for opportunity to create a couple specific menu concepts spots in strategic locations that strictly focus on those specialty items (whether it be dietary, healthy, or any concept options). It is also vital for the fan base to know where all options and items are in a venue.  MLB “At The Ballpark” app, Seattle Seahawks app, veggiehappy.com, and many other sources have been a great help to improve guest experiences at venues.

We aren’t saving lives (with healthier food options I like to think we are helping). Our job is to make our fans (guests) have memorable moments on and off the field of entertainment.

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Two touchdowns for vegan options

We’re proud to have helped open the door to vegan frankfurters and specialty vegan burgers at the Seattle Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field this season. They will be sold from a veggie cart on the east side of the main concourse (exact location still TBD as of this posting, check their listing in our NFL Vegetarian Guide for any updates.) San Francisco 49ers‘ Candlestick Park also confirmed vegan franks and specialty burgers on their menu this year.

“Johanna was been a great resource for the sports hospitality industry and for myself in regards to menu consulting. She has promoted and measured stadium menus all around the country while connecting vendors with service providers. Her services are very valuable for not only to the guests who are looking up the menus but for the operators as well.” – Matthew Krauss, Assistant General Manager and Operations Director, Delaware North Sportservice at CenturyLink Field

When a venue does well with a new item, it creates understandable interest from concession management staff at other large sporting venues. CenturyLink Field joins its neighbor Safeco Field (home to MLB’s Seattle Mariners) in offering Field Roast franks and specialty burgers to their fans. Safeco Field saw a dramatic rise in category sales after switching to Field Roast products several years ago and other venues quickly took heed. With our help, San Francisco Giants‘ AT&T Park and Cleveland Indians‘ Progressive Field also added these items and noted better sales after making the switch. San Francisco 49ers’ Candlestick Park followed their lead by offering these items soon thereafter.

“Johanna has done a tremendous job of helping to implement vegetarian menu selections into sporting venues. She is very enthusiastic and will assist you doing research and product selection when necessary. She has encouraged, and assisted me in adding healthy menu items at my venue which we have continued to increase every season.” – Sandie Filipiak, Director of Concessions at Centerplate, AT&T Park

Interest in plant-based options goes well beyond the vegetarian or vegan population. Just this week Mintel, a reputable and award winning market research company, posted a study titled: “More than one-third of Americans consume meat alternatives, but only a fraction are actually vegetarians.” Veggie Happy always emphasizes the importance of choosing vegan foods that appeal to flexitarian eaters for this very reason. We only encourage foods and brands that are popular across a wide spectrum of consumers. (Translation? Sales!)

Here’s an excerpt from the study:

 In new research released today from Mintel, only 7% of consumers identify themselves as vegetarian, however 36% indicate the use of meat alternatives.

“This data suggests that participation in the alternative meat category stretches far beyond necessity, and creates an opportunity for future growth based on the products’ ability to meet general consumer food interests, such as health, price, variety and convenience,” says Beth Bloom, food and drink analyst at Mintel. “The bottom line is that vegetarians and vegans aren’t the only people eating “fake” meat, meat eaters are also exploring this new found protein superpower.”

Concessions at Safeco Field, AT&T Park and Candlestick Park are managed by Centerplate. CenturyLink Field’s new concession management company this year is Delaware North Sportservice, which runs the concessions at Progressive Field as well.

Fan/customer feedback is an important part of the recipe for change at any and all venues. Be sure to check our Venue Vegetarian Guide for all MLB and NFL listings and to contact your favorite and local venues to provide menu suggestions and/or to offer your thanks!