Food for Thought … and Profits
The Changing World of Concessions
By Rick Dandes
Traditional fare at concession stands at festivals, waterparks, arenas, outdoor race events and other recreational and sporting activities have a long and consistent sales history: Hot dogs, popcorn and peanuts will likely always be hallmarks of the American eating experience. But, with the palate of the average customer evolving in recent years, and with venues around the country now having to offer a more eclectic selection of foods, concession contracts have assumed greater complexity and flexibility, as the purveyors of local and national food brands seek to carve their own slice out of the profitability pie.
Many sporting venues now boast not only main concession stands, but also portable concession carts, explained Larry Etter, senior vice president, Malco Theatres Inc., and director of education, National Association of Concessionaires. "At the main concession," he said, customers will typically find most of the basics, like hot dogs, burgers, chicken tenders, soft pretzels and ice cream, and sometimes beer."
Meanwhile, mobile vendors focus primarily on the specialty items, which are inspired in part by regional culinary favorites. In the South, it might be barbecue. In the Northeast, sausage.
"What we're seeing," Etter continued, "is that people are paying attention to quality and presentation, more so now than they've ever done in the past. I think there has been a cross-pollination between channels of business in food service and in the concession operations."
For example, he said, concessions have become retail-oriented with quicker service. "The packaging has changed, the quality of the product has changed, and pricing definitely has changed. But all of that sort of mixes into that degree of excellence you want to offer."
Another noticeable trend in the concession industry is the increased use of action stations. "We see customers more and more going to action stations for their food purchases," explained Terence Conlon, director of concessions for intercollegiate athletics at the University of Illinois. Conlon is also president-elect of the National Association of Concessionaires.
People want to see their food "made to order," he suggested. "They want it fresh. They don't want their food served in a wrapped foil bag. It takes a little longer to get your food, but there's a perceived value in it. Plus, you can charge a little more for it."
At the University of Illinois Memorial stadium, Conlon utilizes grill carts so fans see the food being prepared. "Quite often," he explained, "they will tell our grill person 'I want that bratwurst right there.' Plus, you get that aroma throughout your concourse."
Another trend Conlon is seeing more of is the 'Build your own" burger/hot dog/sausage. "You supply them the burger, hot dog or sausage, and they go to an area that has all kinds of toppings for the fan to put on their sandwich," he said. "It kind of creates this 'ownership' type of feeling. Plus, there always seems to be a line for this option, and lines tend to create more lines, which means more business and profit."
That's right, agreed Kenny Handler, senior consultant, Profitable Food Facilities, Poway, Calif. People are looking for great-tasting product and better choices, he said. "We are seeing an increase in fresh grilled chicken, teriyaki rice bowls and grilled fish. A healthier direction.
"Consider this," Handler added. "Picture a situation where the food preparer is grilling outdoors, and the flow of the operations allows them to pick up the burger straight off the grill and immediately serve it to a customer as ordered. People like that—they want options and involvement. They are now connected to the process, rather than just seeing the food from behind the windows. Customer service is going up because they have direct connection with the team."
Yogurt bars have also been a craze for some time, Handler observed. In this kind of setup, customers feel the personal attachment and investment into their creation. Facilities love it because of the low labor and added entertainment value it provides to the customers. "It is as fast as the customer wants to go and allows them to own it in a sense," he said.
What does it all mean? When talking about concessions, it means exceeding the customer's expectations. "That is the overall trend right now," Etter said.
How do we exceed the customer's expectations, whether it be at the concession stands at the street festival, or at the club level in stadiums and arenas? By offering extraordinary, fast service, high-quality food and careful pricing. It's all about perceived value. "It's kind of a big, broad statement," Etter explained, "but it is accurate because each individual channel of business is different. As a whole though, in our industry of concessions, everyone is working toward trying to exceed customer expectation. Or at least they should be."