Feature Article - April 2003
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True Concessions

The real-life story behind how recreational facilities can improve food services, cut costs and increase profits, from snack bars to full-fledged restaurants

By Stacy St. Clair

Hometown flavors

The savviest concession operators are offering more regional foods, too, giving their facilities a local flare. The movement is especially popular in facilities that attract out-of-town visitors who want to get a taste of the area while taking in a Big League baseball game or sitting at a weekend hockey tournament.

Experts often scout the local restaurant scene to find the ideal provincial menu. In the South, for example, consultants often tap the area's top barbecue places to sell their delicacies at recreation facilities.

In addition to thrilling visitors, the menu also pleases natives who include the foods in their regular diets.

"We're trying more and more to feature local flavor," says William Caruso, president of the Colorado-based William Caruso & Associates.

Kids enjoying the fare at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort in New Braunfels, Texas.

Recreation officials in Golden, Colo., also looked to add a little spice to their concession operations when they opened a family aquatic center in the summer of 2002. They invested $30,000 in equipment, including an outdoor grill that proved to be integral to the stand's success. Consultants urged managers to buck many of the traditional ways of doing things, namely keeping a cook hidden from view.

Rather than hiding the cooks in the back of the concession stand flipping hamburgers, they positioned the grill outside. It brought the employees—and the smell of a backyard barbecue—closer to the patrons.

"You're seeing a lot more places do something like this," says Michael Holtzman, president of San Diego-based Profitable Food Facilities. "Many restaurants now have open kitchens so the customers can see what's going on. It's the same thing with the concession stand in Golden."

As swimmers and sunbathers enjoy their afternoons, they can look to the concession stand and see the food being made. The mouth-watering smells of hot dogs, chicken breasts and hamburgers waft through the facility.

"Imagine you're sitting in your lawn chair and you watch the food coming hot off the grill all day long," Holtzman says. "Chances are you're going to be tempted to go and get something to eat."

The grill gave a sense of freshness—of summer, really—to the stand's menu. On the first day of operations, the snack bar made $4,000 in just six hours.

Not surprisingly, Opening Day was the stand's biggest day of the season. The concession, however, did remarkably well last summer given it was serving a small aquatic center that can hold roughly 700 people.

"In two years, they'll have made enough money to cover the cost of the equipment," Holtzman says. "That's not too bad."

Much of the concession stand's success reflects the careful planning that went into its menu. The snack bar sold the traditional foods: hot dogs, hamburgers, sodas. It also offered shaved ice, an extremely profitable item that has miniscule, 4 percent to 5 percent, cost of goods.

Managers took care of the health-conscious as well, by offering chicken, Caesar salads and grilled fish. The latter, without question, seemed like an unusual offering. Who's mouth truly waters for a fish sandwich on a hot summer day?

The answer is, quite simply, not many.

"We probably sold about 40 pieces all season," Holtzman says.

Some food-service venues adopt a cozy cafe
atmosphere like at this Life Time Fitness club.

Sheer sales, however, were not the objective. Holtzman advised the facility to put fish on the menu to offer a healthy choice—and an expensive choice.

They charged roughly $6.95 for the sandwich. It was a lofty price for a concession-stand item, but that was the point. The fish made paying $3.95 for a hamburger look like a bargain.

"We didn't sell a lot of fish," Holtzman says. "But it made the hamburger look cheap."

The concession stand didn't sell many Caesar salads in the beginning, either. But Holtzman knew as the summer wore on, patrons would grow tired of hot dogs and hamburgers every day. By August, sales of the salads had increased considerably.

"It's a whole marketing philosophy," Holtzman says.

Another marketing tactic Holtzman encourages is offering special deals at the concession stand. For example, if a facility charges $1 for parking, he suggests offering a $1-off coupon for the concession stand.

It will make the patrons feel as if they're getting their money back, he says. It also will bring business to the concession stand. While the customer may be getting a free soda, chances are they'll buy a full-price hamburger or hot pretzel.

"I recommend giving out tickets instead of tokens," Holtzman says of his philosophy. "Tokens have a way of changing hands. Tickets have a way of getting lost."