Feature Article - April 2004
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Concession Obsession

Learn to maximize your menu, save money and make even more

By Elisa Kronish

Peanuts and Cracker Jack might make for a good song lyric, but they're not quite enough for a ballpark concession menu. Stadiums now serve fancy items like steak sandwiches, garden burgers and double-espresso mocha lattes. While you might not run a multimillion-dollar pro stadium, you do get the same people coming to your facility as attend big-league games, and they're demanding more, putting pressure on you to deliver. What's a cash-strapped recreation manager to do?

We've got some ideas to help you improve your concessions, help you make and save money, and get your food service operations humming like a well-oiled French-fry fryer.

Money-making menus

Each item on your menu should follow three rules, says Mike Holtzman, president of food-service consulting firm Profitable Food Facilities in Poway, Calif.: It has to be able to be made fast, it has to taste good and it has to be profitable.

"It's as simple as it sounds," Holtzman says. "If everything on your menu meets these criteria, then you've already exceeded customer expectations."

Should be a piece of cake, right? But you've got customers with a lot of different tastes, and you want to provide them with choices. Although it's useful to keep a few standards on your menu like hot dogs and pizza, too often, a mile-long menu can do more to weigh you down than pump up sales.

"People tend to try to do too much," Holtzman says. He points to In-N-Out Burger, a West Coast fast-food chain, as a prime example of how a limited menu can really work. "They are simple, efficient and do a ton of volume, but they'll never do chicken," he says.

The Wave Waterpark in Vista, Calif., used to sell about 50 items at its concession.

"It was hard for the young employees to remember how to put everything together and do it fast enough," says Kenny Handler, the waterpark's manager. He realized that more was not better, that it was actually hindering their success. With his staff and a food-service consultant, Handler came up with a menu of about 20, mostly low-maintenance items. They did away with their fry machine—"We couldn't keep up with demand and maintain quality," Handler says—and they ditched their multiple container ice cream flavors in exchange for a soft-serve machine, which offers easy-to-serve, crowd-satisfying chocolate and vanilla. They also added a chicken teriyaki sandwich that became part of the concession's higher-end meal deal, which combines sandwich, chips and a soda.

"Meal deals are very popular," Handler says, adding that his two-slice pizza deal is the park's biggest seller and an easy and inexpensive one to produce.

Handler is also considering adding a healthier kids meal, possibly a peanut- butter-and-jelly sandwich.

"It's nothing new," he says. "Restaurants have to offer healthier choices." If McDonald's can sell salads, then you too can provide healthy, low-fat and currently popular low-carb items to your customers.

"The first products, back six or seven years ago, that were dubbed healthy, were limited in variety and were not that compelling," says Clay Wilkinson, president of The Wilkinson Group, a Seattle-based food-service consulting firm. "Now, it's an area that's developed to a point where there are many selections, and some of them are actually really good." Whether it's a chef's salad, a smoothie or even hot pretzels, there should be something on your menu that appeals to the waist-watchers.

Besides constantly growing demand for healthy items, another major selling point is a well-known brand.

"If you've got brands and signage that people will recognize, that's a bonus," Wilkinson says. At Waco Waterpark in Waco, Texas, Aquatics Director Angie Delaney chose pizza as one of her customer draws. She arranged a taste-test for the staff and park visitors among three popular pizzas and then negotiated a deal with the winning brand.

"I get charged $5 a pizza and turn around and sell it for $2 a slice in an eight-slice pizza," she says. "So I make $11 on each pizza." The pizza company provides her with a warmer, so the brand is highlighted, and the pizza stays fresh. If any slices remain at the end of the day, they're sold at bargain prices.

"We typically sell them out," she says.

Beverages, in particular, provide a great branding opportunity and allow you to take advantage of the beverage suppliers' supplies, if you have decent volume. Large coffee chains, for example, can set you up with their logo-ed cold and hot coffee-making equipment, and you reap the benefits of a caffeine-loving culture. Soda suppliers typically do the same.

"Even in a closed environment like Six Flags, they want the concession to be noticed," Wilkinson says. "What's good for this? Bottlers like Coca-Cola and Pepsi." Soda companies such as these have already put the money into creating attractive and instantly recognizable signage. Why not drink up some of that benefit?

To learn what other trendy food items might fly off the shelves, Holtzman suggests tuning into the younger consumers.

"Take your 9-year-old to Costco and see what he picks out," he says.

Likewise, for her 2004 season, Delaney is thinking of adding Dippin' Dots to her menu because it seems to be a hit with the age group that frequents the waterpark.

"I know whenever I go to the mall, I see tons of kids walking around with them," she says. With the average summer temperature in Waco, Texas, at least 100 degrees, it makes sense for her to include a wide variety of cold items. Delaney already sells ice cream, shaved ice and slushes.