Feature Article - September 2005
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Eater's Digest

Concessions and food service for increasingly health-conscious consumers

By Kara Spak


REGIONAL FARE

Concessions venues have offered more healthy options, marketing them as regional specialty foods, Bigelow says.

"Seafood has not been really popular with a few exceptions," Bigelow says. "In Baltimore, they're selling crab cakes. In Seattle, fried clams"

Using a portable cart is another way of highlighting healthy options but not swallowing up too much space from the more traditional, profitable food choices.

"A portable cart is not taking up a lot of real estate," Bigelow says. "But it is there if somebody wants it. And you're not getting rid of anything."

Mike Holtzman, president of the San Diego-based Profitable Food Facilities, believes the trend in concessions isn't necessarily toward healthy foods but higher-quality foods. Often, though, healthy and high-quality walk hand in hand.

"There's a higher expectation for better quality food," Holtzman says. "It's hard to say the trend is into health."

A decade ago, hot dogs were the menu's mainstay—and sometimes the only item. Now, customers might see broiled chicken as well.

"We're getting to a better quality item," he says. He also notes how a national fast-food chain recently added an apple and walnut salad to the menu. Another national chain also added applesauce as a more health-conscious alternative to french fries.

"There's a move instead of fries," he says. "There's other options."

He added that though they are other alternatives, French fries and hamburgers remain top sellers for men and women. Keep them on the menu.

When working with waterpark concession venues, Holtzman says he uses a three-prong test to see if a new product will fly. New menu items must taste good, be executable in the kitchen in a short amount of time and be profitable.

"If it doesn't meet those criteria, don't sell it," he says. "There are no-brainer criteria."

The taste is crucial.

"If it has a good taste, eventually it will sell," he says.

Holtzman says he's had success helping waterparks introduce a number of healthy menu options, like a fresh tossed chicken Caesar salad, a turkey tortilla wrap and fresh-fruit smoothies.

The secret to selling the salad, he says, was upgrading the presentation to serve it in a clamshell-shaped container instead of stuffing it into the less-appealing box.

"A kid [employee] can mix it up and give the customer a fresh Caesar salad and make it look nice," Holtzman says.

Holtzman says he does not expect veggie burgers and soy hot dogs to appear anytime soon on the menu of your Little Leaguer's concession stand. But even smaller venues are turning toward options like broiled chicken and grilled fish, he says.

Chicken and fish are not only perceived to be better for you, they can be better for your bottom line, he adds. Pricing a fish sandwich at $7 suddenly makes a $3.50 hamburger look much more fiscally attractive.

Though, space and price may not be your only challenge to introducing healthier menu options.

McCloy says many contracts with hot dog companies include a "no competition" clause, allowing the hot dog companies to veto the introduction of a veggie hot dog. Allowing veggie hot dogs on the menu can be part of vendor contract negotiations, she says.

She also says many meat-free products currently only deal in retail size packaging, but that too is changing as the demand for these products grows.

"Even the companies are starting to realize they have to invest so they can grow their business into concession sales," she says.

Most importantly, if you want to sell healthy products, you have to let the customers know they are there.

McCloy says often healthy or vegetarian options are sold in one particular part of a venue, a stand or booth. Make sure employees know where to direct customers, and place prominent signage around to let them know where the food they seek is sold.

"You can pretty much find a veggie burger on a menu anywhere," McCloy says. "It used to be a weird thing. It's like soy milk in coffee. Now, it is just a standard item."