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

Wait a minute before you fire up that grill. Do you really think those same-old hot dogs and tired hamburgers are enough? Are you still running your food service with the mere hope of breaking even? Then you, my friend, have a problem. That's the antiquated—not to mention financially naive—way to run a concession stand. It's time to think outside the bun.

Today's hottest concession stands, snack bars and restaurant services have creative menus, interesting condiments and clever marketing plans. And, best of all, they make money.

A portable concession building can offer more
flexibility and exposure, at a lower cost, than the
typical fixed site concession building.

"It used to be everyone was price conscious and because of that they bought the cheapest hot dogs and coffee they could find, and they served them as cheap as possible," says Chris Bigelow, a concession consultant with The Bigelow Companies in Kansas City, Mo. "Forget that. Serve the best hot dog and best cup of coffee—and price it accordingly."

The trend now can be found in everything from gourmet bratwurst to the hippest java drinks. Old-school concession philosophy suggested never charging more than $1 for a cup of coffee. But we're a Starbuck's world now. We'll happily shell out a few bucks for coffee, if it has a fancy name and a shot of espresso.

"People now pay $3.50 for a cup of coffee without blinking," Bigelow says.

As the willingness to pay for gourmet foods has increased, so has the expectation of quality. Concession-stand customers want more than just hot dogs. They want chili dogs, cheese dogs, Chicago dogs with cucumbers, pickles and hot peppers. They also prefer condiment bars with a variety of toppings, including salsas, vegetables and hot sauces.

"It's not just ketchup and mustard anymore," Bigelow says.

Famous Food

If you offer 'em Big Macs, Pizza Supremes and Subway Clubs, will the money follow?

The answer depends on who you ask.

More and more, some recreation facilities are turning to national chains to run their concession stands. Some operate as independent franchises leasing space in the building, while others sell their prepackaged food to concessionaires.

"We find it to be a huge growth area for us," says Les Weinograd, a public relations coordinator for a major sandwich chain.

Weinograd's company, for example, is the country's top fast-food restaurant in terms of sheer location. Of the business' 17,500 sites, roughly 3,500 are "nontraditional" locations such as ballparks, ice arenas and football stadiums.

The big-name restaurants believe they can help facilities lure customers with familiar menus and an assumption of quality. The patrons, for the most part, know what they're getting when they order.

"You're not going to be going out on a limb," Weinograd says. "You're not reinventing the wheel."

Some concession experts, however, believe there's no need for concession stands to hawk a Fortune 500 company's food. They argue facilities will earn more money peddling their own sandwiches and pizzas than selling someone else's.

The average big-name food will have a 55 percent cost of goods, while a generic item generally boasts between 15 percent and 35 percent.

For example, if a chain-brand hamburger costs $1, it will cost 55 cents to provide. The stand, in turn, will only clear 45 cents.

Once labor and operational expenses are factored in, it actually may lose money on the famous fast food.

"Certainly, it comes with name recognition," says David Hughes, a management analyst with San Diego-based Profitable Food Facilities. "But, in the end, you could be the one paying for it."

An alternative, experts say, is to create your own brand. A waterpark facility serving a generic pizza, for example, may want to rename it "Roaring Springs Pizza."

"Do you need Pizza Hut? No," says Michael Holtzman, president of Profitable Food Facilities. "Name it 'Roaring Springs' and suddenly you have your own name. It says who you are."

To take the do-it-yourself philosophy even further, Holtzman encourages clients to hang a sign proclaiming "No. 1 Pizza in town." The superlative will pique interest in the menu item and convince customers they're buying a quality product.

"Someone might say 'No. 1? Who says?'" Holtzman asks. "Me. I say so. There doesn't need to be an election."

Still, it could financially behoove facilities to serve the Quarter Pounders and Tacos Bellgrande. They may not be the most profitable menu items individually, but collectively they could mean more business.

"You have to look at these things in terms of what you're selling," says Chris Bigelow, a Missouri-based food service consultant. "You may not make as much money on each hamburger, but you may sell more of them."

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."

Strategic locations
The Shrimp Haus Restaurant & Club at Schlitterbahn Beach
Waterpark in South Padre Island, Texas

Holtzman, like many consultants, also discourages his clients from opening concession stands in outdoor parks, especially those used for passive recreation such as walking and bicycling. Those areas typically attract picnickers who bring their own food.

"If it's just a park with some trees, I say don't do it," Holtzman says.

They are several reasons not to open a snack bar in a passive park—and most of them have to do with money. First and foremost, patrons are less likely to accept concession-stand prices outdoors than they would be inside a waterpark or football stadium.

"Think of it like a movie theater," Holtzman says. "In a movie theater, you don't mind paying $4 for a Coke. But you wouldn't pay $4 for a Coke outside the theater."

Some concession-stand operators remedy the park problem by building an exterior walk-up window in the facility snack bar. In Golden, for example, the aquatic center concession stand has a service window facing out toward the local park. The design allows park patrons to buy sodas or hot dogs as they pass, without saddling the local recreation managers with the headaches of running another snack bar in the park.

"It has worked well," Holtzman says.

Food to go

Another option is a concession trailer. Mobile facilities allow park managers to provide concessions—and make money—during big events such as festivals and tournaments. At the same time, they do not burden officials with the expense and upkeep of a permanent facility.

Portable concession buildings are not necessarily
boring boxes. They can be interesting, fun and

The trailers easily are cleaned with a hose and locked up. They also deter vandalism because they're used seasonally, then removed.

"The structures most vulnerable to vandalism are the ones that are abandoned and look like they're falling apart," Bob Uhl, an engineer with a national trailer manufacturer. "That's the real beauty of the trailer. You don't leave it out there in off-season."

Some trailers also have windows near the cash register to show would-be thieves there's nothing to steal. Uhl suggests leaving the empty cash drawer open each night to further enforce the point.

So, now as you turn your attention back toward the grill, let's review what we've learned: With a little creativity—thinking outside both the bun and the box—your concession stand can be a profitable venture.

And, of course, you'll be providing an important service to patrons.

"Because let's face it," Uhl says, "a game always tastes better with a hot dog."

Faster Food

When it comes to concession stands, size truly does matter.

Nothing beats a good old-fashioned
hot dog at a ball game.

For years, consumers accepted the long lines at ball parks and ice rinks. Missing three innings to buy a polish sausage was the price fans begrudgingly accepted.

Those days, however, are over. Today's customers expect prompt, courteous service—just as if they were in a fast-food restaurant.

"The biggest mistake people make is undersizing their concession stand," says Chris Bigelow, president The Bigelow Companies, a food service consulting firm in Kansas City, Mo.

The optimum number of concession stands varies from facility to facility. In a minor-league stadium, experts recommend one stand for every 175 seats. A major-league ballpark, meanwhile, needs a concession for every to 125 to 155 seats.

Skating arenas sometimes have as many as one for every 100 spectators.

Regardless of the ratio, the key is to ensure your lines are moving swiftly and customers get back to their seats as soon as possible.

"Nobody should have to wait three innings for a hot dog," Bigelow says. "They'll leave the line before they wait that long."

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