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.

Safety First

Did you know that 6,000 people die of food poisoning a year, 250,000 people get sick from food poisoning and 500,000 get sick from food poisoning but think it's something else?

Not to scare you or anything. Well, actually, maybe just a little. After all, it is a matter of life and death. The positive spin?

"It's preventable," says Michael Sheahan, president of Sheahan Consulting based in Oakley, Calif. Although consumers are more aware these days of food-related bacteria such as e.coli and lysteria, it doesn't mean the causes have been eliminated.

"It generally takes a food safety crisis for people to look more closely at their food safety," Sheahan says. "Protect yourself before your name ends up on Dateline."

Gathered here are some of Sheahan's best food safety advice to help you stay out trouble. It's up to you to develop the guidelines, implement them, and monitor and take responsibility for your employees' actions toward achieving common safety goals.

1. Your weakest link: "In a perfect world, all my employees would be junior microbiologists," Sheahan jokes. Seeing as that's not very likely, he says facility managers need to spend time explaining what's tolerable and what's not. While he understands that young, temporary staff are often a crucial part of your operation, he cautions, "A lot of times, their level of concern as to whether, say, the mayo has been left out for four hours, is not really very high."

Sheahan suggests designating a year-round employee as concession manager and providing food-handling training. Then, set up standards and enforce them.

"If somebody does something stupid like leaving a product out on the counter and then serving it, I'd fire them," Sheahan states. "If they realize what they did and throw it away, I'd give them a bonus."

2. Get a cooking clue: "Learn the times and temperature issues that affect the food you're serving and stick to it," Sheahan says simply. On that same issue, make sure cooked-meat utensils are kept completely separate from raw-meat utensils.

"I'll see places take a raw piece of chicken with a pair of tongs and then use the same piece of equipment to pick up a cooked hamburger," he says. "The raw chicken has bacteria on it that has now been transferred to the hamburger."

3. Don't spoil the fun: When refilling containers for condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise, Sheahan stresses the importance of rinsing out the container completely rather than pouring more product on top of old.

"If there are two inches of mayonnaise left, bacteria start to grow," he says. "You pour more mayo on top of that, and the bacteria on the bottom have now contaminated that whole container."

In fact, Sheahan recommends avoiding mayonnaise altogether.

"And no salad dressings," he says. He would also nix red meat but gives the thumbs-up to rotisserie hot dogs. "The downside is they're not cleaned well, but the temperature is right."

4. Clean up your act: "A lot of food safety issues are common sense," Sheahan points out. When he's hired to consult, he gives the staff a telling test. "We take a piece of meat, lay it on the tabletop and ask the people, 'Would you serve it?' and they say 'Yes.' But when we ask them to take a bite out of it, they say, "No, I don't want that. It's been sitting on the table.'"

A common practice Sheahan sees is placing utensils in hot water between uses.

"This is acceptable if the water is changed periodically and kept at 180 degrees," Sheahan explains. If this isn't happening, then you're only going through the motions. Also, Sheahan warns, don't expect your cook to check the water.

"They have too much to do already," he says. This can be one of the responsibilities of the concession manager. Make sure you and your staff are mindful of your actions.

"You'd be amazed at what we find," Sheahan says. "Think about what you're doing, where stuff is sitting. Take the extra time to clean the counter."

Revenue-revving routines

Proper menu pricing is an important component of a successful concession, but it's a tricky balance between bringing in dollars without scaring off your customers.

"Make sure the price points fall into fair market price for your venue," Wilkinson says. "Go to the point where it's as much as you can get without upsetting people to the point they won't buy at all."

That's the trick.

"This is an inside-the-four-walls captive audience, similar to a movie theater," Holtzman points out. At the movie theater, it seems acceptable to pay $4 for a soda, while at your neighborhood convenience store, you wouldn't stand for it. "But 7-Eleven is not your competitor," Holtzman adds, meaning that you don't have to price your product that low. "Choose pricing in the middle of the road," he says.

At the Wave Waterpark, Handler learned from working with the consultant that your cost for a menu item should be about 30 percent of what you're selling it for.

"Let's say a meal deal total cost [to us] is $1.50," Handler explains. "We were selling it at $3. We should have been charging $4.50." The consultant told him, simply, "You're charging too low or you need to find a way to decrease cost," Handler says.

No matter what your pricing, it makes sense to push the items with the highest profit margin, Wilkinson says. In general, soda sales offer high profitability. Selling brand-name soda already attracts customers. Selling it from a fountain machine rather than bottles offers even higher earning potential.

"If you have both [fountain and bottles], you'll sell 50 percent of both," Holtzman says. "But if you only have fountain, you'll sell all fountain drinks, and it's much cheaper." Plus, it saves valuable inventory space, he adds.

Holtzman also suggests a clever marketing tactic when creating your menu: Include a menu item that out-prices other options, in turn making those other choices appear like a great deal.

"So when you have a $6.75 fish sandwich on your menu, the $3.50 hamburger starts looking really good," Holtzman says. "Maybe you'll sell a case of fish all season, but it's a marketing ploy to sell other products."

Another quick tip: "Don't sell anything under $1," Holtzman advises. "You don't need to give anything away."

Even the best-conceived menu won't stand a chance if you can't get customers through the line quickly. Sometimes the system hits a snag when employees get tired or lazy.

"Put some pressure on your staff to move faster," Holtzman says. Good old-fashioned bribery can often do the trick. "Watch register A and register B and see who's processing faster. Make it a contest to see who can ring the most orders faster—and then, watch them ring," he says. Reward the faster of the two with some sort of bonus, maybe $5 or free tickets to another facility.

Problems can also arise when employees are unsupervised and inexperienced.

"Make sure you make your presence known often and unexpectedly," Delaney suggests. "The hardest part with employees is not letting them give away food to their friends or themselves," she adds. Besides serving as a check on your employees' actions, your regular appearances send the message that you care about the concession, how it's running and if the employees need anything.

"When it's really busy, we'll go in and assist them," Delaney says.

If certain processes are slowing down your employees, find out what they are and try to fix them.

"Listen to your staff and find out what problems they're having," Holtzman says. A common problem is long lines. When the heat is on, and you've got impatient, hungry customers, hand out menus to people as they wait or even take orders in line. Either way, when the customers get to the register, the cashiers don't have to wait for an order. They just have to look at the ticket and ring in the order.

"And the customer doesn't have to remember what he wanted," Holtzman adds.

At the Wave Waterpark, Handler recalls that his grill would suffer huge backups.

"People used to wait up to an hour for a chicken sandwich at the barbecue," he says. "So, we had a mob of people wanting their chicken and their money back." Now, on busy days, the grill chefs have about 10 chicken sandwiches ready to go, so no one has to wait very long.

The In-House,
Out-Sourced Controversy

It's a back-and-forth contest. We asked the experts what they thought, and here's what some of them had to say about in-house food service or outsourcing concessions.

Points for in-house:
  • "It's a lot simpler to do it yourself than people think," says Mike Holtzman, president of Profitable Food Facilities in Poway, Calif. "If you manage it poorly, you're still going to make money. I think the biggest problem with municipalities is that many people wear a lot of hats. If they just took the time to focus on [the food concession], it could be really successful."
  • "I'm shocked with the districts that contract out their concessions and don't realize that they could make money off of it," says Paul Artt, president of a Dallas-based food-equipment manufacturer. "It should be viewed as a revenue center."
Points for outsourcing:
  • "Here in Aspen, our golf course is, at best, a five-month season," says Tim Anderson, city of Aspen, Colo., recreation director. "Trying to keep our employees trained for just a few months is very difficult. Having an existing organization come in with their employees is easy."
  • "It's a specialized area that isn't your expertise," says Clay Wilkinson, president of The Wilkinson Group consulting firm in Seattle. "An ice-rink manager knows what temperature to keep the ice, when to get the Zambonis out, how to schedule use of the rink, but he doesn't know food service that well."

Cost-cutting concepts

Those chicken sandwich revenues can also benefit from some solid cost-saving and dollar-stretching measures.

"Look at your supply channels to make sure you're buying right," Wilkinson advises. Handler used to purchase his sandwich buns from a large supplier and was unfairly charged for squashed buns. He now gets his buns from a warehouse store.

"They're cheaper and more reliable than we were getting from our supplier, and they never run out," Handler says.

It's important to scrutinize your contracts with food vendors and subcontractors. Consultants have particular expertise with these contracts and can offer valuable assistance. When city of Aspen, Colo., Recreation Director Tim Anderson hired a food-service consultant to help develop the concession at his expanded recreation and golf center, he realized he and his staff were not well educated on how to negotiate the best contracts. While Anderson's subcontractor had given him numbers as to what to expect in terms of sales, the consultant examined the contract closer.

"We had numbers for a restaurant but nothing relevant to us," Anderson says. "We thought they knew what they were talking about, but compared to the number of rounds of golf we do, it wasn't on target."

You might only give your contracts attention when they come up for renewal. At that point, you're probably in the middle of so many other tasks that you hastily sign the contract to hustle it off your desk.

"When managers are in a hurry to dispense with this task, the easiest way to get rid of it is to just sign it," Wilkinson says. "But more often than not, the circumstances of the contract are not as good as they could be." You may save time in the short-run, but you could save money in the long haul if you take the time to examine the specifics upfront.

For one thing, the contract is typically created by the vendor or subcontractor, so it's going to favor them and not you.

"Buyers have to make sure they put in their own safeguards," Wilkinson says. For example, the Wave Waterpark was being charged a whopping $12 each time their food supplier made a delivery.

"We hadn't even realized that," Handler says. "They also had the power to send us, say, a more expensive cheese than we ordered and charge us for it saying that they had run out of the other cheese. We're putting the power back into our hands."

Handler also saved dough by making dough—for his pizza. He had been ordering 100 pizzas from a vendor, but they'd sit all day and suffer in quality.

"We tried doing a three-quarter cooked, and that was better, but it still requires effort, so we figured why not put that effort in and cut down on our costs at the same time," Handler says. Now, he outsources the dough and can prepare crusts during lulls in concession activity.

"We used to get an eight-slice pizza from a vendor for $6.25, and now I can make a pizza for $4.55," he says, adding that his pizza also creates larger slices, providing a better product to his customers.

Another helpful change at the Wave Waterpark was investing in a point-of-sale system. While such software can cost thousands of dollars upfront, if you have the revenues to warrant it (the Wave now pulls in about $230,000 a year in concessions), it can make sense. Handler was able to track inventory and sales better than before, so he knew what was selling well and what was sitting on the shelves.

"For example, out of 10 ice cream flavors, we found that seven weren't selling fast enough to make it worthwhile to keep them," he says.

Whether you decide to purchase point-of-sale software, the important thing is to keep track of profit and loss.

"Really watch the numbers, and before the end of the season," Holtzman says. "Don't wait until July when you can't really readjust anything."

One element to consider is labor cost. Assess the number of employees and the hours they worked and determine the percentage of labor vs. the revenues for each day. You might realize that it's not even worth opening the concession during certain hours.

"I see a lot of facilities staying open when they shouldn't," Wilkinson says.

Equipping Your Kitchen

Besides cutting costs, you can save money and time by getting more out of your equipment. Outfit your kitchen according to your needs and menu.

A greaseless fryer, for example, can create a variety of food items without using expensive and messy grease.

"[You] could put together a menu of grilled and 'fried' items as well as bakeable items like pretzels," says Paul Artt, president of a Dallas-based food-equipment manufacturer. "It's ideal for anybody who wants to do food service but doesn't want to become a restaurant."

Angie Delaney uses her greaseless fryer unit for cooking chicken nuggets, cheese sticks and corn dogs.

"It's economical and saves a lot of space," she says, adding that it's also simple to use. "Another selling point is that it takes, at the most, six minutes to cook something."

Keeping track of her high-volume hours, Delaney is able to space out the cooking times, so food isn't sitting for long periods, and keep food warm in the oven or under a heat lamp when necessary.

At Cog Hill Golf and Country Club in Lemont, Ill., General Manager Nick Mokelke does a substantial food business. He recently upgraded his kitchen with a new layout and new equipment.

"The basic layout of our kitchen was 75 years old," Mokelke explains. "It took us from being a Volkswagen to a Jaguar."

After reworking the space for better flow, his staff can work faster and clean up easier. A useful addition to the kitchen included a built-in cleaner for a fryer.

"You can just push a button and renew the grease," he explains. While it still requires new oil at least once a week, the internal filter rejuvenates the oil for improved re-use before a full replacement.

Another thing Mokelke added was a combi-oven, which combines three modes of cooking in one: steam, circulated hot air or a combination of both. It can be used to reheat foods and to roast, bake and oven-fry.

"It's great for veggies and for reheating items without drying them out," he says. He also uses it to cook chicken that's then marked on the outdoor grill for effect.

"It's the illusion of barbecue," Mokelke says. "But people eating it don't care, because they mainly want the show. Plus, it's a better product."

Having the right equipment can make a difference.

"When you redo your kitchen, it sends a message to your staff that you're willing to put money into it," Mokelke says. "We're demanding a lot of the kitchen staff, so it's only fair that we give them the right tools to do their job."

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