Concessions and food service for increasingly health-conscious consumers
By Kara Spak
In August 2000, Johanna McCloy attended a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game, hoping to spend the summer evening rooting for her home team.
Instead, she spent time circling inside Dodger Stadium, looking for a meal that would satisfy both her appetite and the demands of her vegetarian diet. There were pretzels, yes. And popcorn. She saw nachos with cheese and peanuts.
But McCloy could find no meatless, healthy options to help sustain her during nine innings of America's favorite pastime.
"I thought, this is ridiculous—this is L.A.," McCloy says.
She later learned it wasn't that she was looking in the wrong place in the stadium. Rather, there were no such options available. Dodger Stadium and the bulk of America's ball fields, zoos, waterparks and concession facilities often offer little to nothing that remotely resembled truly healthy fare.
That trip to a ballpark five years ago spurred McCloy to pick up the phone and place a call to the concessions manager at Dodger Stadium. Soon thereafter, vegetarian submarine sandwiches were offered on the menu. Veggie hot dogs eventually were added to the Dodgers' menu as well.
Now, sumptuous soy-filled sausages aren't the only things McCloy has on her plate these days. She's running a for-profit company she founded to help match meatless, healthier concession options with concession stands across the country.
She's not the only one making the call for a healthy variety of food. Across the country, consumer demands for more health-conscious foods of all kinds—vegetarian and healthier preparations of meat—are on the rise at the country's concession venues, large and small.
A survey by the American Dietetic Association in 2002, the most recent available, showed American consumers were more conscious than ever before about what they were eating. They are seeking out health information and making more and more healthy choices than anytime in the past decade, according to the association's national survey "Nutrition and You: Trends 2002."
Responding to questions about nutrition and exercise, 38 percent of Americans says they made adjustments in their eating patterns to become healthier eaters, an increase from the 28 percent of Americans responding to similar questions in 2000.
America's future consumers already are choosing healthier foods for snacks, according to a research study by the NPD Group, a marketing research firm. Fresh fruit apparently is the snack food of choice for boys and girls ages 2 through 12, according to the results of the group's study released in June 2005.
Concessionaires are finding success meeting the demand, not by grabbing and holding on tight to the latest fad diet or food fashion but by offering more of the fresh, nutritious products that, unlike diet products of the past, taste really great.
Sandwiches and smoothies are two items that are becoming ubiquitous in amusement parks, health clubs and stadiums. Ethnic foods and foods celebrating a local identity also are pushing healthier items onto the menu, experts say. And vegetarian items, though far from being the top seller, are meeting a certain market niche that may be growing.
Traditionalists can rest easy. Hot dogs and chicken fingers aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Customers will likely always associate concession stands with fried or broiled items and snacks like popcorn, Sno Cones and cotton candy. But with an increasing emphasis on healthy lifestyles for both children and adults, concession venues can easily, affordably and successfully branch their menus out to offer more nutritious options.
Concession venues have tried with some limited success at promoting healthier items, says Chris Bigelow, president of The Bigelow Companies, Inc., a food concession consulting business.
According to Bigelow, the biggest and most successful health craze to hit the concession business in the last decade was the low-carbohydrate Atkins diet. And unlike many of the fad diets of the past, this one has lasted, Bigelow says.
There are other signs the wind may be shifting when it comes to concession stands offering a more healthy variety of options, he adds. Premium levels of concessions, like stadium clubs and catered boxes, are offering less fast food and more nutritious (and higher end) products like sushi and crab cakes. Still, a top seller in stadium suites in chicken fingers, he says.
Also, national fast-food chains are starting to offer more low-fat, low-calorie, low-sodium items while highlighting on their menus those offerings that might be appealing to customers with dietary needs.
"Normally, concessions kind of lag behind [fast food]," Bigelow says. "If you see [a fast-food trend] taking off, increasing the options, you will see it [in concessions]. People do associate ballparks with fast food."
Traditional hot dogs sales are not slowing down at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, says Jeramie Mitchell, the stadium's executive chef. But the stadium's SportService concessions definitely has broadened the menu options for customers, with some success.
What's motivating Mitchell to place healthy, non-traditional items on his menus?
One word, he says. Demand.
"The trends are people are starting to look at healthier foods," Mitchell says. "You're not going to make a ton of money off of it, but I think in two, three or five years, it's going to be a better seller."
For now, though, "for those who want something healthy, we have it," he says.
For fans sitting in the bulk of the stadium's seats, the venue offers the AuraPro Burger, a soy and wheat protein patty that Mitchell helped develop.
"Actually, it's selling," Mitchell says. He says they sell on average between 60 and 70 AuraPro Burgers each game.
"Compared to a hot dog, its sales are not good," he says.
"But we are pretty pleased."
St. Louis Cardinals fans looking to break away from more traditional concession items also can find another alternative burger on the menu, a patty formed from fresh fish, Mitchell says. The chef touts not only the burger's seaworthy flavor but also the fact the sandwiches are low in cholesterol.
"They're selling well," he adds.
One highlight of Mitchell's menu is an organic lamb chop offered for those dining in the 300-seat members-only stadium club. The lamb meat is bought from a local Missouri farmer, which he says helped popularize the dish and start an exciting conversation locally about local products and sustainable organic farming.
That conversation—and more organic, health-conscious products—will eventually trickle down from the stadium club even further into general concessions, Mitchell predicts.
Healthy eating, even at places that are not traditionally linked to it like ballparks and waterparks, is "absolutely" here to stay, Mitchell adds.
"It's not going to be a top seller, but it's increasing in popularity," he says. "We have a lot of repeat customers in St. Louis. They don't want to eat a hot dog" every time they visit the ballpark.
Repeat customers in the form of season-pass holders prompted Sandcastle waterpark near Pittsburgh to add a barbecue chicken salad and house salad to their pizza stand. Waterpark concessionaires also added a salad bar and fruit salad to their Tidal Wave Café, the park's all-you-can-eat restaurant.
The results have been nothing short of staggering, says Tom Radovic, Sandcastle's food and beverage manager.
"The season-pass holders were tired of eating the same old fatty foods," Radovic says. "They asked for salads."
Sandcastle answered by adding them to the menu in July.
The fruit and salad bars at the Tidal Wave Café are "going really fast," Radovic says. About 40 salads are sold daily off the pizza stand, which Radovic says they are pleased with.
"We tried this about five years ago, and we couldn't give those things away," he says of the salads. "This has been a great season with the [hot] weather. The season-pass holders were asking for something other than amusement park food."
Radovic says the park would evaluate at the end of the season if they would be expanding their healthy offerings next year.
Though, again, time-honored concession fare still stands its ground. For many fans, the customary hot dog at a ball game is as American as, well, apple pie. Of course, in sensible moderation.
Suzanne Farrell, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says she tells clients it's OK that an occasional trip to the ballpark can include the traditional hot dog.
"For the person who rarely goes to the game, if they really want a hot dog, have a healthy breakfast and lunch," Farrell says. Those meals should include plenty of fruit and whole grains, she says.
For those people who more regularly attend ball games or travel to amusement parks, Farrell suggests scouting out the menu, looking for items like submarine sandwiches and smoothies.
Farrell says smoothies can be a "great way" to get your daily intake of vitamins and minerals. But watch the portion size, she says.
"Stick with a small or medium," she advises concession patrons.
Bigelow, the Kansas City-based concession consultant, says one trend in newer facilities with more space and more cooking capacity is designing and offering more made-to-order foods. The concessions salads that were once made from meager iceberg lettuce and a mealy tomato wedge trapped in a Styrofoam box, now are being replaced by fresh, made-to-order mixed salads bursting with a variety of greens, vegetables, meats and cheeses. What the customer wants, the customer gets with made-to-order.
"There's been some moderate success with made-to-order," he says.
Ethnic food, like Asian stir-fry, may have the appeal of healthier eating, Bigelow says. Kosher hot dogs have been successful in some markets, while the success of vegetarian items like soy hot dogs and veggie burgers also may depend on the market, he says.
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."
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