Food For Thought
Simple Menu Changes for Special Diets
By Stacy St. Clair
Dollar hot dog nights don't get Jana Simone out to the stadium. The churro stand doesn't entice her, either. In fact, she doesn't even go near the concession stands at sporting events. "I don't even plan on eating if I am going to a game," she said. "I eat before I go because I assume there's nothing there I can eat."
Simone has celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that causes an inability to digest wheat. That means she can't eat traditional ballpark fare like hot dogs on buns, chicken strips and personal pan pizzas.
She represents a significant segment of the North American population that has special dietary needs. Whether for health, religious or moral reasons, people are paying a lot more attention to their diets. Progressive concessionaires must recognize this trend if they want to be respectful to both their patrons and their profits.
"Ballpark concession stands are very hard places for some people to eat," said Simone, who is on the board of directors of the California-based Celiac Disease Foundation. "Any effort to make them more accessible would be hugely appreciated."
Roughly 11 million Americans suffer from some type of food allergy, some so severe they can lead to anaphylactic shock, a severe, even life-threatening reaction. And millions of others are making the effort to eat healthier in order to enjoy fuller and longer-lasting lives.
According to a recent survey by the American Dietetic Association, U.S. consumers are more conscious than ever before about what they eat. For example, 38 percent of Americans have made adjustments in their eating patterns to become healthier eaters. That's 10 percentage points higher than in a 2000 study.
As society's eating habits evolve, concession stands must adapt, or they'll soon find themselves running a dangerous deficit. There's no question it would be difficult—if not impossible—to fulfill every single patron's dietary needs. Still, it's imperative that concessionaires be as flexible and creative as possible. In addition to being the ethically responsible thing to do, it's also the most financially sound move. By ignoring changes in eating habits, concessions risk losing customers and dollars.
"It's getting more and more difficult for concession stands to say, 'We've got something for everyone,'" said Mary Schluckebier, executive director of the Celiac Sprue Association. "It's important that they tell us what items they have and then let us make our own decisions."
Clearly, no concession stand can cater to every dietary requirement. But there are several needs to consider, as well as easy ways to make your snack bar a delicious option for the vast majority of your patrons.
"Never underestimate that the demand is there," said Johanna McCloy, the founder of Soy Happy, a vegetarian advocacy group. "Often there's a lot of lost revenue because people can't be vocal."
Concessionaires can make great strides toward all-inclusive menus by educating themselves about various dietary needs and restrictions. Celiac disease, for example, is a digestive infirmity that has been gaining more awareness in recent years. The autoimmune condition is triggered by the consumption of a common protein called gluten, which is found in bread, cookies, pizza crusts and many other popular snack bar items.
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in every 100 Americans has the disease, though it often goes undiagnosed. The only treatment is a change in diet, by eliminating foods made from wheat, barley, rye, oats and triticale.
Such restrictions can make concession stands frightening places for people with celiac disease. One wrong bite or mislabeled product can lead to anemia, diarrhea, weight loss, vitamin deficiency and early-onset osteoporosis. Brian Jennings, whose wife and two children have the disease, finds eating at sporting venues near impossible.
"It's actually pretty tough to try to take the family out to the ballpark," he said. "If we go, we try and bring our own food. There's a minor league baseball stadium near us where you would think the French fries would be safe, but they have a flour coating on them."
Jennings, the founder of the Washington-based Celiac Society, often worries about seemingly harmless foods because of the careless ways they can be prepared. For example, fryers will be used for both breaded foods and gluten-free items, he said. The cross-contamination can wreak havoc on more sensitive digestive tracts or people with wheat allergies.
"You could also be serving gluten-free hot dogs, but you used the same tongs on the hot dogs that you used to open the bun," Jennings said.
Progressive concessionaires may want to offer gluten-free hamburger and hot dog buns, which would expand the menu considerably. Some brewing companies, including Anheuser-Busch, even make gluten-free beer.
Without question, these gestures would be welcomed by the celiac community. Word would spread quickly, especially among the many Internet sites and support groups dedicated to helping those with the condition.
"Gluten-free beer or gluten-free buns would be an incredible thing to offer," the Celiac Foundation's Simone said. "There would be a huge response to it."
Of course, recreation facility managers don't need to buy special products in order to be celiac-friendly. Sometimes, all it requires is some traditional items and a little flexibility. Potato chips, for example, are a wise menu option, as is plain popcorn. Popsicles and snow-cones serve as refreshing, gluten-free treats. Many ice creams can be too, as long as unfriendly extras like cookie batter or Oreos aren't mixed in.
The Celiac Sprue Association's Schluckebier recommends plain baked potatoes or sweet potatoes for a gluten-friendly option at sporting venues. The concession operators can offer patrons various toppings, she said, depending on their tastes and dietary needs. Additions like this will make the stand appealing to more than just people with celiac and wheat allergies. These options would also be attractive to vegetarians, people looking for fat-free options and customers looking for low-cholesterol options.
"You need something that crosses several needs," Schluckebier said. "Baked potatoes are one of those options."
Concession stands also could offer bunless hot dogs and sausages as a way to entice people with celiac disease. Snack bars could offer to wrap sandwiches and burgers in lettuce, a move many restaurants have embraced to appease patrons following a low-carb diet. The offering may require more work from employees, and it could overwhelm stands with limited manpower. Those willing to try, however, might be surprised by the positive response and additional revenue.
"Those are some pretty easy things to do," Schluckebier said. "If they have the labor to do it, that's fantastic."
Just a decade ago, the concession industry looked upon vegetarians as well-meaning pests. They challenged menus, questioned buying practices and doubted venues' commitment to their patrons. All these years later, though, their work has paid off. Concession operators across the country are now mindful of providing meatless offerings.
"People think it's just a vegetarian issue, but it's not," Soy Happy's McCloy said. "There are a lot of diverse people that are interested in eating these things, for cultural reasons, religious issues, people with high cholesterol and other health problems."
Despite the advancements, improvements can still be made. The vegetarian population has doubled since 1994, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. Roughly 5 percent of the population—that's about 15 million Americans—consider themselves vegetarians. Teenage Research International studies also show 25 percent of teenage girls think meatless diets are cool. Even if they eat animal products, these young women are not averse to vegetarian meals or ideals.
As vegetarianism becomes more mainstream, patrons won't be content to settle for veggie burgers or soft pretzels. They want the same freedoms as carnivores: the option of satisfying a craving at a concession stand, instead of simply settling for the one item on the menu they can eat, or relying on home-brought foods.
"Don't underestimate the power of the phenomenon of the 'Vegetarian Veto,'" said John Cunningham, the Vegetarian Resource Group's consumer resource manager. "When a group goes out—even if only one person is vegetarian—they won't go to a place that doesn't have a vegetarian option."
For example, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia was recently rated the vegetarian-friendliest stadium in the country, thanks to its veggie hoagies and vegan hot dogs. It's an ironic twist for a city famous for its cheesesteaks, but they've got that one covered, too. Phillies fans also can purchase faux-meat cheesesteaks.
San Francisco's AT&T Park finished second with its portobello sandwiches, veggie sushi and garlic fries. Unsurprisingly, McCloy would like other sporting venues to emulate the creative menus in both parks.
"You can always count on a veggie burger being available," she said. "It seems to be the lowest common denominator."
McCloy suggests more concession stands offer more diverse items, such as soy cheese pizzas or vegetarian chili. Salads and roasted veggies also would be a welcome touch.
However, vegan advocates realize that the average park district concession stand can't offer vegetarian sushi or grilled portobellos. In that case, they urge recreation managers to put a few simple offerings on the menu. Fresh fruit, soy hot dogs or garden burgers are usually a good place to start. If you serve coffee, consider making soy milk available for java drinkers.
When selecting meatless items, it's usually best to go with vegan options—foods that omit all animal products, including eggs and dairy. It will reach the largest audience, as well as be an option for patrons who are lactose-intolerant.
Given the strong vegetarian grapevine, meatless options may help facilities draw visitors. If the past decade has taught us anything, it's that they are both a vocal and an appreciative group.
"If you offer good vegetarian options, you'll get very loyal customers," Cunningham said. "They will come back, and they will tell other vegetarians. Vegetarians are the best word-of-mouth advertising."
Sometimes patrons' dietary restrictions can be for religious reasons instead of health ones. In order for recreation venues to serve as a gathering place for the entire community, it's important that concession stands make an effort—and a menu—to respect their patrons' beliefs.
Catholics, for example, traditionally abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays—with some going the meatless route on Fridays throughout the year. Hindus do not eat beef, and many Buddhists maintain vegetarian diets. The simple act of including items like cheese pizza, veggie burgers, salads and chicken sandwiches can make a concession stand more appealing to customers of these faiths.
Muslims also adhere to several dietary restrictions, including sunrise-to-sunset fasting during the month of Ramadan. Many who practice the Islamic faith also refrain from eating pork. Concessionaires that sell all-beef hot dogs should make a point of publicizing that fact on menu boards so their Muslim customers recognize the viable option.
Mormons, meanwhile, shun alcohol and caffeine. When making your beverage selections, consider picking non-caffeinated choices like fruit juice, bottled water, root beer and lemon-lime sodas. (Your pregnant patrons will thank you, too!)
About 15 percent of Jews keep kosher, meaning they adhere to their religion's strict dietary laws. The levels observed vary greatly, with Orthodox Jews adhering to the toughest standards. They typically do not eat meat cooked in non-kosher kitchens or eat foods without reliable kosher certification. Conservative and Reform Jews may be more lenient in their observances. Some will eat foods cooked in non-kosher kitchens, as long as the meats are kosher.
For many years, dietary restrictions posed problems for some Jewish fans at sporting events. They could go to the ballpark and enjoy a cola, but they would only be able to watch the people next to them eat hot dogs.
"If you keep kosher and you want to take your kids out to a fair or the ballpark, you want to be able to enjoy the food and concessions wherever you go," said Yosef Levine of New Jersey-based Kosher Concessions.
Some facilities sell kosher box lunches at games, but most just shrug their shoulders at the problem. The issue has been a near-impossible situation for concessionaires. It's extremely difficult for uneducated employees and managers to adhere to the religious rules, even if the logistics make it plausible.
Packaged goods like potato chips can be certified kosher, and the major soda corporations adhere to religious laws. Anything loose such as snow-cones or hot dogs, however, needs to be handled with a heightened level of care and understanding.
"When you're talking about preparing food on the fly, providing kosher food is not something an in-house vendor can take care of," Levine said. "They are going to have to outsource it. At the very least, there has to be a knowledgeable kosher inspector available."
In 1993, Kosher Sports Inc. helped remedy the problem by creating a food service that catered to fans who observed the dietary restrictions. They currently have business agreements to run concession stands at eight big-name sporting venues. All their items are certified kosher products, and the booths have an on-site Mashgiach, who supervises and inspects the establishment to make sure it's following religious protocol. They also hold a prayer at the stand daily.
Small venues such as park districts and festivals on the East Coast have turned to Levine's Kosher Concessions, a family-owned business that operates and supplies treats. Their food items include popcorn, pretzels, cotton candy, snow-cones and hot dogs. The company—the only one of its kind in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut tri-state area—provides a choice for recreation managers who want to provide kosher options, but don't have the workforce to do it.
Levine brings the equipment to the site and serves the guests himself. He handles the entire operation, so that he can ensure the food stays kosher from beginning to end of the event.
"You can't just take the machines and rent them," he said. "We have to make sure they're cleaned in a proper environment by someone who observes the Sabbath, that only certain food was used on the equipment, et cetera."
Levine started the side business two years ago to help the Jewish community. The more he works in the industry, the more he realizes the need and the interest in his services. The response has been so positive, he's considering expanding the business to areas with large Jewish populations, such as Miami, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago.
If your concessions make the effort to provide options for special dietary needs, it's important to take the time to educate employees about the menu. For example, teach them the difference between a vegetarian item and a vegan one. Make sure they know a bunless hot dog should be a fresh wiener taken off the rollers and not plucked from a bun and handled to a gluten-averse customer.
"It helps when the staff is educated," Jennings said. "We have the problem at many concessions that when we ask if something is gluten-free, the person working says 'yes' because it's not listed in the ingredients. Well, gluten is never going to be listed in the ingredients."
Accommodating concession stands also should publicize their diet-friendly menu options and nutritional information on their Web sites whenever possible. National restaurant chains now do this as a way of drawing customers and sparking an interest in their menus. The trend has proven extremely successful, proving to customers that they can grab a bite outside their own kitchens and still meet their dietary needs.
It's also helpful to have menus on-site with all the myriad fat-free, kosher, gluten-free, low-carb and vegetarian options clearly marked. This will help patrons unfamiliar with your selections figure out which items will work best for them.
"The concession stands just need to provide the information, " Schluckebier said. "We will be responsible for the diet."
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