Money Matters

Tips for Expanding Your Food Service & Concession Profits

By Emily Tipping

While the economic news is starting to get better—or at least less bad—the recession is still putting a lot of pressure on the budgets of recreation, sports and fitness facilities. Whether your facility caters to youth sports or hosts big events to celebrate the community, you likely are looking to bring in some revenue to support your mission. A concession stand or food service operation offers one way for many facilities to boost their bottom line, or at least earn back some of the dollars they must spend to bring their programs to the community.

But running a food-service operation or concession stand can be a job in and of itself. And ensuring it serves the purpose you desire—boosting revenues—means running it well. Luckily, we've collected here a handful of simple tips from the experts to help you quickly and easily boost your profit potential without too much extra effort.

But before we begin, we should mention the uber-tip for running things well: staffing smarts. You'll want to be sure that whomever you put in charge of your food service or concession operation is a smart manager of money and people. And don't forget that customer service is a central key to your success. When hiring people to staff your stand, you'll want to go with cheerful people who seem to genuinely want to work with the public. Everyone remembers a bad customer service experience. And they won't return if they think they're going to be greeted by grumps. On the other hand, service with a smile is generally not forgotten either.

That said, I know you're ready to start boosting your bottom line, so let's turn to those tips!

Tip #1: Set Yourself Up

Whether you've got no concession and you're looking to open one or you've already got the basics set up, you'll want to follow these simple rules: make it easy, and make it fast.

If you're just getting going, you can start off with a couple of machines that will allow you to offer popular items. Things like popcorn, nachos and snow cones will bring a lot of bang for your buck, and you don't need a lot of space or skill to get rolling.

Start with a small number of items. It will be easier for your staff, and you don't want your customers' eyes to glaze over as they stare at the hundreds of items on your menu, wondering what will hit the spot.

You also don't want a bunch of patrons standing around waiting for their order to be filled, and this is where the "make it fast" side of the equation comes in. Quick-serve items are ideal because people usually don't want to stand around and wait. They'd rather pick something up quickly and get back to the real reason they're visiting your facility in the first place—fun, sports and recreation.

Be sure to offer people's favorites. While a great deal of attention has been focused on the need to provide healthier options—and this is something you should take into consideration—never forget that when people are out for a game or recreation, they expect to find certain foods at the concession. One manufacturer reports that the items most likely to sell include popcorn, cotton candy, shaved ice or snow cones, corn dogs, shelf-stable pretzels and more. Drinks are also a necessity. In addition to soda and juices, bottles of water and maybe even coffee are also a good choice.

If you want to expand into more meal-like items, consider a countertop hot dog warmer, or even a small convection oven or sandwich grill. Then you'll be able to offer things like pizza by the slice and paninis, too.

Tip #2: Now Expand Your Stand!

Once you've got your concession running, and the customers are pouring in to pick up popcorn and drinks, you'll want to keep them coming back. It's fairly simple to expand their options without expanding the space you need to prepare and store items.

Do you already offer popcorn? It's not too much of an addition in inventory, machinery and space to add cheese or caramel flavorings. Poof! You've expanded your menu, without expanding your effort.

You can buy prepackaged caramel corn, or you can purchase a machine that will allow you to produce it on site. (Bonus: The odor of fresh caramel corn will draw people in!) And caramel corn, according to one manufacturer, has an average of 72 percent to 82 percent profits.

If you don't want to add machinery or that much inventory, you can make it even simpler by adding shakers with creative seasonings to allow customers to boost their flavor potential. Gourmet options like barbecue flavoring, parmesan cheese and garlic, cinnamon and sugar, or even more exotic curry or chipotle flavors might attract more people.

Want to expand your snow cone and drinks flavors? Try a sour additive. Pairing your snow cone syrups with a sour flavor doubles your customers' options without doubling the inventory you have to store. It can be used in your snow cones, or add it to frozen smoothies and lemonade for an extra kick.

You can also expand by offering more healthy options. How about a bowl of fruits like apples and bananas? And with the simple addition of a blender, you can start making smoothies. These options will please your health-conscious patrons.

When you do add new items, be sure to promote them! People who've never visited your stand before because they don't want the traditional offerings might not ever know that you're now offering something they want if you don't advertise that fact.

Tip #3: Make It Work for You

The good news is that, to a certain degree, your items will market themselves. People will notice other patrons carrying around popcorn, and they might want some of their own. And sometimes just the delicious aromas of certain items will lure people to your stand. And popping corn not only smells good, but the sound will lure people toward your stand.

You can boost the marketing effort further by placing reminders throughout your facility or site that let people know what you're offering. Use eye-catching posters to promote special deals or themes for the season.

At your stand, you can set up displays that further reinforce your marketing effort. Make sure your signage is attractive. Sometimes you can also find machines that boost the look of your stand and your marketing effort as well.

Is your concession located at a school or college? Consider decorating the stand with the team's colors and logos. This is especially important if your stand is raising funds for the team. It serves to remind your customers that this is its purpose.

Another way to theme your stand is by paying attention to the season. As more and more people focus on seasonal foods, you can play into the trend by offering seasonally appropriate items at your stand. How about caramel apples and hot apple cider in the fall? Hot chocolate as the weather turns even colder? Snow cones, smoothies and fresh-squeezed lemonade in the summer?

Take this seasonality one step further and offer items that are specifically themed to go with holidays and events. You could provide orange cotton candy at Halloween. On the 4th of July, you could make red, white and blue snow cones.

Does your facility itself have a theme? Rename your items to fit that theme, or even consider offering foods that fit the theme. For example, if your waterpark has a tropical theme, provide tropical fruit smoothies.

Another way to make it work for you is to combine items and offer "special deals" to up your profits. Offer a variety of sizes, and combine the larger sizes into these deals. Customers will perceive that they are getting a bargain and will spend more to get the combo. There's a reason you find this practice in movie theaters and fast-food joints!


At the Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park, Mich., which the West Michigan Whitecaps call their home base, you can find a 4-pound, $20 burger with five beef patties, five slices of cheese, nearly a cup of chili and salsa and corn chips, loaded onto an 8-inch sesame seed bun. Yowza!

Concessionaires and manufacturers that offer concession equipment point out that when people are away at a game, they often want to indulge in fun foods that are, let's say, less healthy. You might also offer items with jaw-dropping fat and calorie counts, but if you want to please your patrons, you should be sure to include some healthier items as well. Many of your patrons are likely sensitive to this issue and will be happy to find healthy items on your menu.

Ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup have also been making headlines, and many people are conscious of this. The good news is that suppliers are responding, and you can find snow cone syrups, for example, made without HFCS. And you can also find items that are trans-fat-free. Offering these options can be a marketing tool in and of itself, as you can promote the fact that your stand is also health-conscious.

That doesn't mean your entire menu has to be healthy. But people will appreciate a choice.

Also, don't forget that some people have specific food sensitivities or allergies. If you don't have something for everyone, you'll reduce your profit potential.

Other issues to keep in mind:

  • Food allergies and sensitivities like peanut allergies, sensitivity to gluten and others
  • Cultural issues (you should consider kosher items, for example)
  • Dietary preferences (consider providing a vegetarian option)

Tip #4: Make Things Easier on Yourself

If your food-service facility hosts events that require tear-down and setup, you'll want to ease that process as much as possible.

For example, if you're setting up tables for a sit-down event, how much time does it take? What if you could speed up that process? Do you currently use coverings? Good news! You can find hard-wearing tables that need no covering to look beautiful. No linens means easier setup, and quicker cleaning on the back end.

Also look for tables that are lightweight. Not only can you find beautiful finishes, it also will take fewer staff members to set up the tables and tear them down after the event. What's more, they won't take as much storage space.

Look for tables with built-in protection to prevent the tables from damaging one another when you stack them.

If you want to have a more "finished" look, consider skirts that fit your tables. Spandex skirts can be found to complement the beautiful tops of aluminum tables, putting a finishing touch on your event.

Tip #5: Let Someone Else Do It

Managing a concession stand or food-service operation can be a full-time job in and of itself. If you're not up to the task, why not let someone else take care of the hassles?

You can partner with a franchise or branded quick-service concept to offer options that your patrons will recognize. Many of these companies offer foods that are recognized as healthier options.

Make sure you go with a trusted brand. Talk to the representatives from that brand, and ask for referrals to others in similar situations to yours.

What are the benefits of this approach? There are many, but the basics include name and product recognition, an existing customer base and loyalty, existing menus, recipes, operational systems, suppliers and advertising programs. You don't have to start from scratch. When you go with an existing branded concept, you benefit because all of the first steps have already been taken and the systems to operate effectively are already in place.

Depending on the size of your facility, you'll want to find a brand with minimal space and equipment requirements. Something that can be reconfigured to fit just about any space is important. A complex kitchen is not what you need.

You also have the option of either running the facility with the staff you have on hand, or you can lease space to an established local franchisee who will handle the business details. Then you'll just be the landlord and won't have to worry about all the specifics.

Summing Up

You can run your concession stand simply and easily. It does not require a lot of upfront investment to add items that will draw customers by the droves. Often the cost of the investment will be paid off in one or two busy weekends.

And if you don't want to bother with it, it's also fairly simple to just let someone else do it. Then you can get all the benefits of their marketing efforts without trying to become an expert marketer yourself.

Whichever way you go, whatever it is you want to get from your concession operation—funding to support your youth sports teams, an extra boost to your bottom line so you can offer extra programming to the community at a low cost or even profit potential—you can take small steps to reach that goal.

New Item Checklist:

Here is a checklist of basic questions to ask when considering the addition of a new menu item:

  • Will the new item compromise sales of other menu items?
  • Will sales of the new item be comparable in profit percentage to the average menu mix?
  • Will you need to eliminate an item to make room for a new one? (If so, compare the profits of each.)
  • What skill level is required to prepare the item?
  • Is it easy to gauge the production of the new item? In other words, can your staff economically make a few for slow periods and rapidly expand to keep up with periods of high demand?
  • What are the inventory requirements? What logistical problems are involved?
  • Is there dependable service and support for the equipment nearby?
  • How well has this item worked out for a location like your own? Is this documented?
  • Can you have a short test period or trial to prove that the item works?

Source: Gold Medal Products Co.

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