Feed the People

Concessions, Food Trucks & Farmers Markets

By Dave Ramont

Whether you're strolling through a neighborhood art show, cheering at your kids' baseball game or cooling off at a splash park, there's a good chance that food is part of the experience. Food and beverage endeavors can help attract people and generate revenue not only for sports and entertainment venues, but parks and cities as well.

"Concession operations that are set up for success not only drive revenue, they enhance the park-user experience," said Rebecca Salvador, marketing director for Profitable Food Facilities Worldwide (PFF). "When we do it right, the public notices. When we do it wrong, the public also notices."

California-based PFF provides industry-specific solutions to the culinary industry, working with parks and rec departments, sports stadiums, health clubs, waterparks and golf courses, among other industries. They consult with clients on many areas of food and beverage operations, project management, sanitation and food handling procedures, kitchen design, staff training and certification.

"We mainly recommend keeping operations in-house," said Salvador. "For the departments that do choose to outsource, we recommend being involved with the vendor. This means negotiating terms that allow the department to see sales reports, have site inspections and—most importantly—open communication."

Josh Grover, national accounts manager for a national manufacturer and supplier of concession equipment based in Cincinnati, said that larger sports venues are often outsourced, while "park and rec operations typically use in-house staff and sometimes even local volunteers such as sports team parents or nonprofits."

It's important for venues to stay up to date on local licensing and certifications, food handling and disposal protocol. Salvador pointed out that staff training is also a critical component. "We have the ability to create the client's manuals, hire the staff, train them on the client's personal standard operating procedures and consult with management on any staffing needs."

Whether the venue is a soccer stadium or a small municipal pool, kitchen design and layout is crucial. PFF states that the average kitchen space can cost more than $400 per square foot, and only about 40% of kitchen cost is for the equipment. "Getting the kitchen design and the equipment right plays a huge role in the capability of the operation," said Salvador, explaining that a common pitfall is poor planning and space allocation. "As we always say, the menu drives design. On a new build, we design for maximum efficiency, and on remodels, we've been known to increase the efficiency of the kitchen by more than 50%, which turns into lower labor cost and higher revenue."

Grover said they also assist venues with menu planning, equipment layout and overall product offerings. "When just starting out, we advise on focusing on core items such as popcorn, hot dogs, candy and pretzels. Then, you can always expand from there. We do offer training on how to properly use the equipment, and clean and maintain it."

Food purveyors are getting increasingly daring with their offerings, and patrons are loving it. "Over the past 10 years, food has become a rising star with the public," said Salvador. "Everyone wants Instagram-worthy food that they're excited to order and happy to eat again and again. There are simple ways we can up the game with our menus, specifically with having a signature item; it has to be something they can only get at your facility."

At Safeco Field in Seattle, there's the Jiminy Crickets—grasshoppers cooked and dusted with chili-lime sauce. The Milwaukee Brewers offer up the Ham Dinger—a pulled pork sandwich served on a donut. In Cleveland there's the Bad to the Bone Bologna, a fried bologna sandwich with the meat cut in the shape of a dog bone, a nod to the Browns' unofficial mascot. Regional offerings include the Pork Rind Chippers at Baltimore's Camden Yards, featuring crab and pork rinds topped with cheese. The Texas Rangers offer Texas Snowballs—shredded brisket dipped in funnel cake batter, deep fried and coated in powdered sugar. Sweet treats include the Apple Pie Nachos at Coors Field in Colorado or the Cotton Candy Waffle Cone at the Buffalo Sabres hockey arena.

Salvador explained that offering vegetarian and vegan items is also important, as the trend for cleaner eating is increasing. "Not only is this inclusive for the meat-free population, it also gives the menu an overall healthier feel to know that these offerings exist."

A venue often builds a base menu with their staple items while occasionally experimenting with limited-time items. Salvador offers three simple rules for adding or removing a menu item: "Does it taste good? Does it make money? Is it executable?"

If you have to sell too many to cover the cost of labor and goods, it's not worthwhile. Additionally, "If it takes too long to produce and holds up the line when we're busy, the throughput is terrible," said Salvador.

Grover said they assist venues with adding new or seasonal menu options, like sno-cones for summer, but cautions that a common problem for smaller concession stands is they try to do too much when first starting out. "With too many offerings, you increase your time in line. Keep lines moving efficiently and keep it simple for the customer."

For venues of all sizes, catering can be a great revenue generator. "Catering for events including weddings, baby showers, quinceaneras and even funerals/celebrations of life is a huge market. We have a system that we've tested for large events of 3,500-plus people. It does work and it can be done," said Salvador.

For holidays or other special occasions, Grover said they also offer assistance. "We can advise on setting up mobile sites outside of a permanent concession stand location."

Grover's company offers a wide variety of equipment, containers and supplies for making concession staples, including fudge, cotton candy, frozen treats, pizza, pretzels, hotdogs, nachos and cheese, funnel cakes and fried foods, waffles and beverages. "By far, popcorn is the most popular item we sell," said Grover. "It's versatile, cost-effective and easy to produce. Profit margins average over 70%."

There are kettles, cookers, tumblers and mixers for making popcorn, cheese corn, caramel corn and kettle corn. Serve it in buckets, cups, bags or boxes. There are oils, glazes and seasonings for making ranch, bacon, jalapeno, grape, cinnamon or dill popcorn. "One of the trends that is most relevant to the park and rec scene is self-serve popcorn machines," said Grover, which offer convenience and save on labor. These cabinets feature a push-button-activated dispenser. For larger venues they offer a dual-auger system, allowing two customers to dispense popcorn at once.

The so-called food truck revolution continues to grow, and while estimates vary, some say the industry is already earning $1 billion annually, with more than 4,000 trucks in operation. Culinary programs are offering classes geared toward managing food truck operations, and the variety of foods available continues to diversify. Cities and parks departments have noticed, and many are either holding annual food truck festivals, offering weekly or monthly food truck nights or just adding trucks to existing events like concerts in the park.

In May 2020, the second annual Naperville (Illinois) Food Truck Festival will take place, featuring a beer garden, live DJ entertainment and a vendor village featuring local businesses. A local children's museum offers hands-on activities. Guests are encouraged to bring lawn chairs or blankets to the expansive lawn area, which also features a playground.

The 30-plus food trucks on hand will offer lobster rolls, Neapolitan pizza, dumplings, gumbo, BBQ and Jamaican jerk concoctions, as well as Asian, Polish, Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine. For the sweet tooth there's funnel cakes, ice cream and shaved ice. And to celebrate Cinco de Mayo weekend, there's the Food Truck Taco Showdown. Several trucks will feature tacos, and attendees can vote online to crown a winner. The fest costs $5 in advance or $10 at the gate, with a portion of proceeds going to charity. And for a little extra, food enthusiasts can purchase the Early Eater tickets, allowing access to the trucks one hour before the official opening.

The Naperville fest is produced by Brew Avenue Events, a Chicago area full-service event management and production company specializing in food truck festivals and craft beer festivals. They offer consulting and concept development, budgeting, food truck recruitment, marketing and social media promotions, vendor sourcing and onsite management which includes set-up, break down, admissions, etc.

"We work with local nonprofits, park districts, municipalities or private venue owners," said Alessandro Vazquez, president of Brew Avenue Events. "We also produce private events for large organizations, neighborhoods/apartment complexes and school districts." Vazquez said they also get inquiries from communities or groups looking to add one or more trucks to an existing event.

Vazquez reports that some food trucks even venture from Wisconsin and Indiana to participate in events. "They find us or we find them, with new ones coming on board every season. Part of our service involves consulting with a client to determine the best trucks and type of cuisine for their market." He explained that different cities and counties regulate and permit food trucks differently, so they also handle those details to ensure all participating trucks are in compliance.

Each food truck event is developed differently, according to Vazquez, and the date, types of trucks being sourced and the type of event will determine how communities can profit. "Plus, it doesn't hurt to have a big group of hungry people descend on your town. We typically hear that local brick & mortar restaurants see a bump in sales on event days."

He added that they like to feature music and local vendors to round out the guest experience. "Having a cool venue helps, as well as having something for kids to do." This might include a face painter, balloon artist or other family activities.

Another way that cities and parks are engaging patrons through food is with farmers markets. And though these gatherings have been around for many years, it seems as if more and more communities of all sizes are finding ways to incorporate them. The Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) is a nonprofit organization with a mission "to strengthen farmers markets for the benefit of farmers, consumers and communities." They offer programs, resources and networking opportunities. "We're especially focused on providing training and technical assistance to market managers and operating organizations, as well as providing a vast array of educational resources, tools and templates," said Stephanie Fenty, operations and communications coordinator at FMC.

For those communities looking to start a farmers market, Fenty mentions some fundamental considerations, starting with location, which is critical to market success. Determine how to legally secure the location, the costs involved, and consider the accessibility for your customer base and vendors.

What about community support? "The most successful markets begin when community members express interest and desire for a farmers market and rally together to make it happen," said Fenty.

Are there regulatory barriers? Will local government and local businesses want to be involved? Fenty suggests conducting feasibility surveys for consumers and businesses to learn more.

Fenty also suggests a feasibility survey for local farmers, to gauge interest and determine their preferred days and times for participating. Also, consider management. "The most successful markets have paid managers and/or coordinators, perhaps along with a board of directors and several market volunteers," said Fenty, adding that you should consider management structure, staffing, budget and the overall mission of your market.

Adrienne Akers Partlow is the market manager for the Kokomo downtown farmers market in Kokomo, Ind., as well as being on the board of directors at FMC, and she mentioned another consideration: "Is there another market close by that would be negatively impacted by a new market? If so, is there a way to work with that market to host your market a different day or in a different way that might set it apart from existing markets while not harming those markets?"

Aside from fresh produce, there are many ways to attract attendees to your market, including educational offerings and cooking demonstrations, which Partlow said they do weekly using in-season produce. "I pick what the focus is and try to choose a fruit or vegetable that's a little bit outside the norm, or a kind of produce that everybody prepares the same way and we show a new way to prepare it." Many times Partlow has witnessed patrons getting a sample and the recipe and then going to purchase the ingredients, increasing vendor sales.

Partlow said their kids club is popular, and broadens their food horizons by giving them a different fruit or vegetable to try each week. "Last year, we challenged kids to eat at least one kind of produce for every color of the rainbow. We also issue $2 in Sprouts Bucks to every child that completes the weekly learning activity and participates in the taste test."

Farmers markets are social gatherings, and according to Partlow, people also love market entertainment as it creates a feeling of being at an event. "We've had a magician perform, a poetry slam, drum circles, belly dancers, cloggers and our civic theater performs songs from musicals they produce. Last year we hosted The Big Latch—an event to bring awareness about breastfeeding. We've had a beer garden with a local brewery and wine tastings too." Sometimes food trucks and a mobile coffeeshop take part. They've also hosted a pet parade and featured pet-focused vendors, offering adoptable pets from local shelters.

Farmers markets can also foster social equity, a key initiative of FMC, and Fenty explained that many more markets are accepting SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. She shares USDA information showing that 7,377 farmers and farmers markets nationwide were authorized to accept SNAP benefits in 2017, more than double the number from 2012. "Many markets even offer doubling programs through government grants, meaning that SNAP recipients can get twice as much fresh food directly from farmers when they shop at these markets."

"Acceptance of these assistance programs helps our community and our vendors, so I don't really give vendors a choice on accepting SNAP, and I make it as easy as possible for them," said Partlow. "They can choose whether to accept WIC (Women, Infants & Children), but I try to influence their decision by bringing in a local WIC coordinator to speak at our yearly vendor meeting and she talks up the benefits of the program."

Farmers markets can also help bring fresh produce to so-called food deserts. For instance, Harvest Home Farmers Market Inc. is an organization working to bring markets to low-income New York City neighborhoods.

Eco-friendliness can be another byproduct of farmers markets. "Reducing plastic bags initiatives, composting and recycling education, and gleaning (donating unsold products to food banks) are some examples," said Fenty. "Not to mention—many of the farmers that sell at markets use sustainable agriculture practices which are much better for the environment."

According to Fenty, winter markets are becoming increasingly common. Partlow said Kokomo operated one for four years before replacing it with a permanent general store concept. "At the winter markets and during the winter at the store we have lots of bath and body and other handmade products, baked goods, meats, eggs, root veggies, potatoes, greens, onions and squash."

Communities can get creative with regard to generating extra revenue from their markets. "In addition to vendor fees, we offer merchandise for sale and host three yearly farm-to-fork fundraisers—a breakfast and lunch at the market and an off-site dinner at season's end," said Partlow. Studies in Iowa and Oklahoma showed that every dollar spent at farmers markets led to an additional $0.58 to $1.36 in sales at other nearby businesses. Plus, the vast majority of farmers buy supplies from local businesses. In Kokomo, all market vendors must grow, make or bake within 50 miles of Howard County.

Food has a way of bringing us together, and cities, parks and entertainment venues of all types are constantly evolving the ways that they use food to enhance our extracurricular activities. And like Orson Welles once said: "Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what's for lunch." RM



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