Cal Dining’s stadium menu includes some unusual
football venue options like sushi and hummus. BERKELEY, Calif. — Ten years ago, when Shawn La- Pean was hired at the University of California to take over the university’s dining program, he had a conversation with athletic department administrators about managing concessions at 70,000-seat Memorial Stadium. The meeting was short and not so sweet.
“They told me they’d never hire us,” LaPean recalls.
“Never” turned out to be April 1, when Cal Dining took over the foodservices from Sodexo at the renovated football field. On Sept. 1, LaPean’s staff showed exactly what they could do with a record sales day for the Cal Bears’ home opener against the University of Nevada.
“Our sales were almost triple what they had been at any previous game,” says La-Pean—$331,000, good for a $5.29 per cap, with alcohol. “A lot of it was because we had a lot of new venues to sell food from.” The renovation included the addition of a concessions concourse—none had existed before—and a club level. The stadium now has 82 fixed points of sale and 225 total sale points.
“The fans just hit us hard in the second quarter when we went down 14-0,” he adds, “and it was nonstop until the third quarter began.”
Chance to bid: Cal Dining got the opportunity to bid on concessions as the result of a renovation of the 89-year-old stadium, which began in 2010. (The Bears had to play at AT&T Park while construction occurred.) Last November the athletic department released an RFP for concessions, and on April 1 Cal Dining was awarded a 15-year contract.
In addition to the standard concessions fare—hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn, peanuts, nachos and the like—Cal Dining introduced a number of exotic items such as sushi, hummus and a portobello mushroom sandwich with a special sauce.
“Our consultants were wrong on the sushi and hummus,” says LaPean, explaining that even his concessions manager, John Gibson, expressed doubts about the sellability of those items. “We sold out of sushi and hummus in the second quarter—even though the sushi had a high price point, $10—and we’ve tripled our order of both for our second game.”
LaPean had two basic reasons for wanting Cal Dining to become a concessionaire.
“First, it’s a pretty good way to weave yourself into the fabric of the campus in a whole different way,” he notes. “There is an interconnectivity between college athletics and students, alumni and staff.
“Second, it’s really a revenue-generating strategy that I hope will make up for the fact that we’re going into our third year without a board increase. We’re still making it [financially], we’re still providing raises to staff and management. But I know the way budgets are in California and if we don’t vote for a sales tax in November there are going to be budget cuts all over campus. So you need to grab for the revenue that provides net when you have the opportunity.”
Fringe benefits: Aside from the new revenue stream that athletics provides, there are other benefits Cal Dining will accrue from this new contract, LaPean says.
“The biggest [benefit] was the kitchen in the stadium and the fact that we also assumed responsibility for the kitchen at the basketball arena,” he explains. “Cal Dining has gone from serving 12,000 meals a day to 30,000 and we haven’t been able to expand storage or production space one lick. Our catering was commingled with a dining hall kitchen, and now we’re able to alleviate the pressure on that dining hall with these two kitchens.”
He adds that the stadium kitchen might become the central production space for all catering, which could go a long way to helping Cal Dining grow its burgeoning catering business.
“After we get through our first season this will take us on a whole tangent of growth opportunities,” LaPean says. “When I got here we had $200,000 in catering sales and we’ve built that to about $2 million. This should take us into the $5-to-6 million realm within three years.”
Not that Cal Dining’s first event was a cakewalk. Problems actually began before staff could even get into the venue.
“First of all, we only had five months after getting the bid on April 1,” LaPean says. “Second, the stadium didn’t get turned over to us on Aug. 1 like we expected. We actually got in here Aug. 27. So we had five days to set up the kitchens and work out the logistics of how to get around.”
He attributed the holdup to construction delays; although the stadium was “game-ready” not all the work had been completed.
Game day was a whirlwind of activity. “I thought concessions was going to be like herding cats,” LaPean says. “It turned out to be herding cats and dogs and snakes and sheep, all at the same time. It’s like going to war; you have to be prepared logistically before you open the doors because after that it’s a runaway train.”
One challenge staff encountered was that hot dog steamers had yet to be installed on the concourse. So staff had to cook them in the central kitchen and move them to the stands.
“That became an issue because the concourse isn’t huge and the crowd got so big we couldn’t get around them to service our locations,” he recalls.