Bridgestone Arena is home to the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators, the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament and a variety of events and concerts year-round. The arena—affectionately known as Smashville (population 17,113)—is part of the heart of a booming Nashville, with its influx of new residents and a creative food scene to match. Here, fans will find not only their tried-and-true arena favorites but also unique offerings that elevate the event-dining experience. Read on for a look at how they deliver on both sides of that coin.Nominate an FSO of the Month
The extent to which Gnann and his team test the waters depends on the eatery, as Bridgestone offers different types of dining experiences. First, there’s traditional concession and retail spaces, ranging from grab-and-go outlets to full-service sit-down bars. The arena also has premium seating, an all-inclusive experience that comes with a variety of food—and lots of it.
“In the concession environment, people are walking up and spending their hard-earned dollars,” Gnann says. “So, this is where I like to offer the basics—we’ll always have your hot dog, chicken fingers, popcorn—but also combine things in unexpected ways.”
Those surprising mashups include items such as barbecue grilled cheese made with housemade smoked meats. When Bridgestone introduced the specialty grilled cheese concept four years ago, there was concern over whether it would take off in an arena setting. But it’s become a fan favorite, with hundreds of grilled cheeses sold each game.
“We’re already smoking our own meats, so once you say, OK, we’re making a great grilled cheese, it’s easy to slide those things together,” Gnann says. “You’ve elevated your price point and created something exciting for the guest in a way that is really not difficult [operationally].”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Mixing it up
Finding the right execution can take trial and error, Gnann says. When he first came to Bridgestone, he wanted to create an authentic Nashville “hot chicken” dish. But the team quickly found fans didn’t want a meat-on-the-bone entree, as it was messy and too hard to handle. So they developed new options with the arena seats in mind: a traditional hot chicken sandwich, hot chicken with a waffle “bun” and hot chicken tenders.
“Sales tripled or quadrupled just by us changing the way it was served,” Gnann says. “It showed me you always have to be thinking about how people will eat this: Is it portable? Is it kid-friendly? You have to check things against your sales and not hang your ego on it.”
The all-inclusive premium seating at Bridgestone is both a greater challenge and an opportunity for more creativity, Gnann says. He estimates 75%-80% of these fans are season ticket holders, so with repeat guests who come back year after year, “you have to keep it interesting.”
During the Predators’ hockey season, Gnann ups the variety by creating menus around the cuisine of the opposing team’s hometown. That’s crispy wings and beef on weck when Buffalo is visiting, Sunday gravy and meatballs for New Jersey and a Cuban-inspired menu during games against Miami’s team.
The intimacy of the premium dining experience emboldens Gnann because he can “educate,” he says. One year, during Mardi Gras, the dinner buffet included something surprising: fresh pancakes with fruit compote, whipped cream and bananas foster. He’d discovered a New Orleans tradition to gorge on pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before people began fasting for Lent. “Sometimes, you have to do those table touches and plant a couple seeds to help people make the connection,” Gnann says. “Then you hear people telling the person next to them, ‘This is because of Shrove Tuesday! Awesome!’”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Fans at the forefront
For Tim Donegan, general manager at Bridgestone Arena, these kinds of special experiences are integral to success. “It’s important for us to understand that coming to Bridgestone, to Smashville, is an experience: It’s electric, it’s fun, it’s fan-focused,” he says. “We want fans to have the best experience in the NHL and a great time in Nashville. So, our foodservice has to mimic that, from our menu selections to our hospitality to our speed of service.”
On the topic of speed, Bridgestone’s big investment last year was a new POS system and self-order kiosks. Nine retail locations now include self-ordering, with six of them offering traditional ordering as well. For other arenas and operations in general looking to make improvements, Donegan recommends staffers “get out into the seats and talk to customers. I can tell you our season-ticket holders here love to tell you what they like and what they don’t.”
Gnann, the executive chef, advises drawing inspiration from the surrounding area and executing new ideas by identifying small pockets of opportunity. “Find that one place you can experiment—that underperforming stand or entree—and do something new,” Gnann says. “We serve 16,000 or 17,000 people a game, but it takes only 200 sales for us to make a little portable cart successful. If you can find that small opportunity to make an improvement, that is success.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Meet the FSD: Tim Donegan
General Manager at Bridgestone Arena
Q: What are your goals for the coming year?
No. 1, be part of a championship team and an integral part of what they do. We want to use what we do to increase the guest experience at Bridgestone and make it special for them with new items, new methods of service and new improvements in concept design.
Q: What is it that makes your operation excel?
[That] we’re not afraid to try new things. We do the core, foundational work really well, and I think that gives us the confidence to experiment. Also, our people reflect what’s going on in Nashville right now: It’s booming, people are excited, and one of the consistent comments I get from guests is how friendly our people are. I think that’s very important to any business, but especially to us here in Nashville. Friendliness goes a long, long way in our business and our city.Nominate an FSO of the Month