Parks and recreation: stadium, theme park and zoo feeding

Operators must balance classic fare with creative meals for hungry customers at stadiums, theme parks and zoos.

pulled pork bacon burger

Forget what the song says: Recreational foodservice isn't just peanuts and Cracker Jack anymore. A desire to innovate and improve on the classics is driving concessions throughout noncommercial, from sports stadiums to theme parks to zoos—and the lessons can extend to other segments. Here’s what a handful of operators around the country are doing now to keep food and beverage options fresh for their customers. 

Twisted classics

At the concessions stand, classics such as hot dogs, pizza and chicken sandwiches are—and seemingly always will be—top sellers, operators say, but many are stepping up the to the plate with offbeat variations and from-scratch condiments.

U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, tested a hot dog topped with Sriracha coleslaw last year as an offbeat alternative to its two top sellers. However, Joey Nigro, Sportservice General Manager for Delaware North, who oversees concessions and retail at the ballpark, it’ll never come close to beating the traditional Chicago-style hot dog or the caramelized onion-topped dog.

Brad Robertson, executive chef at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens agrees that the staples are here to stay. “Chicken tenders and burgers are going to be your No. 1 sellers no matter where you are,” he says. He and his team have responded by foregoing premade patties and products and going housemade for items such as hand-battered and fried chicken fingers.

As food and beverage director of the Charleston RiverDogs minor league baseball team in South Carolina, Joshua Shea offers eight to 10 signature hot dogs on his menu, featuring a new specialty dog each season. “Kinda like baseball tryouts. Our customers have developed an interest into seeing what [we’ll] do next,” he says. In April, the park debuted a kimchi hot dog that combines  Southern- and Asian-inspired flavors in a spicy fermented cabbage, shredded raw collard greens and sweet picante pepper topping, finishing the dog with a zigzag of soy and toasted sesame dressing. “Kimchi has  a rising trend ... This is why we wanted to pair with a low-country staple,” says Shea. “The response has been great.” 

Customers can have a role to play when it comes to upgrading the classics. “Annually, we host a signature sandwich competition where guests are able to participate in a taste-off and vote on their favorite sandwich,” says Ashley B. Horowitz, dining marketing manager at University of South Florida’s Sun Dome in Tampa, Fla. Most recently, the Surf and Turf sandwich—Italian sausage topped with hot crab dip and mozzarella—won fan favorite, and will be offered for the full 2015-16 basketball season.

35th street tacos

Street-food inspirations

At U.S. Cellular Field, a recent ticketholder survey indicated tacos were one dining option customers would most like to see added, says Nigro. For inspiration he turned to the ballpark’s Tex-Mex carts, which feature nachos topped with pork carnitas and beef barbacoa. “We’ve had a really good reaction with those, and street tacos were just a natural progression,” Nigro says. The same meats now are offered in tacos made with tortillas freshly griddled in front of the customer on a flat-top grill then topped with cilantro and onion. The made-to-order presentation is an important part of the experience, Nigro says. “The line might grow, but people know they are getting a fresh product.”

Both the Los Angeles Zoo and Phoenix Zoo have had a positive response to the recent introduction of elotes, Mexican-style grilled corn dressed with chili, mayonnaise and citrus juice. Reaction to Hispanic street food generally has been good, Robertson says; at the L.A. Zoo, he tops sweet heirloom corn with mayo, peppadew powder, cotija cheese and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Over-the-top eats

While the classics have wide appeal, increasingly, the items that draw attention to a menu—and help make the concessions counter a destination—are indulgent, jaw-dropping portions and presentations. At Legoland Florida, Firehouse Ice Cream, a fire department-themed dessert shop, serves a massive, shareable treat called the Rescue Squad Sundae. Featuring four scoops of ice cream over a brownie or cookie, the sundae includes a choice of two toppings and sauces; among the options are classic hot fudge, fruity cereal loops or cheesecake pieces.

Among the wackier items in rotation on minor-league baseball menus: The Moby Dick—a hoagie roll stuffed with five fish filets, clam strips, fries and coleslaw—at the Lake County Captains ballpark in Eastlake, Ohio, and a Deep Dish Pizza Burger at TicketReturn.Com Field, home of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in South Carolina.

craft beer

Local sourcing

Following  the lead of restaurants and bars, parks and stadiums are upping their offerings of local craft beers. “For a long time [at minor league ballparks] ... the focus was on dollar beers, dollar hot dogs,” to drive ticket sales, says Andy Milovich, president and general manager of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Now there’s a focus on the entire experience, including high-quality local beers alongside big-name domestics.

Last year, the Pelicans’ stadium grew its own hops in a garden area called Hops Heaven and partnered with a local brewery to produce a custom white pale ale, Pelicans Summer Tide, only available at the park. That’s not to say the team has abandoned drink specials; 10 taps feature a rotating lineup of local craft beers and $2 drafts on Tuesdays.

Local, sustainable sourcing is especially important at zoos and aquariums, Robertson says. “The message coming from the zoo side is conservation and preservation,” he says. “The food does taste better when it comes from close by.” At the L.A. Zoo, he follows sustainable seafood guidelines set by Monterey Bay Aquarium. For example, shrimp for a couscous salad is sourced from Washington state instead of using farmed product from Asia. 

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