The primary elections have ended, and all political eyes are turned to the 2016 Republican and Democratic national conventions. Tens of thousands of politicos, delegates, reporters and visitors will flock to Cleveland and Philadelphia, respectively, in July—and someone has to feed them all.
Below, FoodService Director takes a sneak peek behind the scenes at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, which seats more than 20,000 people. The logistics for the Republican National Convention have been coming together for more than a year, says Audrey Scagnelli, national press secretary for the committee on arrangements. Next week, we’ll check in with the Democrats to see how their plans are shaping up.
On the convention’s focus on local
Aramark, the vendor for Quicken Loans Arena, will play a big role in feeding the masses; but organizers wanted to highlight the sense of community pride within the host city at the convention’s four main feeding locations, Scagnelli says. The RNC surveyed more than 50 area caterers to gauge their capacity—they had to previously have catered an event for at least 5,000 people—and 14 were chosen for a tasting event in February. Twelve companies, including Bubba’s Q, owned by former Cleveland Browns player Al “Bubba” Barker, eventually were selected to serve everything from boxed lunches to large-scale banquets. “I’ve been personally blown away by the Cleveland food scene at large,” Scagnelli says. “I think our attendees are going to be very well-fed.”
Working with the largest variety of caterers in RNC history, Scagnelli says, means increased menu options. Politicians and news organizations, some of whom will arrive on-site a week before the convention, will be able to order from multiple caterers in their hospitality suites. Caterers either will be provided with a cooking space or a build-out space, and while Scagnelli recognizes the challenges they’ll face working in a new environment, “We’re working with people who are pros,” she says.
On the unique challenges of foodservice at a political convention
While there are a lot of similarities to any other high-attendance convention when it comes to catering and logistics, security at the RNC is paramount. All vendors were required to supply references and submit to background checks, Scagnelli says, and the RNC has been working with Secret Service and the Food and Drug Administration to “ensure the safety and security of food.”
The Cleveland event also will be the first GOP convention featuring an outdoor experience. The courtyard between the arena and Progressive Field—where the NBA’s Cavaliers hold their playoff Fan Fest events—will be dubbed Freedom Plaza, and it will feature catering, live music and American-made goods. “The whole thing will be like an outdoor party,” Scagnelli says. “It’s the first time everything will be in one spot and accessible.
On the worst-case scenario that keeps organizers up at night
“In Tampa [during the 2012 RNC,] there was a hurricane. There are no hurricanes in Ohio to my knowledge, so that’s a plus,” Scagnelli says. But while a natural disaster may not be in the cards, there’s another force of nature to be reckoned with: LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Game 6 of the NBA Finals was held Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena, which meant only so much RNC prep could be done. “It’s the first time in convention history that we’ll have four weeks to completely transform a basketball arena into the spot for a major political event,” she says. “It’s really required us to have a plan to use every hour wisely and think creatively to make sure it can work.” But, Scagnelli adds, organizers are used to having a Plan A, B and C in place, so they’ve been able to expend some energy rooting for the home team.