March Madness is an annual highlight for college sports fans, but last year’s cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament was one of the first casualties of the coronavirus lockdown.
Happily, the 2021 games are a go, scheduled to begin on Thursday in Indianapolis. This is the seventh time Lynda Fonderoli, general manager for Centerplate at Lucas Oil Stadium, is leading the foodservice team for the Final Four and the third time the stadium is hosting it. She and her staff are more than ready for what will be a different sort of experience.
“This year, the stadium will be at 25% capacity, but that’s still about 8,000 people in the stands,” says Fonderoli. “We have strict protocols in place to keep both staff and fans safe.”
The team is preparing food and beverage service for 15 games over eight event days, which includes the Final Four and a number of games leading up to it. On each game day, 400 employees will report for work, with 3,000 in total working over the length of the tournament.
Centerplate is following the Rise with Sodexo program initiated during COVID to assure maximum safety. It includes individually packaged flatware and closed, single-serve containers, portion-controlled condiments and cashless POS systems set up in the stands. Social distancing marks are clearly indicated throughout the venue, and employees must wear masks and gloves, and get daily temperature checks.
The menu also had to be adapted to this new service style, says Fonderoli: “We eliminated anything that didn’t hold well, like our taco trio, and streamlined the menu so fans can move through the line faster.”
Centerplate Executive Chef Shimelis Adem focused on fan favorites and local flavors to create memorable menu items. Highlights include Indiana Whiskey Sour Pork Wings, featuring locally sourced smoked pork with a whiskey-orange marmalade glaze; a Heartland Beer Cheese Steak Sandwich topped with cheese fondue made with Sun King Brewing ale; and a Hoosier Fried Chicken Sandwich with pimento cheese on a fresh-baked brioche bun.
Ancient grain bowls, bell peppers loaded with plant-based meat and a sweet chili glaze, and several salads are non-meat options on hand. And for dessert, there are sugar cookies decorated with team logos and basketball themes created by Cute as a Button, a Carmel, Ind., bakery.
Several new cocktails will add to the festivities as well. A Blueberry Moscato Spritzer uses sparkling wine from an Indiana winery, and the March Madness features bourbon from a local distillery.
Chef Adem is also bringing a taste of the tournament to fans watching the games at home. He created digital recipe cards for some of his signature condiments, including Whiskey and Orange Marmalade, Mango Habanero Madness Sauce and Applewood Smoked Bacon Jam. These will be promoted on social channels during the games.
“The chef created all the menu items, but we all met to review the menu and do tastings,” says Fonderoli. “Our focus was to get Indiana flavor out there and use local vendors.”
Fonderoli got a taste of operating under the new protocols during the 2020 NFL season, when the Colts played all their home games in Lucas Oil Stadium. She credits her “laid-back management style” for her success in adapting and keeping things running smoothly.
“I lead by example and completely trust all my employees until there’s a reason not to,” she says.