How the coronavirus will change stadium foodservice

When they reopen, sports and entertainment venues must hit the reset button and adapt to the new normal.
Photograph: Shutterstock

It’s still too early to predict when fans will once again fill the seats in stadiums and arenas. But when they return, the foodservice at these venues will have to be quite different to meet the expectations of both customers and employees.

It goes without saying that enhanced sanitation and safety will be priorities, but “the comeback is not all about sanitation,” says Mike Plutino, CEO of Food Service Matters, a consulting group for professional and collegiate sports operations. “The solution has to be more holistic and far-reaching.”

To begin, employees have to feel comfortable about returning to work. In developing plans with stadium and arena teams, Plutino recommends daily wellness checks to make sure workers feel safe. The coronavirus crisis also provides an opportunity to push the business forward and train staff on frictionless, contactless service. “Although it’s unintended, this is a good time for foodservice to move out of the cash business into contactless transactions,” he says.

Along with debit and credit cards, Apple Pay will become more prevalent, he predicts.

To speed up service, sports and entertainment venues should adopt mobile ordering and order-ahead capabilities with designated pickup times. It will no longer be acceptable for customers to form long lines at popular kiosks or crowd around food and drink counters.

Local restaurants currently operate in sports and entertainment venues, but Plutino recommends multiplying these partnerships to save and rebuild restaurants hard-hit by the pandemic. “The restaurant community was decimated in many markets with sports teams,” he says. “Most stadiums have portable programs that make it relatively easy to set up and start up, selling a few signature menu items.” Creating brand awareness in large venues also serves as free marketing exposure, Plutino says.

Shifting the financial equation is key to making this work, with the venues taking a smaller cut so local restaurant partners can earn more profit from food and drink sales, Plutino says. And menu items sold from stadium-managed outlets should be priced more gently, along the lines of the fan-friendly or street pricing initiated by some NFL teams last year. “The teams and stadiums have to demonstrate how glad they are to welcome fans back,” he says.

smartphone contactless payPhotograph courtesy of FSM

The way food is served is also going to change, at least in the short term. Condiment stands will disappear, replaced by individual packets of mustard, ketchup and mayo, and communal containers of relish and chopped onions should be a thing of the past. In the luxury suites and dining clubs at sports and entertainment venues, lavish buffets and spreads won’t seem as appealing to a public that just experienced a pandemic.

But Plutino is optimistic about the future of foodservice at stadiums and arenas. “Food and drink is second in importance to the fan experience [just after the games themselves] for college and professional sports,” he says.


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