With baseball season upon us, images of hot dogs and popcorn are starting to dance in the minds of fans nationwide. Shio ramen and short rib? Not so much.
But that’s exactly what you’ll find in some parks this year as stadiums around the country continue to up the concessions game. Companies like Levy Restaurants, a catering outfit based in Chicago, employ a well-orchestrated team of chefs and recipe developers working behind the scenes to bring creative, restaurant-quality food options to more than 25 major- and minor-league baseball parks around the country.
When I walk into the corporate offices on busy Michigan Avenue, I’m greeted by members of the strategy and concessions teams, as well as regional chef Ron Krivosik — who had prepared a mountain of stadium snacks on the test-kitchen table. From a heaping pile of bone-in short ribs to a bowl of creamy IPA-infused pub cheese, I realize I’ll be tasting foods that stretch far beyond the basic Wrigley Field Italian beef. “I hope you’re hungry,” Krivosik declares proudly.
In today’s technologically driven landscape — where bars and home-entertainment systems make sports an enjoyable experience outside the ballpark — one of Levy’s main goals is to create an impetus for fans to trek to the stadium. Food, of course, is one of the main ways to achieve this. “When teams do season ticket-holder surveys, the number-one satisfaction contributor to guest experience is food and beverage,” says Alison Weber, executive vice president of strategy and innovation. “We want to give people something more to talk about than just the winning and losing.”
Tom Funk, vice president of concessions, estimates that about 80 percent of every year’s menu remains static, featuring nostalgic ballpark classics: hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn, nachos and peanuts. These American comfort foods are not only classics, they’re demanded, meaning they are also the first priorities for Krivosik’s annual planning. “I always ask the teams, ‘What is your favorite food your mom makes?’” the chef says. “You want that comfort food with baseball, and being able to have that experience with 40,000 people is pretty neat.”
Funk digs into half a saucy Buffalo chicken sandwich piled high with blue cheese slaw — one of this year’s new offerings — as the group jokes about the “Levy 15” each employee gains when they start at the company. The other 20 percent of the menu changes from season to season, giving the innovation teams and chefs a chance to have a little fun. “We pool data from wherever we can get our hands on it,” he says.
After looking at guest sentiments on social media and review sites like Yelp to see how people are responding to the food experience, and combining that information with market and sales data from each park, the analytics team then makes sense of it all to home in on “solid, insightful decisions.” New menu items are imagined, created, tested and tweaked year-round.
National food trends play an important role in the menu development process, Weber says. Right now one such trend is the increased globalization of flavors. “People are tasting so much more now, traveling more, and the younger generations are so much more keen on different flavor profiles,” she says. “Whether it’s tacos or barbecue, we get a lot of our ideas from what’s going on in the world, then we figure out how to have that make sense for a stadium.”
Take this year’s ramen addition, for example. Chef Krivosik lights up when talking about the new stations that will be set up in clubs and concessions areas. Purists might scoff at the idea of traditional Japanese ramen at the ballpark, but as Krivosik loads up a to-go bowl with noodles and broth, meat, veggies and herbs, I feel myself warming to the idea. The execution is spot-on, with tender noodles and a rich, salty broth rich with slow-cooked depth. I could totally eat this during a baseball game.
Funk explains that with modern stadium experiments like ramen, a great deal of research is needed to figure out which markets will fully embrace them. He anticipates piping-hot bowls of noodles flying off the shelves in Los Angeles and Chicago, but in Texas, where temperatures reach into the 100s during peak season, behemoth slabs of slow-cooked short rib served on the bone (the chef calls them “Shorty Longbones”) just make more sense.
Innovation teams also aim to capture regional flavors to make each ballpark a unique destination for locals and tourists alike. “Talking to fans in different places is a big thing,” Weber says. “We discover what items the city connects with, then find a way to bring them into the business that makes the most sense.” In Dallas, fans will enjoy frozen margaritas, chorizo-spiked queso and pecan-pie cupcakes. In Arizona, this year’s star will be the Churro Dog, a decadent combination of cinnamon-laced churro stuffed into a long, chocolate-frosted doughnut sliced lengthwise like a bun and topped with whipped cream, chocolate and caramel sauces and frozen yogurt. Ice cream will melt too quickly in the heat, Weber says. See? Research.
Outlandish items may leave a mark on fans, but despite eerily accurate data and innovative chefs, not every item is a home run. “We can do BBQ all day long because it’s comfort food and everyone loves it. No one wanted the Chinese five-spice potato chips,” he shrugs. “Oops.” Maybe not as surprisingly, sushi wasn’t a big hit either, but Funk says it’s all part of the process. “If we nail the 80 percent and do that really well, the other 20 allows us to fail a couple of times, and that’s okay.”
And sometimes they land on a surprise smash hit. “Kale used to be a garnish on salad bars. Now people are juicing it; they’re eating it in salads,” Krivosik says. “At one of our stadiums, concessions goes through eight cases a day. And that’s in general seating, not a premium area. It’s all clean, chopped, served in salads.”
Whether it’s a Churro Dog at a Diamondbacks game or a Buffalo chicken sandwich at PNC Park, Levy’s main focus is developing food programs that create memorable experiences. “We learned a long time ago that we can’t control the outcome on the field,” Funk says. “So instead we look at how we can drive people to the park despite what happens in the game. People come to ballparks as a social experience now, and food has allowed us to do that.”
As we wrap up our grand tasting, Krivosik asks about my favorite new menu item. Truthfully, I walked away with a full stomach and fond memories of that insane Churro Dog. I wouldn’t have one every day, but it’s certainly something I’d look forward to checking out at the stadium. Sounds like Levy achieved their goals with at least one new customer.
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