When it comes to sports and food, John Sergi has always been a fan. As a young boy, he helped his grandmother in the kitchen, and at the age of 11, he got his first foodservice job. Later in life, he worked as a certified tennis instructor. A friend ultimately helped Sergi connect the dots by asking him to consult on the foodservice for a tennis tournament he had started. That request sent him back to school, and when he graduated from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration in 1989, he went into business as a sports food-service consultant. Today he says his mission is foodservice in stadiums “approached, managed and directed with the same emphasis that is placed on the sports business.” One of his most recent projects was Citi Field, the new home of the New York Mets baseball team. When the new stadium opened this season, it featured food offerings from some of the city’s best-known restaurateurs, including Danny Meyer, Drew Nieporent and Dave Pasternack.
What has been the problem with foodservice at stadiums?
Sports and food is a pretty young business. The role of food [in stadiums] has been pretty simple: Make money by selling food. And essentially it hasn’t changed much. When you think about the perspective of food in sports, it remains pretty tactical. However, I think you can make more money from food than off food.
What are some of the misconceptions restaurateurs have about stadium feeding?FAST FACTS
BIRTH DATE: Nov. 21, 1953HOMETOWN: Charlotte, N.C., and Cape Cod, Mass.EDUCATION: bachelor’s degree, Widener College; master’s degree, Cornell School of Hotel AdministrationPERSONAL: married; two children
The first [misconception] is that they’re going to make a lot of money. When you think about the nature of this business, you’re doing 80 percent of your sales in 20 percent of the time. There’s a perception that because the sales volumes are high that there’s a lot of money to be made. It’s a costly affair to do it well. The food industry in sports operates on much thinner margins than the restaurant industry as a whole.
What do restaurateurs stand to gain by getting involved with sports venues?
You can really make a lot of friends. When people come to these events, they’re generally in a pretty good mood. If you’re part of that by giving them a really good hamburger or fish sandwich, it’s a good thing. It puts a good shine on your business. The [restaurateurs] at Citi Field like sports. They’ve gone to stadiums and asked the questions we all have: Why can’t this be better? The opportunity to do something like this is fun for them. I think that’s the case with a lot of restaurateurs. You will make a little bit of money if you manage [your operations] properly. And you have a heck of a good time.
How can a restaurateur get into stadium foodservice?
Generally, the first introduction comes via the team. It sometimes happens that some of the major [sports] foodservice companies end up having relationships with restaurateurs. It can also come from a restaurateur being a huge fan or a team owner being a fan of the restaurant. Those that are financially driven first and foremost, those deals usually don’t work well because their expectations are inflated. Those who are passionate about it come out with a lot more.