On-Site Newsmakers: Christopher “C.T.” Nice

On-Site Newsmakers: Christopher “C.T.” Nice

Baseball, hot dogs and apple pie are symbols of Americana that preoccupy many of Christopher “C.T.” Nice’s thoughts. As vice president of food and beverage for Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp.’s Sports and Entertainment division, Nice sets the culinary standards for both the timeless and more innovative offerings at the company’s stadium, arena and convention center accounts.

A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America [3], the 25-year veteran of the food-service industry has managed many on-site accounts and held executive positions at Centerplate. He is also a franchisee of Wolfgang Puck Gourmet Express [4] restaurants in Texas. Earlier this year Nice joined Aramark [5] with the goal of further evolving Aramark’s culinary offerings to increasingly sophisticated and environmentally aware sports fans nationwide.

What are the biggest trends in your segment right now?

In the sports and entertainment world, the most significant change in the last five years has been a much more customer-driven focus on guests. Of late we’ve felt like we have an obligation to deliver the same kind of guest experiences they get in their everyday lives, whether they’re at work or at the shopping mall. Of course, we have a limited amount of infrastructure in which to produce large amounts of food in a short amount of time—specifically [a sporting event’s] half time. One approach is fast-casual concepts, where guests have more choices but [the transactions are] done quickly. The challenge certainly as we develop new projects is to have the opportunity to build an infrastructure where there is some flexibility built in. With old stadiums you can’t move the concrete, so when we’re at newer facilities it will give us a great opportunity to do more experiential things.

AT A GLANCE

Title: vice president of food and beverage, Sports and Entertainment division, Aramark Corp.

Career highlights: opened the Sweetwater country club in Houston, home of the Ladies Professional Golf Association; managed the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York

Hometown: Houston

Education: graduate, The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.

What upcoming projects are you most excited about?

Certainly, Citi Field [scheduled to open in 2009 in New York City] will be a major opportunity. We’re right now working with the New York Mets to develop an environment that will be indicative of New York. … At the end of the day, there is a core set of fans that are diehard and expect hot dogs and cold beer. But baseball [attendance is] growing 10 percent to 24 percent a year, so the more we can do to provide products that are consistent with that expanded demographic the more successful we will be. Our marketing group tracks that data and provides feedback on how we can develop food programs based on the information.

For example, we introduced Pour It On, a beverage [program] that specializes in nonalcoholic beverages. It’s a unique way to offer beverages [at a ballpark]; it’s like walking into a convenience store with an unbelievable assortment of beverages. We’ve discovered people are willing to seek out beverages of their choice, and we’re trying to deliver on that demand. They don’t just want to have it in a cup; they want to drink it the way they want to drink it. They’re at Minute Maid Park, Shea Stadium and Fenway, basically a grab-and-go area with 20 linear feet of energy drinks, unique teas, bottled waters and soft drinks.

Will you introduce the stadium c-store concept into arena locations as well?

We’re looking to, after the first of the year, roll it into [National Hockey League and National Basketball Association] arenas. Current test sites for our arena market are the AT&T Center in San Antonio, the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia and the Pepsi Center in Denver. In addition to it being primarily a beverage initiative—70 percent of the products are beverages—there also are fresh-for-you wraps, salads and deli sandwiches on a 12-item menu as well as retail merchandise, like hats and balls and t-shirts. It’s an all-inclusive, one-stop shop with a focus on impulse purchasing.

What is the most difficult aspect of offering certain products at sports venues?

With stadium and arena business, we operate under a lot of sponsorships, so Aramark has a portfolio of products it provides and the sponsors have products that they provide and our portfolio has to fall under that umbrella. In some cases, we’re left to bring what’s appropriate for that venue. We try to offer selection and work with the sports franchise to promote what they want to accomplish.

How does your division determine what customers want?

We do surveys [that record] consumer data and feedback. What we’re most interested in right now is how behaviors change or modify when people enter [sports] venues. The better we understand that behavior, the more capable we’ll be of delivering their expectations. We want to know why [the fans] do and want certain things. When I ask my own kids what they want at the ballpark, they say hot dogs. Is that normal and commonplace? Is our decision to have 60 percent of vendors selling hot dogs because that’s what [the fans] want, or because we offered nothing else? That data is the next level of understanding of the fans and will set our food strategy for the future.

What kind of concepts will be offered at the new Citi Field stadium?

We’re going to create a New York experience that will offer a taste of Coney Island, a traditional New York deli, plus the Latin and [other ethnic] flavors uniquely associated with New York in a single location. There also will be brands that are recognizable; we’re working on all of those details now. And if we end up with a hamburger sponsor, that will drive the selection process. We’re actually looking at individual restaurateurs, working with a variety of companies and working with the Mets to see if they’re a good fit and [the product is] appropriate. But we do intend to use some New York brands for sure.

How have sports fans’ tastes changed over the years?

I would say our general approach is sustainability, organic, green, local, regional and healthful. [Those] are kind of our filters as we look at each venue [and] integrate that kind of thinking. Well, for example, at Fenway we offer a traditional footprint comprised of everything from Dunkin’ Donuts [6] to kielbasa. But I would say our general approach is to offer sustainable, organic, green, local, regional, healthful options whenever and wherever we can. Where we can add those components, we do.

Where do you see the segment headed in the next five years?

You’re absolutely going to see green everywhere. Our challenge is to ensure that we educate our clients so we have an optimum solution for that environment. It’s a challenge, a lot more difficult than it sounds. In so many of these categories there’s a trade-off and I’m not even mentioning the cost. I definitely think it’s happening. There’s way too much momentum and energy behind it.