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Centerplate brings customization to the masses

Nation’s Restaurant News speaks with Bob Pascal, chief marketing officer of the sports, convention and entertainment venue foodservice provider

Centerplate — a non-commercial foodservice company specializing in sports, convention and entertainment venues — has introduced several new better-for-you initiatives.

Snacksmart is a line of more healthful options, such as certified gluten-free raw vanilla maple almonds, and Popcorners — a low-calorie butter-flavored popcorn snack that the company, which provides food and beverage services to more than 250 locations across the country, says “offers a chip-like experience.”

Kids’ Snacksmart options include Funky Monkey fruit chips and low-calorie potato chips.

During the recent Super Bowl at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Centerplate teamed up with Farm Aid to use local, organic ingredients for pork, beef and vegetarian chili. For each serving sold, $2 went to Farm Aid.

Nation’s Restaurant News recently spoke with chief marketing officer Bob Pascal about Centerplate’s new initiatives.

What research has Centerplate done regarding guest preferences?

Over the past two years, we’ve done more than 5,000 deep-dive surveys to find out what are the drivers of a great experience, and it’s allowed us to better position our offerings and take a leadership position in trends, and then creating fun, interesting programs against those.

What did the company learn?

One of the most overarching things we learned is that often the food and beverage experience is somewhat disconnected from the entertainment experience. It’s almost like, ‘Time out from the game or concert experience, I’m going to wait in line for my food, and then we’re back in the action.’

So one of our overarching trends is creating that connection with the food and beverage with the experience itself.

The other interesting thing is that we’re certainly seeing that people are much more interested and aware of what they’re eating, whether it’s calories or where their food’s from. But when they’re eating with us, it’s mostly an award.

That might bring us to the chili at the Super Bowl. What we’re celebrating is Hoosier hospitality, and we wanted to do that same thing through our menus.

When you look at chili, it’s a classic tailgate food, nationally. How do we translate that into Indiana? And what we did was think, ‘OK, Midwest, farming culture, how do we tap into that in a meaningful way?’ And that’s where we found Farm Aid. That allowed us to tap into Indiana farmers that could fit into our needs in terms of quality and quantity. We were able to infuse the game with a celebration of Indiana and its farms.

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If the food is an award, what was the thinking behind Snacksmart?

By and large, fans aren’t eating salad. But with Snacksmart, an adult or an adult purchasing for a child has the opportunity to purchase something that’s healthier, that’s a little bit better, but that’s still part and parcel of the overall experience.

When we’ve done these surveys [we’ve found] that this is definitely a time of reward. We’re there to be respectful of that, and we have to see how we can translate those trends into an acceptable format.

What else did the surveys reveal?

Our way forward is better segmenting of our audience. I mean, typically in a stadium of 70,000 people, there’s one menu. Maybe it’s obvious in hindsight, but to truly connect with people we have to look at these subsegments. Are they coming with family? Are they corporate? Are they seeking value, or is this a super time of award? And there’s the vegetarian and gluten-free groups.

Right now we’re up to about seven segments, and actually they vary regionally, from the [Denver] Broncos to the [San Diego] Chargers, and perhaps more apparently Broncos to [Seattle] Mariners — football versus baseball.

There’s something so parochial about [sports venues]. You’re rooting for your team, but you’re also rooting for your city. So we can’t have a vinegar-based barbecue where it should be a mustard-based barbecue. We have to figure out how to integrate regionalization with standardization, and we have to find the right balance. When they bite into the barbecue sandwich, it has to be right. They’re not looking for a global experience; they’re looking for a local experience.

Then there’s pre-game, early game, half time or third inning. Then there’s moving into dessert, then post-game. Then there’s in-seat versus going to a stand, portable versus programming. We’re really segmenting into our audiences and opportunities, and then programming the building to handle those efficiently. It’s much more scientific than most people would realize, serving 70,000 people as individuals. Think about engineering a 200-seat restaurant with three table turns.

How does Centerplate execute that from an operations standpoint?

The secret to our success from an innovation perspective … We’re so integrated between marketing and operations that it really allows us to develop ideas, refine them, either beta test them or just launch them with a high degree of success. The integration allows us to find the trend in the consumer data, translate that into a program, and then quickly and successfully field that into the market.

With the chili [at the Super Bowl], we went from the idea to the Bowl within four weeks. We didn’t test this in a backyard barbecue; we launched it at the greatest stage in sports.

With Snacksmart it was a little bit more time, more players, and we launched 12 different products in 80 buildings using eight manufacturers in under 12 weeks.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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