A Grand Stand
Adding Some Mmmm to Your Concessions Menu
There was a time in my life when I thought nothing of flipping two-dozen burgers in one overheated swoop across a jumbo-sized, park-district-issue charcoal grill. I could sizzle up perfectly crispy french fries, pack a snow cone to perfection and tell a Snickers from a Butterfinger based solely on the length of the package (I couldn't even be bothered to look). No swimmer having a snack attack or bigwig out for a corporate picnic in the park was any match for me. After all, I was fueled by all the diet soda I could drink. I was a concession-stand diva.
We did a thriving business back in my high-school summer days, and I'd imagine the line still snakes around the side of the building when it's lunchtime at the pool. Some snacks just never go out of style. However, times have changed in the I'm-not-saying-how-many years since I last donned my navy blue apron and stocked the ice bin for a shift in the stand. To keep up with the times—and keep your concessions menu at its crowd-pleasing, profit-generating finest—you may want to spice things up via some new equipment and expanded offerings. However, lending new life to your snack stand fare could be as simple as an influx of flavor or some new surroundings.
Snacks, they are a changin'
One of the first points to consider when seeking some 'zazz for your menu is the fact that it's a brave, healthy new world—a world where corn chips, Coke and a candy bar no longer pass as an acceptable lunch (not that this menu was ever held in high esteem outside the teen set). They're kicked soda out of schools, as "a bold step forward in the struggle to help 35 million young people lead healthier lives," as former President Bill Clinton pontificated last spring.
The American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation have joined forces as the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and it's not likely they'll stop after shifting school beverage options to water, juice and low-fat milk (OK, and diet soda for high schoolers).
"The Alliance is focusing on the issues that contribute to childhood obesity and influence children's lifestyles," explains an Alliance press release. "Working with restaurants, manufacturers of packaged foods, food-service companies and the fitness industry, we will make changes that encourage healthier eating and more exercise."
How long will it be until they have park district and sports concession stands in their sights? Hard to say. In Los Angeles, the Department of Recreation and Parks already is required to stock healthy choices in 25 percent of its vending-machine space.
"This is not yet required for food vendors," says Michael Honan, concession manager for the L.A. park district. "But it's in discussion."
Rather than an ominous cloud of gathering sugar and fat obliteration, why not look at this trend toward good-for-you grub as an opportunity? Keep ahead of the curve and watch happy parents flock to your counter to buy treats for their tots—and select something for themselves.
Also keep in mind our country's burgeoning vegetarian crowd and increasingly sophisticated palates, which may be hungry for more exotic options than hot dogs, even during a day of all-American baseball or splashing in the pool.
"Vegetarian living has become more mainstream," notes Nancy Berkoff, a chef and an editor of the Vegetarian Journal's quarterly Foodservice Update. "More people are traveling and wanting the predominantly vegetarian ethnic cuisines—Indian, Thai, Central American—they sampled while traveling."
So what does all this mean for the concession stand?
Explore your inner vegetarian
The veggie-centric angle provides lots of easy options to adjust your menu in ways that may enable you to attract a new segment of the population (those whose lips shall never touch hot dogs...unless they're tofu), as well as offering healthier choices.
Start simple, suggests author Jennifer Raymond, who has written about introducing vegetarian choices for the Vegetarian Journal. Does your menu already include meatless items, such as baked potatoes, veg-only pizza, or macaroni and cheese? If so, just pointing out these veggie choices may lure new consumers. (But be sure there's no chicken or beef broth lurking as a "hidden" ingredient before you do.) Other easy changes to consider include swapping vegetable oil for animal fat in your fryers; leaving the meat off the pizza slices; and opting for baked beans without the pork, bean-only chili and fat-free refried beans (all of which are meatless).
When you're ready to take it to the next level, cook up a few meatless hot dogs and a smattering of veggie burgers—on a separate grill or at least a separate area of the grill.
"Depending on the ability of your staff [and the type of concessions you're looking to offer] they can prepare or purchase vegetarian lasagna, veggie tamale pie or grilled portobello mushrooms," Berkoff suggests. If you're not sure where to find these sorts of ingredients, check with your current food-service provider. You may be pleasantly surprised, as more and more vendors offer a healthy or vegetarian division.
However, what's likely to have the biggest impact on the success of your new veggie venture is how you sell it.
"Healthy items should be on the menu for umpteen different reasons everyone knows about, but how you offer them is a whole other thing," explains Johanna McCloy, founder and director of Soy Happy! (www.soyhappy.org), an organization that encourages baseball stadiums to offer alternative snacks. "Saying they're healthy doesn't necessarily make people want to buy them. Don't just call it what it is, make it sound fun. Let the name do the selling work, and just have a little asterisk to say it's healthy [or vegetarian]."
A stellar example of this sly strategy is the Greenhouse concession stand at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park—affectionately referred to as "The Joe," home of the RiverDogs (a minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees) in Charleston, S.C.—where health-conscious, or just fun-seeking, fans can chow down on a Grateful Dead Dog (a veggie dog covered in hummus and Jamaican relish, then rolled in flatbread and served as a wrap), The Elvis (a peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich), organic blue chips, trail mix, fruit and veggie trays, hummus and pita chips, and more.
"It wouldn't be realistic to expect sales of these alternatives to match the sales of the mainstream counterparts," cautions McCloy, who has consulted with RiverDogs Food and Beverage Director Tim Savona Jr. to maximize the Greenhouse's success. "The point is satisfying customers that want healthy items...while also creating a menu that has potential for serious growth and sales."
Still have questions? McCloy offers complementary consulting and advice on everything from the subtleties of cooking a veggie dog to perfection (it's a little different than an all-beef frank) to brainstorming bizarre names to get your new fare flying off the shelves.
Don't feel like you have to reinvent the wheel or invest in more space and equipment than you can manage to give your menu a boost. You can add spark to the items you already offer through these easy upgrades and added extras.
ADD SPRINKLES OR SUNDAE TOPPINGS AS AN OPTION FOR ICE CREAM.
Rick Marchione of Marchione Concessions notes that he used to offer free sprinkles (or jimmies, depending on where you're from) on an ice cream cone to attract customers, but now he charges 50 cents for this multicolored luxury. A small fee for a dollop of chocolate syrup or strawberry sauce is also an easy way to create your own mini ice cream parlor.
"As long as you keep it efficient," Marchione advises. "If an ice cream is $2 or $2.50, and you add sprinkles for 50 cents, that's great. But if something takes a minute and a half to do, that's a hard 50 cents to earn. You don't want a long line and people getting aggravated."
In other words, this is not the place for the "Your Portrait on a Scoop of Ice Cream" business you've always envisioned.
Keep it simple—and affordable.
JAZZ UP ORDINARY POPCORN WITH A FUN ASSORTMENT OF SPRINKLE-ON FLAVORINGS.
You've seen these at the movie theater, right? Food-service vendors offer flavors from ranch dressing to cheddar cheese to cinnamon sugar. Check out the Food Service and Concession Equipment section of our Buyer's Guide featured at www.recmanagement.com for contact ideas.
EXPAND YOUR BEVERAGE OPTIONS BY ADDING BOTTLED DRINKS TO YOUR FOUNTAIN FARE.
Mark O'Meara, owner of Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Va., tempts movie-goers with juices and flavored teas, as well as an oversized selection of sodas on tap. Just keep a few bottles cool at a time or provide them to customers in a cup of ice.
IF YOU'RE OFFERING SMOOTHIES OR SLUSHIES OR SOFT-SERVE ICE CREAM, MAXIMIZE YOUR FLAVOR SELECTION SO THERE'S SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE.
Check with equipment suppliers about easy ways to add an abundance of choices right in the machine.
GET THE MOST OUT OF THE OFFERINGS YOU ALREADY HAVE.
Marchione Concessions added gyros to its roster a few years back, and it nearly doubled its sales after adding a grilled-chicken-on-a-pita choice as well.
"Take the meat and make a salad," suggests Marchione as another inventive option. "Just put everything in a bowl. Try to offer items in various ways or the way a customer wants it."
STOCK A LITTLE EXTRA CHEESE SAUCE OR CARAMEL SAUCE AND OFFER IT WITH CUT-UP APPLE DIPPERS.
Preparation for this snack is simple, and you'll score points with the healthy-eating set as well.
Bottom line? Don't be afraid to try something a little different, be it healthy or just delicious, to spark some new interest in your concession stand. If you really get things going, you might be able to use your food as a draw to your facility. Case in point: Mark O'Meara, owner of Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Va. This movie theater's concession menu is a mile long. Think you just want popcorn and a soda? Think again. How about a giant cookie? Some babaghanoush? Smoothie? Chicken salad wrap? Tiramisu?
"We've had this [type of] menu since the beginning," O'Meara says of the theater, which has been open nearly seven years. "We wanted to be unique. There are a lot of movies out there."
And they all want to sell concessions. Expanding the options beyond popcorn and candy appeals to a broader audience and makes viewers more likely to spend money on a snack, instead of fasting during the film, O'Meara explains. Though it might take some time to catch on.
"When we opened, we were selling sushi," he recalls. "We tried it for six months. I ate a lot of sushi, but it didn't go."
However, he's not sorry he tried.
"Here we are six years later, and people come up and say, 'Are you that guy who sold sushi?' That was one of the neatest marketing things we could have done," he says.
So he's not afraid to experiment, but O'Meara's menu is far from a free-for-all. He's been tempted to offer cheesecake and more elaborate (and messy) desserts.
"But if they don't finish it, what do they do with it?" he muses. "We stick with finger food for easy cleanup."
He brings in hummus and babaghanoush from a neighboring bakery, and he supplements the usual candy staples with Toblerone and other European brands.
"Twizzlers and Sour Patch Kids outsell them five to one, but it brings in a little class and uniqueness," he says. He admits that all these options make inventory a little challenging, and he is certainly maximizing his 15-by-20-foot concessions space, but he's not about to stop now.
"I love doing things no one else is doing," he says.
Another way to maximize on the exotic options out there is to survey the tastes of your community. In Los Angeles, the city has created a "vending district," which makes an area near the parks open to approved food sales. Although there's not much currently happening there, Honan reports, for a time this was a hot spot for authentic tamales and other south-of-the-border cuisine. Look in to local flavor and consider working out a "Tamale Tuesdays" special or other periodic "guest vendor" program at your concession stand, wherever it may be. Your creativity (and probably some logistics and regulations) is your only limit.
In some cases, adding new and exciting items to your menu will mean adding a new piece of machinery to your arsenal. Cinema Arts Theatre keeps an espresso/cappuccino maker and a smoothie machine at the ready, in addition to the usual popcorn popper and soda fountain.
Rick and Lisa Marchione of Marchione Concessions, a mobile business that brings funnel cakes, sausage sandwiches and other delights to carnivals, fairs and events all over Pennsylvania, recently took the plunge and purchased a soft-serve ice cream machine after hand-dipping cones for years.
This change called for a rather hefty initial investment (there's a range of price points but usually in the thousands of dollars).
"My wife was very nervous," Rick Marchione says of the venture. "But now that we have six or eight weeks under our belt, she's very happy."
In addition to basic cones, the Marchiones offer waffle cones, sundaes and shakes.
"It's like an ice cream shop," he explains. And a profitable one at that. The profit margin on items like soft ice cream, slushies and smoothies can be 80 percent or more, according to manufacturers, so the extra equipment soon can pay for itself.
Having a look at the amazing array of items offered at Mark O'Meara's Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Va., may provide inspiration in itself, but if you still need more, check out O'Meara's own best tips for getting good ideas.
KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN.
Scope out what other concession stands are offering, and examine things you eat elsewhere that might translate to your stand. O'Meara bought a smoothie machine after seeing one somewhere else. He just made sure to offer more flavors and whipped cream at his theater.
GO TO FOOD SHOWS.
Ask lots of questions and get ideas from over-the-top displays. O'Meara started stocking hanging bags of nuts and trail mix after admiring them at a show.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE GROCERY STORE.
O'Meara currently is working on how to offer little containers of yogurt after they caught his eye while shopping.
"They're colorful and pretty," he says. He can see them all iced down in a big tub, but he hasn't quite figured out the logistics. When you see something you like, look at the label or wrapper, he suggests.
"There's always a phone number or Web site," he explains. "Then ask for a product list and set up an account."
BE PERSISTENT WITH VENDORS.
If you're not a huge operation, they may not have much time for you, he warns, having experienced this himself. Just keep calling.
Call in a pro
Except for the smallest of operations, many concession stands these days are getting some sort of outside professional help, rather than concocting all the goodies on their own. This may be as simple as working with a food vendor to buy supplies and pre-made items in bulk or it may mean bringing in a food-service management company to operate the stand independently.
At Mills Pond Park in Florida, the biggest facility in the Fort Lauderdale Parks and Recreation system, Park Manager Jason McDannold can think of nothing better than the independent contractor setup a recent bond issue has made possible. He's no longer in charge of wrangling part-time staff or equipment upkeep.
"The contractor handles it all," he says, a smile evident in his voice. This leaves McDannold with more time to handle the other demands of his position, namely 240 softball teams in each of three seasons per year (softball is nearly a year-round sport in Florida), plus a lake for skiing, a racetrack for remote-controlled cars, youth and adult soccer and football, cricket, rugby—oh, and the world kickball championships, during which Mills Pond Park will host 64 adult teams from around the country.
All these people are bound to get hungry, so the independent contractor maintains and operates the park's concession stand and periodically provides the park district with a check for a percentage of the sales, which are generated by a menu that includes hot dogs, pizza, chicken sandwiches, hamburgers and assorted drinks—including beer during adult-only events. McDannold's suggestion for anyone wanting to improve their concessions situation?
"A contract is the way to go," he says.
As long as you're thinking about outsourcing, you might consider not just a contract but a brand name. Some can set up a full-service store in as little as 300 square feet, reports Les Winograd, spokesman for a national chain of sandwich restaurants. And they're willing to give you as much or as little of the responsibility as you want. You can become a franchisee and manage the store yourself (with training and consultation from in-house pros) or you can lease your concession stand space to another franchisee who will keep things running smoothly and pay you a monthly fee or perhaps a percentage of sales.
"There's national advertising out there promoting the whole chain," notes Winograd as another benefit. "There's nothing better than seeing a familiar brand name, especially if you saw a commercial for it on TV the night before."
In fact, the company is so serious about this sort of thing that they not only put in a restaurant at a thriving ice center in Anchorage, Alaska, they bought the naming rights as well. The Subway Sports Center is home to hockey leagues, a workout area for athletes and some other concessions as well. Bringing in a restaurant doesn't have to mean all other vendors are out, but be sure to check your contract so you know all your options.
Whatever your choice for running your snack stand, and whatever great stuff you have to offer there, remember that unless people know about it, they're not very likely to eat it.
"I walked around with little cups of nuts when we started selling trail mix," says Cinema Arts Theatre's O'Meara. And if things don't happen instantly, don't get discouraged.
"You can't just do it for a few weeks and think that's it," he adds. "You've got to live with it and market it."
Make sure your food is working for you, too. Have pretzels for sale? On a busy day, get a big batch ready and put them in the case so passers-by can see them, Marchione suggests. Also, don't forget the basics: have easy-to-read signs explaining what you have to offer and how much it costs. And don't forget the fun. Crazy names aren't just for disguising healthy items, and everyone is intrigued by something unusual. There's a vendor in an L.A. park hawking "Snake Dogs," Honan notes. It's some sort of hot dog-wrapped-in-dough-and-fried concoction, and the name and the vendor's rustically decorated stand gets people to stop and have a look.
Commit to quality
Your concession stand may never be the destination of choice for romantic dinners, but you can make it a place where people will stay around to eat. Are there places to sit? Shelter from the sun?
The concession area at Fort Lauderdale's Mills Pond Park is equipped with plentiful picnic tables under an enclosure and an assortment of televisions.
"[After a game] the whole team can sit at a table and socialize," McDannold notes. "It's exciting to see the camaraderie."
More than amenities, Marchione says commitment to quality and service are what will likely keep your customers coming. Marchione Concessions may visit an event only once a year, but it's not unusual for customers to inquire about a past employee the next time around.
"You're making an impression even if you don't realize it," he says. "Make sure your customers are treated fairly, have some personality and offer a good product."
He likens a successful concession stand to a hospital cafeteria experience he once had. "My mother ate there the first time out of necessity," he says. "But then we went back together because it was good."