Hot dog and beer vendors will be a rare sight in the aisles of the NFL stadium this season as officials work to overhaul the concession operations and create a safe environment for fans during the coronavirus pandemic.
Only a handful of the NFL’s 32 teams will have fans in attendance when the season kicks off this weekend. Due to the existing social distancing mandates, several NFL stadiums have completely eliminated food and beverage retailers in favor of contactless and, in many cases, cashless models to limit potential exposure and keep fans as safe as possible with their favorite game day snacks.
Closures, attendance restrictions and necessary security measures have had a significant impact on stadium workers, many of whom will not be working at all for the first few weeks of the season. Even in NFL stadiums that house fans, it is expected that staff for concessions will be limited for the foreseeable future.
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“A salesman, a guy who sells beer, if they’re there at all, they’ll surely be affected,” Mike Plutino, CEO and founder of Food Service Matters stadium concession consultancy, told FOX Business. “We are currently not expecting long lines for many things.”
Currently, four teams – the Kansas City Chiefs, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Indianapolis Colts, and the Miami Dolphins – have announced specific attendance schedules. The Dolphins allow a maximum of 13,000 fans or 20 percent of the seating capacity in the Hard Rock Stadium for their first home game. The Chiefs and Jaguars are limited to around 16,000 fans in their home stadiums, while the Colts will only accept 2,500 fans in their first home game.
According to Plutino, NFL teams typically generate $ 1 million to $ 2 million in concession sales on game day. That sales figure will drop significantly in expected attendance even if the fans in attendance spend more than they normally would to make up for the lack of tailgate options.
“I think the food service people have gone all out trying to reinvent, rethink and redefine the business and make sure it is safe for fans and the internal workforce,” said Plutino.
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Under normal conditions, most football stadiums offer nonprofit groups the opportunity to work in concessions to raise money for their own causes, such as through fundraising for a high school band. Street vendors in the stadium – the workers who walk the aisles, hot dogs, beer, and other snacks – usually earn most of their income from sales commissions and tips, while the workers in the hall generally receive an hourly rate. Hawkers are often hired through a third party company.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way sports stadiums do business and accelerated the move towards technically enhanced fan service, which was already well underway in many facilities.
Centerplate Inc., the food and beverage partner for the Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium and the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, has been developing service plans for its NFL customers for months. The security measures at the games of both teams include cashless transactions, the mobile ordering of individual portions in closed containers and Plexiglas signs at the concession stand.
“We don’t want fans to feel like it’s a pared-down experience,” said Steve Pangburn, Centerplate CEO. “We want you to have a unique experience because you come back after a very difficult time and we want you to say ‘Wow’ and remember that experience.”
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There are no food or beverage vendors at the Hard Rock Stadium during Dolphins games to comply with social distancing rules. Centerplate also limits the number of staff at food prep stations and optimizes the menus to include only fan-preferred items so fans don’t have to wait in lines.
Pangburn acknowledged that Centerplate would have fewer staff compared to a normal NFL Sunday, but noted that the staff-to-fan ratio would actually be higher than normal and the degree of reduction nowhere near the limits of fan participation would lie. The employees earn their normal hourly rate. By eliminating the tailgate for safety reasons, the stadiums are opened earlier than usual, so that employees can work more hours.
“It will be about the fan experience. We’re not reducing the number of points of sale to this level, ”added Pangburn. “We’re really trying to make it feel and look almost like a normal time.”
The Jaguars and their food service partner Delaware North Sportservice have taken similar action at the TIAA Bank Stadium. Food and beverage vendors will not be on site and the spice stands will be closed for the foreseeable future.
In addition to the cashless payment options, the stadium officials will serve all food in closed containers, install plexiglass barriers and allow fans to bring their own reusable water bottle into the facility.
“We are working to determine our license and staff levels without changing the hourly rates for our employees,” Delaware North Sportservice said in a statement.
The Chiefs have transitioned to a cashless model at all concession stands and retail locations in Arrowhead Stadium through a partnership with payment service provider Tappit. Additionally, the team has increased the point of sale to fans ratio so they can spread out and order without worrying about breaking social distancing rules.
“There will be a variety of limited contact and contactless concession experiences, including grab n ‘go’s, self-checkout, pickup and kiosk order stalls throughout the stadium,” said the Chiefs in a post detailing their stadium policies.
Aramark, the Chiefs’ food service partner, did not respond to a request for comment.
The NFL requires fans to always wear masks for this season’s games. While initially only a few teams have crowds, the leaders of the league have left open the option to adjust the attendance guidelines over the course of the season.
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More fans would need a larger team of stadium workers, although it is unclear when conditions will allow street vendors and other traditional elements of the live event experience to return.
“The amount of livelihood that is only associated with sport in gastronomy is simply extraordinary,” said Plutino, advisor for stadium concessions. “The number of hands the sport feeds, I don’t know if anyone did the math, but it’s an extraordinary amount of ripple effects.”
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