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Tot Takes: Concessions at Providence Park

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Fans have noticed the changes to stadium concessions this year. Is there a better way?

Coors Light and wrinkled hot dog on a soggy bun? That’ll be $15.25.

As Timbers fans got their first taste of sweet victory against Minnesota FC in Portland’s home opener last April, those who chose to venture below deck for food and drink were choking on a bitter new reality: long lines, different offerings and higher prices.

The reason was the debut of the Timbers’ biggest signing from the offseason, $1.5-billion entertainment food vendor Levy Restaurants. A veteran of stadiums and sports arenas all over the country, they came on a 12-year contract to provide concessions and other hospitality at Providence Park.

By many accounts, they weren’t yet fit to take the field that day. Service was sluggish, undercooked, and generally not worth the price tag. Throngs of supporters clogged the lower level in misshapen queues. Some fans missed half the match waiting for food that wound up inedible.

“If just trying to get to a food stand is a complete circus, the food quality and price hardly matters,” wrote Reddit user NixyVixy in a thread discussing concessions on r/timbers.

Wait time has improved significantly since then, but some fans worry that the higher prices, perceived lower quality, and reduced number of choices are here to stay for the next 11.5 years.

“I know the line is at least one person shorter. I could barely convince myself to buy an eight-dollar beer. I’m sure as hell not spending 10,” writes HankisMoody.

Dead-Dogg writes that service has gotten better, “but it is not enough to compensate for the inflation in cost,” and they now eat and drink outside the stadium prior to the games.

For example, premium draft beer rose in price from $10 to $10.50 this year. In 2015, it was $9.25. The veggie dog rose from $5.25 last year to $6.50 this year.

Although prices increased, selection — and the perceived quality of the selection — diminished. The north-end concessions stands no longer carry Fort George beer, for example, and some say that the beer rotations at the Double Post aren’t as varied as last year.

“We used to have a lot better beer diversity last season and since prices have gone up, we should at least be getting better options,” writes tehDarkshadE.

Comparing this menu from the Minnesota game in April to the menu in October of last year, it seems some beer aficionados mark a significant change.

Other fans are unhappy that the food they bought in years past is no longer available. Vegetarians and vegans say their options are reduced this year.

“It’s rather mind-blowing that they thought cutting down the already slim amount of vegan-vegetarian options would ever be a good idea in a city like Portland,” writes Murty the Bearded.

Amidst all of the hullabaloo, however, nothing compared to the outcry over omitting tater tots from the menu, an absence that sparked a campaign from fans both on social media and in the stadium. One fan created an ode to tots in the form of a video serenading the various Specialty Hot Tots of the Match from years previous.

As many others amplified the #savethetots cry on twitter, signs began popping up in the stands.

A fan poses as Thorns Coach Mark Parsons and holds a sign to #savethetots.
Kris Lattimore

Recognizing the demand, Levy Restaurants Director of Operations Ben Forsythe did not hesitate to snap into action.

“The fans are very vocal about what they want on match day, and they let us know not to mess with their favorites,” Forsythe told Stumptown Footy via email.

There are many examples of Forsythe adding to, and improving, the menu at the stadium over the years in his former role as general manager for the stadium’s previous concessions vendor, Centerplate. With Levy, he is doing that still.

“We work in collaboration with our chefs and the teams on food choices, and the great thing about being in Portland is all of the great local products we can feature, such as Zenner’s and Tillamook.” Forsythe writes that there are already plans in the works. “We are always looking to make improvements whenever we can and this year is no different. That being said, I think it’s safe to say that next season you will see some great enhancements on the historical side of the building as well as the expansion on the east side.”

Portland Timbers President of Business Mike Golub said in a statement to Stumptown Footy that the organization is pleased with the overall vision and direction of Levy’s operations so far. “While there have been some challenges during the initial transition phase, Levy has a strong management team in place that has been very responsive to input/feedback.” He also promises improvement in the months to come. “Together with Levy we will be introducing ongoing improvements and enhancements to the food and beverage experience that we are confident will be well received by our fans.”

While Forsythe and the team say they will refine the menu and improve service, higher prices are most likely here to stay. Levy — just like Centerplate before it — is a massive company with shareholders to please, and stadium concessions are where the profit is at.

Sports Management Degrees’ study, “The Economy of Food at Sporting Events,” reports concessions product profit margins range from an average of 56 percent for nachos to 72 percent for hot dogs and up to 90 percent for beverages. Price-gouging a captured audience for as much as possible is just as natural as predators pouncing on prey.

But, maybe it doesn’t have to be.

Another stadium served by Levy, Atlanta United’s Mercedez-Benz Stadium, opened last year with “Fan First Menu Pricing,” selling everything at the same prices found outside the park: $5 draft beer, $2 hot dogs — even the restaurant offerings cost the same.

This proved to be highly successful — so successful, in fact, that fans spent 16 percent more, and came to the stadium earlier for the concessions. In a survey of NFL fans league-wide, Mercedes-Benz Stadium was number one in not just price but food quality, value, variety, and speed of service.

How could a concessions operator raise prices in one stadium while lower them at another? It comes down to the will of the owner and management of the team, and the type of contract that they sign.

In a report made to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2004, Centerplate explains in detail how the industry operates. In general, there are three types of contracts these companies enter into with their clients: profit and loss, profit-sharing, and management-fee contracts.

Profit-and-loss contracts are the most common. In this scheme, the concessions company pays a commission to the client, and in exchange, covers all expenses and keeps all profits. While Golub did not confirm the type of contract that is currently in place with Levy, this seems most likely.

Profit-sharing contracts are similar to profit and loss, except that instead of a commission, the franchise and concessions provider split the take. This is also possible, since Providence Park has a steady number of fans attending every Timbers and Thorns match. Both organizations could expect a reliable revenue stream this way, as well.

Management-fee contracts are the most rare, and essentially flip the profit-and-loss contract on its head. The team incurs the expenses and reaps the profits, while the concessions company is paid either a fixed or percentage management fee. This is the type of contract Levy has with Atlanta, according to an interview with AMB Group CEO Stephen Cannon in an article on MindfulMarketing.org. They earn a flat fee for being the service provider, enabling Atlanta to maintain control of the pricing and quality of food.

With the huge number of breweries and food carts in Portland, surely a management-fee type system could be implemented. Individual food carts and breweries could operate the different concession stands, for example, with the organizational oversight of Levy. Fans could semi-regularly be involved in choosing which food carts operate stands. As demonstrated in Atlanta, where fans spent 16 percent more on the cheaper concessions than they did with inflated prices, Portlanders would eat and drink more. Providence Park would become even more of a destination, and would truly reflect what makes the city special.

Timbers and Thorns owner, Peregrine Sports, LLC, and Merrit Paulson have demonstrated their love and appreciation for Portland soccer fans over the years, from keeping the Timbers Army ticket prices artificially low, to creating the Double Post and Axe and Rose pubs. With Atlanta’s fan-first pricing proving successful, perhaps Peregrine Sports is already working on a plan to bring this system to Portland next year.

Atlanta has proven that a concessions Shangri-La exists. As Portlanders, living in a city with a vibrant and affordable beer and food culture, fans expect to have it here, too. If not at street-level prices, then at least at Portland-level quality.

“If you are going to overcharge food, make it worth it,” writes Zers503, “there’s too much good food for cheaper around Portland to pay the prices at Providence Park for mediocre food.”

As it stands, many fans report that they are purchasing less inside the stadium this year. There are only so many concessions Portland fans will make.


Correction:

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that premium beer prices rose from $9.25 to $10.50 this year. This was incorrect, and has been changed.