Given some of the recent "press" the Verizon Center has received (ESPN, PHT, also mentioned in a Fanshot and Monday's Caps Clips), I felt this would be as good a time as any to comment on an issue that has bothered and annoyed me as a sports fan for quite some time...concessions. I'll focus on the Verizon Center, mainly because this is a Capitals blog and because as a Caps season ticket holder I've easily seen more live sporting events in that location than I have any other, but many of my grievances are not limited to DC's hockey home but rather my general experiences at sporting arenas all over the place (and I have built quite a resume as a traveling sports fan over the years*).
First and foremost, the recently noted health violations barely scratch the surface of my displeasure towards the concessions business at sporting arenas. For me, the entire experience is just awful, and it doesn't matter where you go -- long lines, high prices, unfriendly service and poor food quality just seem to be standard across the board. What motivation do team/stadium owners have to fix these issues? Pretty much none as far as I see it, since money is currently being made hand over fist with the system as is. I personally feel, however, that improving the service and customer experience at these concession stands could easily generate even more revenue, if done correctly...and based on some of Ted Leonsis' recent comments about wanting to listen to fans and improve the fan experience, I also believe that he may be a lot more receptive to hearing some ideas for improvement than some of other franchises' owners might be.
It would probably be impossible for me to compile a complete list of every issue I've ever had at Verizon Center regarding concessions, but here are a few my top general pet-peeves:
1. Long Lines/Slow Service
There is nothing you can do about lines forming at the concession stands, especially during critical times like the pre-game rush and intermissions. When you have 18,000+ people in one building and only limited number of vendors to sell food, lines are inevitable. What can be drastically improved, however, is the speed at which the people in the line are served. At the stands near my section (and probably everywhere throughout the arena), the current system just flat out reeks of inefficiency. Typically, what happens when a customer's turn in line comes up is the following: give order to cashier, cashier stares at register for 20-30 seconds, cashier punches order into register, cashier gives order total to customer and asks for payment, payment is collected and change/receipt is given, cashier proceeds to collect ordered items to give to customer 1 at a time, beer tap goes dry, customer is informed they will have to wait a few minutes or order a different beer, customer is not given a tray for the 2 beverages, 3 hotdogs and tub of popcorn ordered and must request one, cashier walks around looking for cardboard tray, upon receiving tray, customer realizes it is too flimsy to carry all the items ordered nor do the beer cups actually fit into the cup holders, customer spends 20-30 seconds trying to collect all items safely and proceed to condiment station.
Fast food companies spend tons of money trying to find ways to knock every precious second off the time it takes to fill a customer's order. Why? Because the more people you can serve in a given amount of time = money that can be made in the same given amount of time. When demand is virtually endless, increasing the volume of customers that can be accommodated in the time allowed translates in to more money being made by the vendor. With only a few simple changes, the average Verizon Center concession stand could easily process customer orders faster -- simple things like having people dedicated to pouring and monitoring beer, and having one person fill an order while another handles the money are just 2 things that would drastically improve the service and get the line moving faster (and trust me, there are are already enough people working at the stands to operate in this manner). In addition, roving vendors in the seating areas may not work very well at hockey games, but having a few extra beer carts or vendors selling bottled beer/soda/water in the concourse could help reduce the number of people having to wait in the lines as well. I know I'm not the only person to ever say to myself, "ah, to hell with it -- I don't want a beer enough to wait in that line, I'll just go back to my seat".
Everyone expects to gouged at sporting event concession stands, it's a fact of life. Maybe the prices could be lower...maybe they can't be -- I really don't know enough about the business to determine where prices need to be set in order to make a profit on top of the costs of operation. What I do know is that if it feels like a slap in face to pay $25 for 2 beers and 2 hotdogs, then it's a straight punch to the gonads to pay $25 for 2 warm beers and 2 cold hotdogs on stale buns...which is what you usually end up getting. If you have to charge premium prices, at least try to offer a quality product more representative of that price. This, of course, brings us straight to:
3. Food Quality
I can't say how many times I've found myself rushing to get out of work in time to make a weeknight game, getting to the metro only to realize that I haven't had time to get anything to eat since lunch, and am pretty much left with no alternative but to buy my dinner at the Verizon Center if I don't want to miss any of the game. Shouldn't be that big of a deal, should it? Yeah, I usually try to grab something to eat before the game mainly because eating at the arena can become quite costly, especially if you go to 30-35 games a year (+ playoffs), but what I really hate is getting there, paying my hard-earned money, and then getting to my seat only to realize I'm about to "enjoy" an already cold hotdog on a roll that couldn't be described as anything but harder than the puck that's about to be dropped on the ice. It's depressing. To Ted and every other owner out there: If I actually enjoyed the food and looked forward to eating it, I'd be A LOT more likely to justify spending my money on it a bit more often, rather than just out of sheer necessity. It's not just hot dogs either, as I have found a lot of the food I've encountered to be unappetizing to say the least.
I was actually glad the ESPN article touched on this, as it is definitely a practice that causes me quite a bit of frustration, even if not necessarily for the reasons given in the article.
Food service companies at several stadiums also allow nonprofit groups to run some stands using volunteers, which have been the subject of complaints and violations. In 2005, health department inspectors in Cincinnati got fed up with repeat violations at Paul Brown Stadium due in large part to non-profit volunteers, said Karen Draper, a health department supervisor who used to be in charge of stadium inspections.
"Not wearing gloves, not knowing where the thermometer is, not knowing what temperature it's supposed to be … leaving the ice scoop lie in the ice bin so they had to stick their hands in there to get it," she said. "Stuff that if you worked in a restaurant you would know not to do."
I've seen this happen at the concession stands near my section on a few occasions, and the simple fact is that these people lack the experience to run a concession stand. It may be a great way to earn money, but it is extremely frustrating when all you want is to get to your order, and it takes twice as long because the people running the concession stand don't know what their doing. There are plenty of other ways to raise money, and this practice really shouldn't be allowed.
Bottom line: On any given night, there are 18,000+ hungry and thirsty fans at the Verizon Center who are there primarily to watch a hockey game...not wait in line. It only adds insult to injury to learn the the food we've been getting may not have been up to health code standards this entire time as well. These are just my opinions, but I feel like I'm not alone here, at least not based on some of the comments I've heard from my fellow section mates on the matter during Caps games.
* Just to name a few stadiums/arenas I've visited, off the top of my head...
Verizon Center, Nationals Stadium, RFK Stadium, FedEx Field, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, M&T bank Stadium, Giant Center, Three RIver's Stadium, Mountaineer Field, Beaver Stadium, Byrd Stadium, Folsum Field, Alltel Stadium, Georgia Dome, The Igloo, Veteran's Stadium, University of Phoenix Stadium