Ep. 18: Innovating Food Service At Stadiums with Mike Plutino
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Mike Plutino, CEO & Founder of Food Service Matters, joins Rob Cressy to talk about enhancing the game day fan experience via food & beverage solutions. Why are the sports & entertainment industries 10 years behind the times and what is being done to help catch up? How is innovation being introduced? Why don’t more stadiums adopt a market concept for concessions? What can be done to create a better environment in the concourses when fans are waiting in line? How can vendor/in seat service be improved?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the Gameday Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host Rob Cressy. And joining me today is Mike Plutino, CEO and founder of Food Service Matters. Mike, great to have you on the show.
Mike Plutino: (00:30)
Great to be here.
Rob Cressy: (00:31)
Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Mike Plutino: (00:34)
I'm a CEO and Founder, we've been at this for about seven years now. We like to think we've been a disruptive, positive, disruptive force in the sports entertainment industry. Really, serving more as advisors and advocates to teams than anything else, believing that the basketball, football, baseball folks should stick to what they know and that's basketball, football and baseball. And let the food guys have a real strong voice and make sure you have a voice that's knowledgeable enough to either push your provider a little bit harder, tell you when you need a new provider, help you find a new provider, but just really make sure that the pace of what you're doing on the food side, believing that it's the number two influencer of the fan experience second only to your product on the field where the track is really important. You probably don't think it's gotten to the level that it should, but it's getting there, which is the good news.
Rob Cressy: (01:38)
So before we started recording, we were jamming about something super interesting. And you mentioned sports and entertainment is 10 years behind the times. So can you elaborate a little bit more on this in the challenges as well as opportunities that are going to come because of that?
Mike Plutino: (01:56)
We've obviously seen in the last 10, 15 years, evolution and how people experience food everywhere. And we use the airports as a good example that 15 years ago I'm thinking of eating, 10 years ago you had a lot of name brand options and fast forward we'd thrown out the fast food guys and now we've got the local restaurant tours. So we know that a customer is getting high quality of food at the airport, they're getting high quality food most likely at their place of work. They're getting high quality food really everywhere they are. And then tuning into the food network. Our belief is that we have some catching up to do, particularly when you put on the retail hat of how people are used to experiencing the places that have terrific food that can move volume through. Buildings typically get designed a little bit better than the one that got designed before because the same five people are at the table from the same five firms. And we seek to kind of inject ourselves and shake that up a little bit.
Rob Cressy: (03:10)
It's interesting you say that because I couldn't agree more because I feel like from a fan experience standpoint, one of the biggest challenges that teams and arenas have is what can make the game day experience better than at home. So if my wifi is always bombing, if I'm watching multiple games at a time; I'm getting the best food; I've been getting the beer that I want, but why would I go to the game if it doesn't offer all of those things? And you're like, yeah, but you've got the live experience. But the live experience is just one component of things.
Mike Plutino: (03:46)
And the live experience in some sports, and our friends at the 49ers articulated this on MSNBC just a few days ago. The end game experiences providing some challenges as well with the time and the delays and all the replays. So putting more pressure on what we think is the second biggest influencer of the fan experience. Second to the game on the product or the court or the field — and that's food and beverage. So it just has to be that much better, faster. Pricing certainly comes in some of the things that are going on in the marketplace, but we've got to find ways to get out of the concession stand business where 15 people are waiting behind each other for 50 minutes during halftime.
Rob Cressy: (04:36)
Yeah. And I think a lot of times we as consumers feel like someone doesn't care and it doesn't make sense that there'd be a line of 30, 40, 50 people during a game when you're like, put yourself in our shoes. Would you want to be waiting in a 50 person line to be purchasing something that is not what I usually eat? And I pay more for that.
Mike Plutino: (05:05)
And make no mistake about it. It's got a lot of moving parts. When you look at feeding 65,000 people in a football stadium in three hours, and the sales from that game equal what a restaurant would be happy to do in a year. Certainly we don't celebrate what did go wrong, but in terms of the actual experience, there's a couple of headwinds. One is that staffing is becoming more and more difficult and folks who want to sell hotdogs for a living are becoming a real scarcity. So from a design component, we've got to design buildings that can operate with 30, 40% less bodies, more technology has to come into play. And that alone is a huge part of it. So it's design, it's labor, it's technology. The more transactions we can take off the counter and have done ahead of time and have payments tendered ahead of time. All those things cumulatively add up. No one thing's going to get us there. But when we stack them up together, we start making progress.
Rob Cressy: (06:14)
So how do you introduce innovation? Because that's one of the things that you can see the opportunities there, but the introduction of it always isn't the most seamless thing possible.
Mike Plutino: (06:26)
You know, it takes some time and it's pieces. We were part of the greatest building ever built. We think the Chase Center in San Francisco's design and conceptualization and on the team for three years and we chunked it down into a few different things. So everything from why are we still pouring soft drinks and stands knowing that our customers have been taught to do that themselves by McDonald's and the big guys 10 years ago. Why don't we have more consumer point of sale technology? We were advocates of Square in San Francisco. The first time they'd been in a building of this size and magnitude and easy to say that's not their wheelhouse. It certainly is and it's gone incredibly well. We have a huge focus on mobile ordering.
Mike Plutino: (07:22)
We're believers from day one, of custom apps and making sure it's integrated well. So a lot of time and attention to, once again, how do we get folks in their seats to be ordering and paying for things? We know when they do that, there's a lift themselves of you know, $2, $3, $4 just just by doing it. Teams have to figure out how to embrace it and make sure it's integrated. They go into one app and through that one app is obviously a different right and left turns they could take.
Rob Cressy: (08:01)
One concept that I haven't experienced but I love in theory is the concept of a market within a stadium as if you were going to a convenience store or a small grocery store where you can go and choose what it is that you want and then pay easily for it. Because I think one, we love variety too. We love convenience. And three, we like speed. So the ability to take an experience that we're used to, the going to the grocery store and taking that to the arena and say, why is it that me, a health conscious eater, my choices are hot dogs and hamburgers and chicken tenders. Like, what if we can shop this up in a different way where more people can get paid, the experience is better and everything works.
Mike Plutino: (08:53)
Bingo. So that's it. And that's it in a nutshell. So we may need to recruit you because that is if there was one thing that we believed in as a group more than anything else, it is markets, and grab and go doesn't quite do it. We just installed two markets at FedEx forum with the Memphis Grizzlies year over year. Game one to game one. One's up 388% and sales one's up 170%. We know grab something and leave. And that market can have, to your point, hot food components. So ideally we'll all get on the left, this nice glass cubicle. You can see a chef cooking. There's three of them for things that are made just in time, meaning just as you're at this slide, it's going to be ready.
Mike Plutino: (09:47)
We continue moving. You've got a wall of adult slushies, pick the flavor, and then you've got your typical snack items. There's buildings out there right now today. Arenas that are being built almost 100% with that notion, checks a lot of boxes, velociy, checks; convenience, checks; and what the guest wants. It checks labor reduction. So we can operate a stand, but half the staff do four times the sells. It becomes, why aren't we doing this everywhere? So it's moving that quickly. We installed for them, or guided them at the Tennessee Titans and Nashville, same result. It's the same result everywhere. And it's an immediate result. To stand at a football stadium and on one side, watch 30 or 40 people literally pile in and be out in a minute and look across the hallway and there's the line of 10, 15 deep waiting. Right? And it's that remarkable to see.
Rob Cressy: (10:56)
I'll throw another concept out to you that I live in Chicago and one thing we're seeing a lot more of is food halls where you take one space and all of a sudden there's 10 different restaurants in there. And it was nice because the convenience was the choice. And I think one of the challenges I have with in-stadium eating is that sometimes especially the one place you want to go to is on the other end of the arena or the stadium. And there's limited choice. It's like the rinse and repeat of the same chicken tenders, hot dogs, and hamburger over and over again. And you just walk around and you're like, eh. But the food hall concept, it congregates all of them together. So what about spatially building it different? Because I liked the way that those are structured.
Mike Plutino: (11:49)
Yeah. And it's tricky because fans do tend to stay in those zones. They get comfortable in where their seats are. That has been part of the driving force behind why everything gets replicated four times around an arena or a stadium. But that being said, we work with the LA Coliseum and they really to some extent replicated the notion of a food hall. And all that LAFC that they really, not quite the same environmentally, but I think more teams are thinking outside the box. We're working with the new Orleans Saints on the reimagination of the Superdome and in that plan, you know, more of an atrium feel and in the corners of the Concourse. So it's gonna allow for that hub of different things and up to the food service guys to blend the beat.
Mike Plutino: (12:54)
As much as we want the fancier stuff, chicken tenders, hotdogs, burgers and fries have been ruling the world. And I've given up trying, not trying to change the world, but there is a balance of how do you do that and how do you give folks choice to have that phenomenal local product. Chase Center, right? Bake, sell. Betty's chicken sandwich that's been famous in Oakland for 20 years and it's the number one seller now. So can you take favorites and kick them up with significant local brands? I think you can.
Rob Cressy: (13:29)
So you mentioned something environmentally and having a different feel. I think one of the downsides that I see to waiting in a gigantic line for food has been the experience of not being able to watch the game. So you're out of your seat so you're not seeing it. And so often we have limited viewing on television and I think about football, there's a huge third down going and people are leaving the bathroom when they're waiting in line here. And there's like not a TV anywhere. Like if you said Rob, you're in charge of fan experience in designing from a viewership standpoint, I'm going to be like, this is going to turn into a freaking sports bar. So even with your atrium concept, I love it because imagine if there's going to be a section of people who would say, I don't mind sitting and eating for 15 minutes in the atrium because we've got a big screen and TVs everywhere and God forbid that red zone is actually on there while the football game that we're at is there, you might say, wait a second. People like fantasy football, sports betting is becoming legalized in the United States in the next three to five years. So the casual nature of fans in the ability to be more than just this game and as be able to view it.
Mike Plutino: (14:42)
Yeah, and us food guys probably can get in the way of, you know, we want menu boards everywhere, right? So the teams certainly push hard to make sure that there's, there's screens that fans don't miss what's going on on the field of the quarter that are the track. The drama of let's make sure they also can understand what they're gonna order quickly to. I got to get back to the seats, to your point, that's why they're at the game, right? So figuring out how we put high quality food in their hand, high quality beverage or relevant with the choices and speed of service, speed of service, speed of service, it drives revenue. It drives it in a massive way where, as I said earlier, having just worked with the Chase Center, the revenue that's coming out of that arena is two and three times. What another arena has typically been, you know, has enjoyed in the past. So it's about design. That's where the industry has taken some good steps. Our point of sale ratio, how many cash registers to customers, has to be 150 to one or 175 to one. And now we know that when we open a building, if it's one to 100 or less that we're going to drive sales and driving sales customer fan experience.
Rob Cressy: (16:08)
What about the Hey beer man experience? So we've got traditionally a guy goes and sells beer and then you might have a cotton candy guy and an ice cream guy there that if we're looking at speed, convenience, selling more, I feel like rarely, I mean take beer out of the question because beer is beer, but when it comes to the eating side of things are rarely like, Hey beer man two nachos and two pretzels like that. It's almost so limited. I find it sweets, or more novelty stuff. But if you really wanted to make my fan experience better, why wouldn't some of these food service places that we could go to like why couldn't I buy that chicken sandwich from the vendor?
Mike Plutino: (16:54)
It's a good question. You know, certainly the folks who took the biggest leap there, believe me it was going to be a point of difference with the 49ers a few years ago, five years ago, probably now when they said in-seat service for 65,000 people. And the challenge with that is that it's largely as a segment has disappointed more fans, and not them in particular, but it's been an under-delivered experience so that we really do want you to get up out of your chair and we really do like you to come and probably pick it up. We want you to order from your seat. We want you to pay from your seat. We want you to know what's available. We want to be able to route you within the facility to where there's no pressure and make sure that we equalize the volume.
Mike Plutino: (17:38)
But the notion of, if we were designing 10 new buildings today, we want the least amount of beer vending for the financial return. But it's tricky. So we know it's additive, particularly on the beverage side. It becomes less additive on the food side, not that it's not incremental. We were at Mississippi State just yesterday and talking about vending and what else could be additive in the discussion. So it's just one of the more challenging pieces I think.
Rob Cressy: (18:18)
So I'm onboard with everything that you just said, but I will fire this back. You said we want you... Me the consumer, I want .... And I think what me being a marketer, among other things, when I look at the industry as a whole, it is the brands that put the community first instead of buy what I'm selling, buy what I'm selling, are the ones that are going to succeed. I think with the way that you're seeing relationships in digital change, the relationship that fans have with a brand.
Mike Plutino: (18:52)
Yeah. You know what, what we've learned the last probably 10 years is that they really do want to get out of their chairs. So I don't think we've had a clamoring for "we don't want to move, bring food to us." That's been a small part of the population that has an all-inclusive, that servers are going to be there for you. But I think they do need to go to the restroom at halftime and part of that is part of the experiences wandering around a Concourse full of people. So I think the advent of more I can order it, I'm not going to wait a long line really. I got what I want. It's going to tell me where everything is, might be that balance, but it's a tricky one.
Rob Cressy: (19:41)
So I was thinking about what is the optimal fan experience for someone. And I think for me it is when you go to a stadium arena that your team isn't playing or you've never been to before. And I think about my experience when I go to Petco in San Diego, it's an amazing stadium right there. It's casual. I watched about one total pitch of baseball, but like you can be in your seat and then you get up and you just sort of like walk around and environment's cool and oh there's some cool food here. Like what if that can be catered to a little bit more or what are the best parts of that can be taken because there's a feeling that happens when you're like, this is new in the environment itself ends up being a benefit as opposed to what we traditionally think of as concrete slabs. But I think on the flip side, I've also been to the new Yankee Stadium and it feels like a museum and it loses a certain something for me where I'm not just walking around. I think there's the balance between the two, if that makes sense.
Mike Plutino: (20:52)
Yeah. I think you touched on a few things and the Petco is a really good example of an organization that understood a lot of the dynamics that we're focusing on today. 10 years ago there was a market at Petco in a very large one years ago before anyone was talking about markets. We think MLB probably has a more variety of food and beverage and more signature parks like Petco, like Rural Park, like City Field. There's a whole slew of ones that are really driven on fan food experience side, versus some of the other sports. So MLB seems to, and maybe it's the game and maybe it's the length of it, maybe it's the one that are going around, but we find ourselves saying this all the time that they get more of that than anywhere else.
Mike Plutino: (21:49)
You know, certainly there's buildings that will tip towards sponsorship and big brands and not always understand the value of the local brand that may not write the check to get in the front door and some teams place a higher value on that. I can't speak highly enough of the Chase Center for putting the thought that in San Francisco food is king and let's not compromise food being king and let's pick the best possible providers with the best cache in the marketplace and we'll figure the rest out. And not every team has that level of understanding of what you have to do there. But it's interesting you bring up Petco cause it's just one of the best out there.
Rob Cressy: (22:39)
So Mike, as we wrap this up, is there anything that I didn't ask you that you think would provide value to the audience or that's on your mind?
Mike Plutino: (22:47)
I don't think so. As I said, if we had a list, you know, one, two and three we think one is the market approach and blowing up belly up configuration of standards. We know that we have to operate with less people and be faster at it. And we know that the technology piece has to just be a huge part that.
Rob Cressy: (23:11)
So I really enjoyed this conversation and sort of the back and forth nature because as a sports fan and as someone who enjoys this, I like seeing the things that you are doing because of course I want everything to be better for all fans. We love it. So we appreciate the opportunity. Where can everybody connect with you?
Mike Plutino: (23:31)
They can connect a www.foodservicematters.com and that's a really good starting place. I'm on all the social handles, but our website will tell you a lot about who we are and what we believe.
Rob Cressy: (23:46)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. I would like to hear the number one stadium or arena you've been to that has the best food. You can hit up FanFood on Twitter, @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram, @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms at Rob Cressy.