When Citi Field and new Yankee Stadium opened 10 years ago, people still found the notion of sushi at baseball games a novelty — if not an abomination.
“Now sushi is a staple of any stadium,” said Matt Gibson, senior executive chef for Legends, which handles food services at Yankee Stadium.
Like all pro sports venues, the teams take concessions seriously, because their customers expect it in an era in which — like it or not — for many people the games serve as a backdrop for a broader social event.
Patrick Schaeffer, senior executive chef at Aramark, said his staff and the Mets make it a “major focus” every offseason to keep offerings new and fresh at Citi Field.
“It’s creating an experience off the field that rivals what’s going on on the field,” he said. “People when they come to this ballpark, they can get here early and try out some great food.”
Said Richard Porteus, Legends regional vice president, “It’s not just amenity anymore. It’s part of the entire experience.”
There is no denying the improvement in the variety and quality of ballpark food over the past decade, but it comes at a price.
Fans have been complaining about food and beverage markups at sports events for decades. And that was before the introduction of partnerships with top restaurants and a focus on high-quality ingredients.
”It’s a balance,” Porteus said. “We obviously want to keep the pricing fan-friendly, but also if someone wants to experience a LoBel’s steak sandwich, we have to make sure obviously from a quality standpoint that it’s there.”
Lou DePaoli, the Mets’ chief revenue officer, said the team works with Aramark, which has a pricing and analytics team.
“So they can say, hey, listen, if we raise the price on a certain item too high, you’ll see a market decrease for the actual volume,” he said. “Then you just have to figure out what’s the right market price for each item.”
DePaoli said restaurant partners have a say, too. “Sweet Chick,” for example, wants its stadium prices close to those at its restaurants.
“If you go downtown [in New York] or you’re in L.A., you’re pretty much paying almost the same,” he said.
Again, such calculations are nothing new, even if they have become more complex. But the past two years have brought a new wrinkle in the food pricing game.
The Atlanta Falcons generated a raft of positive publicity for an experiment in which they slashed prices on some items at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
A 12-ounce beer? $5. A water bottle? $2. A slice of pizza? $3. Then they announced they would go even lower next season, selling hot dogs at $1.50.
For 2017, their first season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons said that despite prices being 50 percent lower than at the Georgia Dome, fans spent 16 percent more, and arrived earlier.
Other pro and college teams have followed suit, if not as dramatically.
Naturally, you are thinking: Is this replicable in New York? Time will tell, but for now, do not get your hopes up.
Porteus called Atlanta “somewhat of a price-sensitive market,” making the Falcons’ approach a more logical fit there.
Gibson said the Yankees are careful to provide a variety of price points but that most fans understand that sustainable and organic ingredients cost more.
As for the Falcons’ approach, he said, “I think a lot of it is your demographic and where your location is. I mean, you walk outside of the door in New York and you spend 20 bucks without even thinking twice and you’ve got a coffee and a newspaper in your arm.”
Schaeffer said quality at stadiums that have resisted rock-bottom prices inevitably is higher, even for a common item such as a hot dog.
“We send our people to Nathan’s hot dog school,” he said. “As crazy as it sounds, Nathan’s has a school for how you cook their hot dogs . . . There’s actually a science to it.”
DePaoli said because the Falcons have only 10 home games, their math is different from a baseball team’s.
“It’s a difficult thing to do when you’re putting in two-and-a-half, three million fans in here,” he said. “That would be a big financial decision you’d have to make to try to figure out how to make that work.”
DePaoli said he has tried dollar-hot-dog promotions in his previous jobs around the country but is not a fan of the idea for Citi Field.
“We spend so much time creating a unique — and we think the best — food experience,” he said. “To turn around and say, ‘Hey, here’s a hot dog for a dollar,’ it doesn’t match with everything else that we’re doing by bringing in all these great restaurateurs. So it’s kind of off-brand or off-strategy for us to go that route.”