Saturday, September 08, 2007

15 Minutes with Centerplate's Bob Pascal

For some time now--I have known that Aramark would not be returning as Concessionaire for Our Washington Nationals in New Nationals Park--not that anyone was going to miss them. From a service standpoint, Aramark was just plain lousy. There were only so many excuses RFK Stadium could be blamed for. Yeah, The Old Ballyard has seen its best days. The facility not up to modern standards. But, running out of Hot Dog Buns and making patrons wait two full innings to receive that Hot Dog--has nothing to do with the stadium. Aramark has quality control issues far beyond its means. Being the Giant Behemoth for Food Services--its pretty obvious--they have lost their way. Honestly, I don't know anyone that was pleased with Aramark. Pleasure that can hopefully now be found, with the new face on the block.

Which made the announcement of Centerplate winning the contract for New Nationals Park so refreshing. Personally, Sohna and I have used their services at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Safeco Field in Seattle and Yankee Stadium in The Bronx. The Giants' Home Park stands out for quality offerings to us. Seattle, a close second. Yankee Stadium was fine. But, what's always stood out for me in New York was this park, being the first stadium I recall, allowing me to use a Debit Card, Or Credit Card as a normal way of doing business. Convenience that goes along way toward making the overall experience enjoyable and easier.

The very moment word reached me that Centerplate was Our Washington Nationals New Concessionaire, I immediately reached out to them to see if they would be interested in speaking to me. Of course--no problem came the response--once the deal was finalized. Not two hours after The Official Press Release announcing the agreement was sent out--Centerplate's PR Firm was on the phone looking to set up an interview with me. The arraignments were made. Centerplate's Vice President of Marketing--Bob Pascal was ready to take my call.

With the background now out of the way--Here we go.

When did Centerplate first wish to be involved with The Washington Nationals? (SBF)

“Its all apart of our growth strategy. We have a commitment to baseball. It’s a segment that’s a great fit for us. We are really all about improving the guest and fan experience. We love baseball and The Nationals situation, in particular, is very exciting. This New Era of Baseball in DC is very exciting and we definitely want to be a part of it. We share the vision new ownership has for that fan experience. Long story short—all of baseball we are interested in—but DC is one we are especially excited with—given the vision of The Nationals Ownership, the exciting new era of baseball in DC, and the fact that we’ve had a presence in DC for about 20 years. Its something we definitely want to be a part of.”

Yes, you also have the contracts for The Washington Redskins (Fed Ex Field) and The DC Convention Center. But, also The Nationals are looking to become an internationally well-known franchise. I can imagine that wouldn’t hurt Centerplate’s image either? (SBF)

“Yes, in any of our plans, we always try to make sure it’s a good fit for them and a good fit for us. Actually, we are very excited about having the opportunity to partner with them and serve their fans.”

Now, I am sure you are aware of all the problems fans experienced with Aramark at RFK Stadium in the past--things like running out of hot dog buns, running out of coke cups. How will Centerplate handle issues like this differently? (SBF)

“We have a very different approach than our competitors on a number of levels. We think of ourselves as the anti-cookie cutter. So, we really take the time and consideration to understand uniqueness of the fans, the building, and the region. And then, ensure the fan experience we are creating from the basic--the speed of service—to ensuring the traditional ballpark favorites are not only in stock, but tasty. We expect quality of service with a smile. All the while making sure we are additive to the overall fan experience, so there is another reason its fun to go out to the ballpark and cheer on the team. We want the actual merchandise and food service experience to be fun and different—something that can’t be found anywhere else.”

One of the big issues here is that the food offerings have been far from the best. Now, I’ve been to both AT&T Park in San Francisco and Safeco Field in Seattle where Centerplate has the concession contracts and you offer a lot of local fare—a variety that you don’t normally see in many other parks. And, definitely currently at RFK? (SBF)

“When you really think about cheering on your baseball team--there is always that TEAM PRIDE, that Hometown Pride. And, we really want to make sure we celebrate the culture and cuisine of the region. That’s the aspect of our business that is very important to us. Its important to get that deep understanding what’s important to the folks that live in DC and make sure the food services are reflective of that.”

I am sure Centerplate is aware of some of the local places—Hard Times CafĂ©, Burrito Brothers, Ben’s Chili Bowl is a very famous place here on U Street. Are those types of people being contacted to gauge their interest in having a vending spot in the new stadium? (SBF)

“Absolutely. Now, I am not at the point to talk specifics. But, I would love to keep a dialogue open that when I am at that point—we can. But, yes, we are looking to find who are the right local partners from the community that can have a presence in the new ballpark. And, that’s something we are working with the community and The Nationals, in an effort to define those right fits, right now.”

How about the many Micro Breweries that exist in the DC area? (SBF)

“I think it would. I am less sure on how things work on that side. Conceptually, yes. But, I will have to look into it a little bit more for you.”

I would imagine that getting this ballpark ready for anyone come April 2008, is a tight turnaround. You have a stadium that is not even built yet. And, I’ve noticed that Centerplate has a reputation designing venues to best fit your needs. Is there anything in New Nationals Park that needs to be changed for you to do business better? (SBF)

“Obviously, we are working really closely with the team to ensure that the new ballpark, the equipment layouts, designs, etc, are going to be able to provide the level of fan experience we want to deliver.” (On a day by day basis right now—how many folks with Centerplate are working with The Nationals?—SBF) “Its pretty significant, as you can imagine. We also take a team approach. All levels of The Nationals are talking with all levels of Centerplate. So, whether its from a merchandise perspective; a design perspective, menu design—there is constant discussion taking place in one area or the other.”

Off the top of my head, in the new ballpark there are five different levels of service to be offered—based on ticket prices—Presidents Club, Diamond Club, Stars & Stripes Club, Centerfield Restaurant and the regular fare. How far along in the planning are the food choices for these price points? (SBF)

“Its important that each has its own identity. All will have a strong sense of service and strong food quality. But, there is differentiation among those premium club levels. So, that is something we are working hand in hand with The Nationals to ensure the level of service, the menu items, etc. are appropriate for each level. So, I will say those discussions of what will be offered are in the framing stages right now. Lets keep the dialogue open on this one.”

Baseball has a very diverse background of people that attend games. And, in many respects, The Nationals new ballpark is geared toward—making money. But, baseball also attracts price conscious fans. Folks that only have “X” number of dollars to spend each time they come. Will there be price conscious offerings for those folks? (SBF)

“Yes, we like to recognize that many people have various wants and needs in what they are looking for at the ballpark. Whether it’s the fanatical baseball fan that knows exactly what they want on their hot dog. Or, what their beverage is and how to get it--we want to serve that person. But similarly, children as well. We are in discussions right now about developing an area focused toward kids. So, we always want to make sure we have as many of the various fan segments covered as possible—whether its price point, whether its diet, whether its speed of service. How do you want to have your food? Do you want traditional ballpark fare? Or do you want something emerging—something fun—something adventurous in the ballpark. So, we try to be very conscious of that fact (price points) you mentioned. That broad range of baseball fans that need to be served, so that all can have a great time at the ballpark.”

Speaking of Customer Service—who actually will hire and control the service employees at New Nationals Park? Under the current set up you have this odd grouping of DC Sports & Entertainment Commission, The Nationals and Aramark? A trifecta that’s had its issues. (SBF)

“Not sure, I will have to check on that for you. I believe Centerplate will be in charge of the service employees. But, I will have to get back to you on that.”

You will have your own Chefs at the ballpark for the higher end fare, is that not correct? (SBF)

“Absolutely, we have Chefs that are responsible for the food in the stands--up to The Restaurant--up to The Premium Clubs. We tend to take a very Chef driven approach to all the foods in the ballpark. A good example might be the chicken tender. Where you would think--‘how could one chicken tender be different from another’--but there is. We gathered a number of our Chefs; a number of our Baseball Vice-Presidents; a number of our Major League Baseball Parks Vice Presidents—as you know these are important very complex accounts—and we had a tasting on all the core items offered in a ballpark. Chicken Tenders were one particular item we just could not find on the market that we felt was appropriate for our environment. By that I mean—high quality, good chicken tender, tastes as good as if it just came off the grill when you get back to your seat.”

“So, we actually worked with poultry producers. As it turned out—Perdue is our partner. We designed our own proprietary chicken tender that is a marinated chicken breast cut in a light panko bread crust that our Chefs designed. Even things like a chicken tender—our Chefs are really looking at carefully to ensure that, once again, quality is there in everything we serve.”

I’ve read on your website—you have a lot of your own recipes. (SBF)

“We (Centerplate) have the Culinary Leadership Network which has basically “KNIGHTED” 15 of our very best Chefs. They each have regional responsibilities. But, they have also defined the standards for everything we serve. They are responsible for reviewing every menu, for hiring every Chef. We have Chefs hiring Chefs, so that our Culinary Focus or Culinary Authenticity, is very important is us. This allows Centerplate to carry a consistency of quality, not only to the clubs—but also to the individual portable kiosks.”

“How are we preparing it? What are the ingredients? What’s the presentation to guests? There is a touch of a Chef in everything we do.”

Final Question for now. Will this contract carryover to The Spring Training Home of The Nationals in Viera, Florida? (SBF)

“We are in discussions with that right now. Simple answer—No.”

With that--my 15 Minutes with Centerplate's Bob Pascal concluded. The most intriguing part of our conversation was a genuine interest on Centerplate's part to reach out and inquire about fan's interests. Sure, Bob answered all my questions, but he also inquired about many others to me. Seriously, he wanted to know what many would like see and enjoy when it comes to food services at New Nationals Park. One of the very reasons for my original Centerplate post on Friday asking readers, like you, to send me your ideas.

Proactive and Engaging--What a Concept.

At a later date, hopefully Bob Pascal and I shall get together again, share more information. Leading hopefully, toward a better Ballpark Experience for everyone at New Nationals Park.

Responsibility is a notion not seen with Aramark over the past three seasons of baseball at RFK Stadium. Answerability and Respect for fans, perceived by me, in just a short period of time talking with Centerplate. If first impressions are accurate--this company seems to have its act together. Competence that Fans of Our Washington Nationals will hopefully see on display--daily--when it comes to Food Concessions and Services at New Nationals Park.

Sure, there are going to be kinks with a new contract, new ballpark, new provider--but that should not take away from HOPE that Centerplate could bring to the equation. Its an exciting time as Our Washington Nationals move from East Capitol Street to South Capitol Street. You can bet--I will be staying on top of this ever evolving situation.

Photos--Courtesy Centerplate


Anonymous said...

How about something like Captain White from the DC Waterfront to serve steamed crabs in the outfield? Just like the Ironbirds do in Aberdeen!

Anonymous said...

Thanks SBF. It's little things like this that make this such a great blog. You are the "voice of Joe Nats Fan" and your work is appreciated.

Anonymous said...

This is good stuff. This interview gives me hope that Centerplate can provide quality foods that have been missing at RFK. Enjoyable stuff I would love to see at the new ballpark. Thanks for the effort--SBF.

Section 425--20 Game Plan

Anonymous said...

SBF- Thank you so much for the interview. I can't wait for something better next year.

Just curious, have you heard anything about the policy of allowing fans to bring food into the park? I enjoy bringing my own food in so I can avoid the pathetic version vegetarian fare that Aramark offers. I would hate to have that policy change.