Few understand what it takes to succeed in providing a unique food, beverage and merchandise experience for the nation’s sports and entertainment patron.
One that does: Dan Smith, President of Legends Hospitality, has more than 40 years of experience, directing all aspects of multi-regional food service and merchandise operations. Since joining Legends at the company’s inception, Dan has been instrumental in spearheading partnerships with some of Legends’ most notable clients, including Yankee Stadium, AT&T Stadium, Golden 1 Center, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Nissan Stadium and the Raymond James Stadium and over 40 Live Nation amphitheaters.
Before starting at Legends, Dan was President of Ledgestone Associates, where he served as a consultant for self-operating clients looking to elevate the customer game day experience. Prior to Ledgestone, he was Senior Vice President of Centerplate, where he maintained profit and loss responsibilities for more than 52 facilities in five separate East Coast.
News broke last year that a new football stadium had been approved for the NFL’s Bills in Buffalo, NY. When the announcement came that Legends had won the concessions contract over a local incumbent, we just knew that it was a vision that needed to be shared. With that, we sought out Dan Smith, Legends’ president of hospitality, to share his thoughts on where the guest experience is headed for the nation’s fandom.
For those who don’t know about Legends, it’s really an incredible story. Can you give a little of the history, how this all came together?
The best way to think of Legends, is as a global premium experiences company that works with some of the most iconic and innovative sports brands in the world. Our goal is to deliver outstanding live and digital experiences for fans around the world that drive revenue and brand value for our partners. Think of us as White Label, data driven, holistic service solution tailored for our client’s business goals. Think of us operating wherever there’s a mass confluence of people, that’s the best way to describe us.
What’s really interesting about that is you use the term White Label. So is the idea that when you go to the Dallas Cowboys Stadium, it’s a Dallas Cowboys experience, not a Legends experience.
Exactly. You will never see Legends broadcast in the public eye, we are there to present the brand of the teams that we serve.
I remember seeing you at Yankee Stadium years and years ago. Talk a little bit about your background.
Yep, years and years ago is correct. And the more I tell this story, the older I feel, but I started in 1977. Some 46 years ago selling peanuts in Yankee Stadium. I enjoyed my whole career, working with that venue and others mostly on the food and beverage, and merchandise side of the business. I like to refer to myself as a recovering accountant, because I started in the field of accounting, but then I switched over into operations after having done most of the jobs myself. I truly pinch myself every day of how lucky I’ve been, in my career to touch so many people and to deliver what we’ve been able to deliver.
How has this business changed in terms of what the customer experience looked like when you began working for George Steinbrenner 40 years ago?
I’m going to broaden that a little bit more, because over a cocktail, we could trade the George stories. But really working for both George Steinbrenner and Jerry Jones at the same time was like a dream come true to me. Just watching the way those two gentlemen commanded the room and what they would demand. And their managerial styles were very much alike, because they always demanded excellence. And when they knew you could be providing that and doing even more than what you were doing, they always push you in that direction, to get you to think outside of the box, and to deliver at the very highest levels.
You’ve built multiple generations of stadiums. In other words, these guys may have had a vision 40 or 50 years ago, but didn’t have the facility for you to execute the vision.
Think about the state of affairs in 1977. When they reopened the remodeled Yankee Stadium in ‘76, no one knew what a luxury box even was. There was always this resistance as why would people spend all that money to sit in a room with a few of their friends, as opposed to wanting to be in a stadium environment. So Steinbrenner was really the forefather of that business. I was always hamstrung because between 1977 when the stadium closed, they kept adding on and adding on more premium experiences with limited kitchen and prep capabilities. In contrast, Jerry Jones on the Cowboys side always had the ability to provide premium level services but not to the level that was demanded in that marketplace. So, both of them had the aspirations to delivering more on and more focus on the suite end of the business while still elevating the base level of service on the concession level.
Does a 10-game football home season versus an 81 game baseball season impact how you plan and what you try to execute?
Absolutely, totally different businesses. I’ll start with the 10 home game season with the NFL, where you have to get it right every game. I mean, there’s no misses. Because if you don’t have your plan properly executed on the first game, you already lost 10% of your season. So, the immediacy of that business is much more acute than in an 81-game baseball season where you can continually refine. The challenge with baseball is your fan base comes to more than one or two games, so variety becomes crucial.
How did you help grow Legends into a world-renowned brand so quickly?
First and foremost, we started as a food and beverage and merchandise offering company. We looked at the success of that model, and the thing that we were able to deliver right out of the chute was an elevated customer service experience. Then you start to look at which areas of our client’s business can we help them improve? Then we started looking at the sales aspect of it with a focus on project development.
That evolved into all of the different verticals that we now operate in. Ultimately what we are able to provide is a really holistic approach to venue services that hadn’t been done before which was truly groundbreaking.
How did your work with Jerry Jones and the Cowboys drive your growth?
It began by us taking a very different role in Dallas. We were entrusted to take the lead and sell the suites and the naming rights and sponsorships. We were wildly successful with the Cowboys project. We had assembled a team with this unique expertise that we could then send into other markets. That turned into the football 49ers calling on us to leverage that team for their new facility in California. With that mission accomplished, the industry called on us to help them accomplish their goals.
When you talk about building your own teams within each one of these arenas, do begin with a culinary team?
It’s all about meshing skill sets and culture. When you take over a venue, you start building with existing people in those venues that have a special skill set. Then you determine who is the best cultural fit. You then ask yourself; can they leverage their expertise and institutional knowledge to deliver at the level that you need to provide that customer experience. Then if we give them the tools to succeed, will this work? Perfect example is with our culinary team. Gretchen Beaumarchais, who is in charge of our culinary program nationwide started as an executive chef in one of our facilities. We quickly saw her ability to stay on top of trends, her ability to employ best practices inside of a facility, then we started to give her more responsibility now she’s in charge of our entire program nationwide.
I’ve always noticed that you’ve done whatever you could to bring the local restaurant, food service community and operator community to be part of your concepts.
Oh my god! That’s probably one of the most important pieces of our strategy, is how do we tell the local food story. You have to do a lot of work upfront, studying the locale, understanding what’s trending, understanding who the players are in the market. We stay connected with our fan base by staying connected with the team through the food service offering. We termed the phrase “locavore.” It also ties into our sustainability goals. With that, we like to source all of the ingredients that we use, from the local marketplace to the extent we can.
When I think of Legends and local, I think of Lobel’s in Yankee Stadium.
I’ll give you the story behind Lobel’s, I mean, they are a sixth generation New York City butcher shop, and you can’t get more iconic than them.
Our original goal was for them to provide premium product. It has evolved into far more than that. We recreated a dry aging stage for them so that you could see people trimming all the filets, and butchering all the cuts. Then all of a sudden, fans started lining up in front of that window just watching the show.
That turned into a portable location that people migrated to, then that morphed into putting a whole full-service kitchen. We found that because people want to trade up for quality. It’s a New York tradition and a partnership worked beautifully for Lobel’s, because now they’re a nationwide provider of their products to people who wouldn’t otherwise know them. We try to take as those nascent brands, and then give them a base of operation and expose them to the fan base.
When you started in the concession business, it was very much a build it and they will come type of thing. Where did the move to premium offerings come from?
If you look at the old Yankee Stadium, there were four kitchens in the entire facility. Your ability to produce anything in mass quantity with any type of quality was somewhat limited. The old model used to be if you fry it, they will buy it. Just throw whatever you can into the deep fryer, get it produced in mass, and whatever then with the limited cooking capacity you had you would create a limited menu. Now, when you’re able to design these new kitchens with production in mind, you’re able to expand your offerings and add a lot more versatility to the menu. The new facilities all have 20-to-30-year life cycles to them. With that kind of commitment to a facility, you need to be thinking about how that those menu cycles are going to change. Projecting production versatility years out is a challenge.
As you look at the business and you come out of a baseball season, are we still a hot dog and beer at the ballpark eating culture?
Without a doubt! Our attitude is if that hot dog is a staple, we need to get it right. Your reputation with your fan base is still tied to your ability get staples right. It’s all about the staples and those key core items that you keep adding.
Sushi? What are some of the highlights of that next generation of core menu items?
We are in the sushi business at SoFi in LA. But the most talked about item there is our hot dog known as the Ugly Ripper Dog. It’s a deep fried hot dog that once people try it, they absolutely are hooked. It was all about in the first couple of games, having them try it. Then we started offering a different style of pizza. Keep in mind that the pizza you sell in California has to be very different than the pizza you sell in New York.
Can someone coming out of culinary school, or healthcare build a career at Legends?
Absolutely, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of. Many people that come to Legends, see solid career growth trajectory. They might come in at a very basic and elementary level. We give them the tools to run and succeed, and the support that they need to get to the next level. We promote from within and much of our upward trajectory comes from learning your craft at one of our venues and then being promoted in another of our venues around the country. We have found that to the extent somebody’s relocatable, that tends to broaden their opportunities. From a cultural standpoint, we notice that the better a teacher you become the longer and further you grow with us.
Do you look at the concession and suite businesses in two different buckets or the same bucket?
Let me answer it, both ways. Same bucket as in you definitely have to have the highest level of quality on both programs. The suite offerings also need to evolve. The days of just dropping off food in the beginning of the game. It sits there in a chafing dish for three hours and the guest got a bill at the end the event. Those days are gone.
You’ve created a culinary art form with beautiful carts including desserts and ice cream.
Immersive is the best way to describe it. We think of it as providing comfort food in an upscale format that you are preparing in somebody’s kitchen at home. You need to remember that whomever rents that suite is entertaining 16 of their guests, just like they would do in their home. For those three hours, that suite becomes their home, and everything we offer is a reflection on them. Once they have the confidence in you that you can deliver that level, we go off script sometimes and we create customized menu for suite holders. Those types of relationship have defined our service and growth.
How has the design of commissaries and kitchens evolved in stadiums?
At its core the design needs to begin with having enough production capabilities. You need to have enough cold storage to get the food safely into the venue and then pass through to your kitchens. On game day, you need distribution capabilities to get all that food transported to where it needs to go. The constraints you are challenged with are that often you have to do it under a lot of space constraints. Every plan is different at every project, you often have to make sacrifices on something so that you can get the reward on the other side. But I would say that paramount in any kitchen design is having the flow to be able to consistently execute our production.
What’s the approach on food and beverage purchasing?
What we’ve done is create a purchasing function within Legends that goes out and negotiates directly with manufacturers.
The goal of our program is to get our prices locked in. Most importantly, Chef Gretchen is very intimately involved in the quality aspect of that. We’re not overly prescriptive and with that we give our managers a little bit of leeway to create, so it’s not the same spec in every venue.We are also balancing that many of our local teams are trying to monetize relationships with sponsorships, so we work within those confines.
So once all of that is constructed then we go to the broad line distributor model to house whatever it is we’ve created. We have three broad line distributors in the east. We use Ace Endico given their close proximity to all of our New York venues and our very close relationship with their ownership over the years. It’s the kind of relationship that even with our size and their size, I can still call and ask for 100 cases of whatever on short notice. In the southwest, we work with Ben E. Keith to handle that large footprint. Everywhere else, it’s US Foods. Those three distributor relationships enable us to source very consistent product all across the country and even with COVID, we never had to worry about supply chain.
What about a green and sustainable agenda, with bottles, cans, straws and paper?
I will tell you that, at the top of that hierarchy is again, local sourcing, to make sure you’re not going out more than 150 miles for anything. I’ll always say, as long as I live, that we’re never doing enough, you always have to adopt that mentality. We have a humanely raised protein utilization program, a cage free egg policies, and carefully source our seafood.
Most importantly, when it’s all done, our waste reduction planning, focuses on taking organic waste and turning it into grey water that can be discharged right into the sewer systems. We work very closely with the Green Sports Alliance on best practices. Obviously with that comes grease and oil reclamation programs. A key making it succeed has been making sure that every one of our operators buy into it. We approach that by forming these committees at each venue. This is one committee that we don’t have to ask for volunteers because everyone that works for us, wants to make sure that they are part of our mission.
You raised some eyebrows when you were awarded the contract at the new Buffalo Bills stadium.
We did our homework early on by talking and listening to the Buffalo community about what they wanted from a new venue. As we talked to the true fan base, we could see they wanted something very different. Even something as basic as pizza in Buffalo is different. They prefer a style called “cup & char”. To accomplish that, we needed to design special prep and ovens. We found out that Buffalo fans like their hotdogs chargrilled. In Buffalo, did you know there is no such thing as Buffalo wings. They are just wings. Again, you have to do the core items right. You can add all of the specialty items on top of that, but they have to trust you on those key core items. I spent a lot of time up there just eating my way through the town and I used to have a 36-inch waistline. I don’t anymore!
What are your thoughts on technology eliminating cash from a concession transaction?
I am hard pressed to tell you any venue where we still take cash. We’re almost completely cashless and we found it to be very productive. It gets people to transact very quickly. People are not as hesitant to spend on items, they will stretch a little bit more on the credit card, and it just facilitates the whole transaction. With the design of new facilities that front counter is going to disappear in most stadiums.
The old days featured a Micros terminal in every concession stand. What does POS look like in a cashless environment?
Those legacy systems still have their value with a provide a wealth of information on the back end. But what they don’t provide as much as the mobile devices do is connectivity to the fan base.
Again, as the technology evolves, I would envision in a few years our team will carry their cash register in their pocket like a cell phone.
That will enable us to interface with our guests through all types of messaging, through their mobile devices. We already have venues where guests are paying with their cell phones. One of the benefits has been the additional data from those transactions that we are able to use to maximize that guest experience.
Look into the crystal ball: do you see a day when a drone delivers your hot dog and drink and how about the role of AI?
Drones could be a little bit difficult given the density of the seating bowl. But maybe some robotic delivery on the suite level. But the wealth of information we’re already getting from AI is enabling us to shape menu offerings in a way that we’re able to capitalize on what’s trending a lot faster. You’re going to see us incorporating a lot more AI technologies in our back of house operations.
To learn more about Legends Hospitality, visit their website.