Why Lines Got Long At Winter Classic

Concessionaire Levy says it confronted ‘unique challenges’ at outdoor NHL game

by Tim Newcomb and Don Muret

January 3, 2019

at Notre Dame Stadium on January 1, 2019 in South Bend, Indiana.

It was all good in the stands for the New Year’s Day game at Notre Dame Stadium, but things didn’t go as smoothly on the concourses, according to fans on Twitter. (Getty Images)

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind., welcomed more than 76,000 for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic outdoor regular-season game Jan. 1, but fans took to social media to call out the venue for long food and beverage lines and stands that ran out of food and beer.

Comments on Twitter told stories of fans missing the entire second period waiting in line, and fans complained about the venue running out of beer early and stands running out of food in the first of the two intermissions. “Forty people deep for a pretzel?” one commenter on Twitter wrote. “They don’t have trouble serving food here for football games.”

Levy, the stadium’s food and beverage provider for all events, had said before the game it planned plenty of hot chocolate and comfort-food items to keep the crowd warm and was already versed in selling beer inside the stadium at concerts, even though it doesn’t sell beer there for Notre Dame football games. It responded after the game that hosting a Winter Classic for the first time at the stadium “presented some unique challenges and attracted a different range of fans.”

Levy said some confusion may have come from converting stands that normally sell food to selling only beer, making it appear those stands were out of food.

Also, per NHL regulations, no beer was sold after the second period. “Stands were restocked as beer was sold,” a Levy spokesperson said. “Some concession stands did run out of an item or two, but none were without food options.”

Levy and Notre Dame Stadium may have also run into a different issue: The timing of food and beverage sales for a hockey game differ greatly from those at a football game. When as many as 80,000 fans fill the stands to watch the Fighting Irish play football, those three-plus-hour games come with multiple breaks in the action, two quarter breaks and a halftime. The meandering nature of a football game leads to plenty of opportunity to hit concession stands. Hockey fans generally stay seated for the action and hit the concourses during one of the game’s two intermissions.

“There are unique challenges when iconic venues host high-profile one-off events as the fan behavior and spending patterns can differ greatly from their existing fan base where they often have detailed data and analysis based on a venue’s historical performance,” said Mike Plutino, founder and CEO of consultancy Food Service Matters.

Plutino says that the ability to “flex” an operation to accommodate capacity and increased consumption is the key to hosting unique events. “We would recommend ensuring that more locations can serve a dual purpose — both food and beverage — as well as adding or enhancing any existing vending programs to significantly increase the current point-of-sale rations while also ensuring that fixed and portable menus are limited in their offering and engineered for speed of service,” he said.

Jim Fischer spent the past 40 years working in big league concessions before retiring from Spectra in October. Weather is obviously key factor at outdoor stadiums and vendors do all they can to prepare for accommodating large crowds for high-profile events such as the Winter Classic. Sometimes, though, you just can’t predict fans’ purchasing habits, Fischer said.

At Super Bowl XXXIII in South Florida, Fischer was general manager for the old Fine Host at the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, now called Hard Rock Stadium. Fine Host had plenty of beer and alcohol to sell, but many fans preferred to buy bottled water, which surprised company officials. The vendor had enough water, but supplies did run low, according to Fischer. In a tropical climate, it wasn’t particularly hot for the game, “but apparently after a long day of parties, people just wanted to drink water vs. more alcohol,” he said.

The age of the facility is also a key factor operationally, Fischer said. College football stadiums are typically much older than NFL venues and space can become an with issue with smaller concourses and concession stands at buildings constructed 80 years ago. Notre Dame Stadium opened in 1930 and underwent a massive renovation over the past three years that included expanded concourses. Some small food stands remained after the upgrades, but it’s unclear what role the retrofit played in the issues Levy experienced during the Winter Classic.

Next year, the Winter Classic moves to Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, another vintage facility that opened in 1930 and has undergone multiple renovations. Most recently, the building played host to the annual Texas-Oklahoma football game in October that drew 92,300 fans. Ed Campbell, owner of the Ed Campbell Co., the stadium’s concessionaire, has worked food service at the venue for 43 years, including a few dozen Cotton Bowl Classic games before the event moved to AT&T Stadium in 2010. Some of those bowl games, such as the one in 1979 played a day after the city’s worst ice storm in 30 years, were staged in less than ideal conditions.

For Campbell, the Winter Classic will be his first time working that event, but he says he knows the building well enough to be prepared for any knuckleballs that come his way.

“If you look at that event, you have to recognize that hockey is unique,” Campbell said. “People eat and drink more during the two intermissions instead of one (halftime) in football. You need portable beer stands and a resupply system where beer can be stored with dried ice. It helps to have a vending program to keep people out of the concourse by selling beer, hot chocolate and water in the stands.” 

Streamlining menus with hot dogs, nachos and other snacks on the concourse and selling specialty items along the stadium perimeter also helps cut down on congestion, Campbell said.

It also helps to price items in even dollar amounts to avoid making change and expedite cash transactions, he said.

Most important, never run out of beer.

“For the last Cotton Bowl game we did (in 2009) we emptied two semi truckloads of beer,” he said. “Anything that’s left on the truck, we get a credit.”