NFL stadiums reinvent concessions stands to protect fans, leaving some workers on sidelines

Food and beverage service companies are scrambling to reinvent concessions to keep NFL fans safe during the pandemic.

Hot dog and beer vendors will be a rare sight in NFL stadium aisles this season as officials work to overhaul concessions operations and create a safe environment for fans during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Only a handful of the NFL’s 32 teams will have fans in attendance when the season kicks off this weekend. With social distancing mandates in place, multiple NFL stadiums have eliminated food and beverage hawkers entirely in favor of contactless and, in many cases, cashless models meant to limit potential exposure and set fans up with their favorite gameday snacks as safely as possible.

Closures, attendance limits and necessary safety measures have had a major impact on stadium workers, many of whom will not be working at all in the season’s early weeks. Even in NFL stadiums that are hosting fans, concessions staffing is expected to be limited for the foreseeable future.

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“A vendor, a guy who is hawking beer, if they’re there at all, they’re certainly going to be affected,” Mike Plutino, CEO and founder of stadium concessions consulting firm Food Service Matters, told FOX Business. “We don’t anticipate long lines for a lot of anything right now.”

Pre-packaged food display at Hard Rock Stadium. (Miami Dolphins/Hard Rock Stadium)

At present, four teams – the Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins – have announced specific attendance plans. The Dolphins are allowing a maximum of 13,000 fans, or 20 percent of seating capacity at Hard Rock Stadium, at their first home game. The Chiefs and Jaguars are limited to roughly 16,000 fans at their home stadiums, while the Colts will host just 2,500 at their first home game.

NFL teams typically generate about $1 million to $2 million in concessions sales on game day, according to Plutino. That revenue figure will drop significantly at expected attendance levels, even if the fans who do attend spend more than they normally would to make up for a lack of tailgating options.

“I think the food service guys have all been full steam ahead in trying to reinvent and rethink and reimagine the business and make sure it’s safe for fans and for the internal workforce," Plutino said.

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In normal conditions, most football stadiums offer non-profit groups the ability to work in concessions to raise money for their causes, such as a fundraising push for a high school band. In-stadium hawkers – the workers who walk and down the aisles hot dogs, beer and other snacks – typically earn the majority of their income from sales commission and tips, while concourse workers generally receive an hourly rate. Hawkers are often hired through a third-party firm.

Concessions workers at Hard Rock Stadium will have access to automatic glove dispensers. (Miami Dolphins/Hard Rock Stadium)

The pandemic has forced a wholesale shift in the way sports stadiums do business, accelerating a move toward tech-enhanced fan service that was already well underway at many facilities.

Centerplate Inc., the food and beverage partner for the Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium and the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, has been developing service plans for its NFL clients for months. Safety measures at both team’s games include cashless transactions, mobile ordering single-serve food items in closed containers and plexiglass shields at concessions stand.

“We don’t want the fans to feel like it’s a reduced experience,” Centerplate CEO Steve Pangburn said. “We want them to have a very unique experience because they’re coming back after a very tough time and we want them to say, ‘Wow’ and to remember this experience.”

Pre-packaged food display at Hard Rock Stadium. (Miami Dolphins/Hard Rock Stadium.)

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Hard Rock Stadium won’t have food or beverage hawkers at Dolphins games in order to comply with social distancing rules. Centerplate is also limiting the amount of workers at food prep stations and streamlining menus to include fan-favorite items only so that fans won’t have to linger in lines.

Pangburn acknowledged that Centerplate would have less staff compared to a normal NFL Sunday, but noted that the staff-to-fan ratio would actually be higher than normal and the level of reduction would be nowhere near the limits on fan attendance. Workers will earn their normal hourly rate. The elimination of tailgating for safety reasons means that stadiums will open sooner than usual, allowing the possibility of more hours for staffers that do work.

“It’s going to be about the fan experience. We’re not reducing the number of points of sale to that level,” Pangburn added. “We’re really trying to make it feel and look almost like a normal time.”

The Jaguars and their food service partner, Delaware North Sportservice, have adopted similar measures at TIAA Bank Stadium. Food and drink hawkers won’t be on-site and condiment stands will be closed for the foreseeable future.

In addition to cashless payment options, stadium officials will serve all food in closed containers, install plexiglass barriers and allow fans to bring their own reusable water bottle into the facility.

“We are working to determine our level of concessions and staffing, with no change to hourly pay rates for our employees,” Delaware North Sportservice said in a statement.

The Chiefs have moved to a cashless model at all concessions stands and retail locations within Arrowhead Stadium through a partnership with payment services firm Tappit. Additionally, the team has increased the ratio of point-of-sale locations to fans to allow them to spread out and order without fear of violating social distancing rules.

“There will be a variety of limited contact and contactless concession experiences available, including "Grab N' Go's," self-checkout, order pickup, and kiosk ordering stands throughout the stadium,” the Chiefs said in a post detailing their stadium policy.

Aramark, the Chiefs’ food service partner, did not respond to a request for comment.

The NFL is requiring fans to wear masks at all times when attending games this season. While only a few teams will have crowds at first, league officials have left open the possibility of adjusting attendance policies as the season progresses.

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More fans would require a larger staff of stadium workers, though it’s unclear when conditions will allow hawkers and other traditional elements of the live event experience to return.

“The amount of livelihoods that are tied up into sports, just in the food service line alone, is just extraordinary,” said Plutino, the stadium concessions consultant. “The amount of hands that sports feeds, I don’t know if anyone’s done the math, but it’s an extraordinary amount of ripple-down effect."

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