02/03/2015 6:28PM

Gisser: Racetrack food should go mainstream

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Our Keith Gisser is hoping to find a Chipotle at the track in the near future.

The year was 2007 and my employers at Northfield Park were putting together plans for their state of the art Trackside Lounge. Intertwined with this $400,000 investment were numerous discussions about our food service operation. As I had several times previously, I suggested co-branding or even franchising for both the proposed food court (which ended up not happening), and the clubhouse dining room. Again, it was decided that my concept would not work and that was understandable. Sporting venues of all types had their own concessions and their own branding concepts. They did not generally partner with outside interests.

But we were starting to see a few inroads – arena Subway sandwich stands and stadium Pizza Hut Express stands were just two. Fast forward to today and we see nearly every sports venue partnering with local chefs and regional and national chains; except ours. For example, in Cleveland media darling Michael Symon has a B-Spot burger stand and a Bar Symon at the Q Arena, where the Cavaliers play basketball. Rocco Whalen, another well-known chef, has Rocco’s at the Q, and Quaker Steak and Lube, a wing chain that started in Sharon, Pennsylvania, has a concession stand and a sit down location. At Shea Stadium, err, Citi Field in New York, the Mets called on iconic brands like Nathan’s, Cascarino’s and Blue Smoke BBQ for casual dining, and partnered with Drew Nieporent, owner of the Myriad Restaurant Group, known for Nobu and Tribeca Grill, for upscale options.

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Meanwhile, while we have seen some tracks partner with regional hospitality groups (instead of the food service giants Aramark, Marriott Host and Sportservice) for their clubhouses for a better dining experience, we have not seen the same move on the casual or concession side.  The Meadowlands offers a food court, but the stands are generic. On the upscale end, Jeff Gural partnered with ARK Restaurants (Bryant Park Grill and DC’s Sequoia) and Michael Sinensky of Funbars.com (Village Pourhouse and Hudson Terrace), but kept the branding race-track themed rather than trading on the popular brand names of the partners.

The lack of branding in a clubhouse restaurant is understandable, although I continue to say that casual race-goers are more likely to try Texas Roadhouse at the Meadows than Bistecca, or head to Red Lobster at Northfield Park than to Lady Luck’s. Even the Olive Garden brand has a certain appeal that could draw new attendees. Hey, you gotta eat, and if we consider racing the live entertainment, instead of large screen TVs (or in addition), acoustic music acts or trivia, perhaps we could reach out to a segment that has not experienced harness racing.

Bistecca at the Meadows allows a view of the track, but that is not always the case when visiting racinos. Racetracks that have casinos or slots are often (relatively) underserved. Often the best restaurants do not provide a view of the track.  Mohegan Sun at Pocono, whose self-branded Pacers in the clubhouse gets high grades from me and just about anyone else you talk to, is great. But of the 19 dining options listed on its website, only two seem to be at the track.

Face it. A big problem is that fine dining at a racetrack is a logistical nightmare. Whereas a Texas Roadhouse can turn over a table three or four times between 6 PM and 11 PM, the racetrack goer arrives and stays at his table for almost the entire night. You might get a few latecomers, especially if Applebees at Hoosier Park offers late night appetizers, but at most you are going to turn the tables twice.

The other problem is the logjam, both for servers and in the kitchen, right around first-race post time. Every restaurant has a busy time, but the dynamic at a racetrack is different than it is at a free-standing or mall location. Therefore, you have higher labor costs (more servers needed) and then the extra help end up standing around after that major rush. But I still believe there could be a huge upside to outside branding these locations.

The issue that amazes me most of all is the lack of co-branding at concession and casual dining stands. These are in and out locations, without the logistical issues of the formal dining areas. 

Years ago Harry Stevens WAS the brand and you could get an amazing bowl of clam chowder at the Meadows concession stand. Aramark purchased Harry Stevens Concessions in 1994 and an era ended.

So why is that when the NFL, the NBA and MLB consistently partner with major casual chains, both regional and national, I am stuck eating non-descript pizza and hot dogs when I go to the racetrack? Come on. How cool would it be to eat Chipotle at Pompano Park, or the good local pizza at any track. There used to be a pizza joint across the street form Northfield that was unreal – among the best I ever had, and a place that horsemen would drive hours out of their way to hit. Romito’s at Northfield Park would have sold a ton of pies. So why don’t we see it? Is it lack of interest in ancillary income? Is it a lack of understanding of dining trends? Perhaps it is complacency that seems to have filtered into so many aspects of our sport? Or am I totally missing something?

I welcome responses from track management folks who read this. Now go cash. And hopefully buy yourself a good meal. See you next month.

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