Outside the Box


A reception table at an event catered by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

How large facilities and institutions—such as stadiums, universities and convention centers—are growing their catering business with creative cuisine and community outreach

By Sara Perez Webber

As weddings go, this one’s sure to score a touchdown. In May, a Miami Dolphins-loving couple will tie the knot on the football field at the newly renovated Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., home of the Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes. Their reception in one of the stadium’s private clubs will feature Dolphins-themed pastries and decorations, as they celebrate their favorite team while they celebrate their union.

It’s one example of how large facilities and institutions—including stadiums, universities and convention centers—are casting a wider catering net. They’re booking events during off-periods, catering off-site, and establishing reputations in their communities for innovative, creative cuisine and interesting venues.

At the Hard Rock Stadium—where Centerplate is the food, service and hospitality provider—“the amount of outside catering we are doing has really skyrocketed in the last few years,” says Jerry Reed, Centerplate director of food and beverage. “It accounts for roughly 15% to 25% of our total business now, and we expect it to grow more.”

As a result of its recent $500 million renovation, the stadium now boasts 14 distinct areas where it can host upscale events. “You can have a catering event in a football stadium that makes you feel like you’re in the Ritz-Carlton,” says Reed. “The Rockwell Group designed these club spaces, and they have designed some of the most upscale venues, clubs and restaurants in the world.”

To get the message out about its facilities and catering options, the Centerplate team—including Reed, General Manager Kevin Mitchell and Executive Chef Marc Spooner—works closely with the Dolphins’ group sales team as well as the local chamber of commerce. “There is no event that we can’t execute well,” says Reed, noting that the stadium hosts weddings, trade shows and corporate team-building events.

Centerplate’s emphasis on innovative, local cuisine is another big draw. Spooner’s menu includes such distinctly South Florida items as the A1A Burger, made with a proprietary blend of meats sourced from West Palm Beach farms. Bread is sourced from Zak the Baker, a popular bakery in Miami’s trendy Wynwood neighborhood, while a local sushi partner’s chefs come to the stadium to roll on-site.

“It’s very rare that you can offer a high-end, elegant catering dynamic in an outdoors sports venue,” says Reed. “As we service events that are not football games, we become better hospitality providers who are able to provide a top-notch level of service to guests of all types.”

Just as you may not expect to find hand-rolled sushi at a football stadium, you probably wouldn’t assume you could have a garden party at a downtown convention center. Yet that’s exactly what Centerplate offers at Blue Bear Farm adjacent to the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. The farm grows more than 1,800 pounds of fruits, vegetables and herbs utilized in the convention center’s cuisine.

“Just steps away from the kitchen is where we grow our herbs and vegetables, so diners at garden parties or weddings know that their food is fresh as can be,” says Centerplate Executive Chef Carmen Callo, who oversees the culinary program at the Colorado Convention Center. The farm has 42 raised beds for people to explore—it’s a popular educational destination for school groups—and guests dining on farm-to-table cuisine in the garden can also feast on the breathtaking mountain views.

“People are seeing the appeal in how we can bring community, local sourcing and sustainability to life for the city and its visitors” says Callo.

An ice sculpture at an event catered by Marshall University, which has aggressively grown its off-campus catering business in the last four years.

Sustainable agriculture is also transforming the food culture at The Hotchkiss School, an independent boarding school for grades 9 through 12 in Lakeville, Conn. The school’s 287-acre Fairfield Farm serves as an outdoor classroom, with students working on the farm to grow and harvest its vegetables. “Every bit of the food from the farm goes right into our dining hall, or is donated to the local food bank,” says Michael Webster, general manager of Sodexo dining services. Hotchkiss Dining also pioneered a whole animal purchasing model, contracting meat directly from local farmers, and menus are based on seasonality and availability of regional products.

The farm-to-table approach has helped to grow the school’s catering department. While most catered events serve alumni, faculty and staff, external demand has grown as well, with events booked at Hotchkiss this summer.

Marshall Catering by Sodexo at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., working with the campus’ facilities scheduling office, has aggressively grown its non-university business in the last four years, providing a valuable source of revenue for the school. “Our former president, Dr. Kopp, knew that in the coming years state funding would be cut dramatically at our institution,” says Eric Barker, Marshall University’s catering director, adding that Kopp predicted the university’s funding from the state would be cut to 20% by 2020. “This made me realize that if the school would be losing 80% of its state funding, that we needed to start preparing. So, we have made the move, and now about 40% to 45% of our business is non-university.”

In fact, the campus catering department’s business has doubled in the last four years. Corporate events and fundraisers represent about two-thirds of outside business, with weddings comprising the rest. While happy customers generate much of the business through word-of-mouth referrals, the university even hosted a bridal and special event expo in February to further spread the word about its facilities and services.

“Branding ourselves as an all-inclusive package deal has helped to grow these sales,” says Barker. “Customers can have a one-stop shop—an inexpensive room rental and moderately priced catering, with many amenities included,” such as AV support, tables, chairs, linen, staff, bar service, custom setup options and housekeeping.

In addition to booking on-campus business from non-university clients, the department caters at venues and private homes throughout the area. “We build our menus to satisfy the needs of our customers,” says Barker. “My motto is, ‘If the customer wants it and we can do it, let’s do it.’” Marshall Catering captures such a healthy amount of community business that Barker expects there to be an inevitable slow-down in the rate of growth. To that end, “we’re looking to push for a more robust pick-up menu for folks who are doing cookouts, family reunions and laid-back outdoor weddings,” he says.

Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, another Sodexo dining services partner, has boosted its catering to outside groups by taking advantage of its location. Groups en route to the Grand Canyon, 70 miles away, will often stop at NAU for breakfast, then create their own bag lunches to take with them on the road. “We’ll set out a variety of different sandwiches, chips, fruits, brownies and brookies,” says James Graves, operations director of campus services at NAU, adding that the brookie—a combination cookie/brownie—is a particularly popular menu item. “We’ll also load up their coolers for them.”

Other popular menu options include the regionally influenced Native American Buffet—with such offerings as Southwest tacos made with fry bread, green chile and pork stew, and Pueblo bread pudding—and a chili bar featuring varieties of award-winning chili from the campus’ annual chili contest.

The Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., serves up such regionally influenced fare as the A1A burger.

While the university caters to groups that come to NAU for conferences and competitions during the summer and school breaks, NAU’s off-campus catering is growing as well. The department recently started using Thumbtack—an online service in which potential customers request services, and companies submit bids for the business—and works with the chamber of commerce, wedding coordinators and more to get the word out. “Marketing will be key in helping us fill in our slow times,” says Graves.

Binghamton University Dining Services by Sodexo, in Binghamton, N.Y., is another on-campus foodservice operation with a thriving catering department, catering on average 3,500 events yearly—from high-profile meals for visiting dignitaries, such as former President Obama in 2013; to pre-game meals for sports teams; to the upcoming Draw Party for the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open golf tournament.

The department is known for the quality of its cuisine; Binghamton University Dining Services chefs attend cooking competitions regionally and nationally. In October, three of the chefs took home the people’s choice award at the Fresh Food Face-Off, a competition among Broome County chefs using locally grown products and ingredients. It’s the sixth year the department has competed, and they’ve never gone home empty-handed. The catering department also ensures it’s serving the university’s diverse students and staff members by offering ethnic menus, and it highlights local specialties. For example, Binghamton University Dining Services recently created its own version of the Spiedie—a hugely popular local specialty, consisting of marinated meat cubes grilled on a skewer—in conjunction with Lupo’s, a nearby business famous for its Spiedies.

Such creativity has helped Binghamton University Dining services develop a reputation for “flexibility, quality, innovative food and service,” says Pawel Nowacki, senior catering director, who notes that the department is working with the university to increase revenue through hosting more off-campus groups during the summer. So far, says Nowacki, the strategy is working, with summer programs growing year upon year: “Our business increases constantly.”