Feeding the Big House: Michigan Stadium's concession manager preps for 112,000 football fans
Daniel J. Brenner | AnnArbor.com
What’s bigger - the University of Michigan football game itself or the food served with it?
Since, for security, fans are no longer allowed to bring food or drink into the stadium, concessions have become a necessity and a bigger business.
Just before halftime at last week’s game against Northwestern, everyone suddenly left the stadium and turned their attention toward eating.
When they left, Michigan was seven points ahead. If they stood in line a long time, like most did, then sat on the grass and enjoyed the warmth, when they returned, Northwestern was seven points ahead.
Part of the attraction of eating at the stadium is the variety of choices. Besides the traditional hot dogs, sandwiches, and pizza, there is Red Rock Barbeque, Kettle Korn, Damon’s Grill, Super Pretzel, Fresh Roasted Almonds, Cracker Jack, Carvel ice cream, and more.
During a typical September game, 65,000 bottles of water are sold, 15,000 hot dogs, 8,000 personal pizzas, 5,000 popped maize, and 2,500 bags of Kettle Korn. That’s according to Sandy Spencer, who works for Sodexo, the Paris, France-based service company that is in their third year of overseeing all concessions at the stadium. Sodexo has a variety of businesses in 80 countries and handles concessions at 40 other stadiums in the U.S., including Northwestern and Ohio State in the Big Ten.
Spencer, general manager for the company at Michigan Stadium, says that "their goal is to provide an exceptional game day experience for the fan through the food by meeting every taste. We listen to new ideas, and this year, for example, added Italian beef sandwiches and Chicago style hot dogs."
In order to serve the thousands of hungry fans, Sodexo has 41 permanent stands around the stadium, plus 55 to 60 portable locations, a combined 703 points of service.
They hire 1,640 workers for every home game. Sodexo workers man the permanent stands, like UM Concessions or Big House Grill. The workers are members of nonprofit organizations ranging from bands to Girl Scouts to churches to sports teams.
Spencer said that each year the total take for the 59 nonprofits is about $400,000, the result of their 9.5 per cent cut of the sales.
Christy Lansky has a daughter who plays ice hockey on the Victory Honda AAA under 14 girls team. She said that the $500 they make each week at their stand is split between the two or three families that work and it pays for her daughter’s ice time.
"I put in nine hours per week," she said. "It’s fun work, easy, and goes smoothly."
The portable locations are run by owners or employees of local vendors that Sodexo brings in to increase the variety of food choices. Sodexo also caters the clubs and the 82 suites at the stadium and their 2,700 guests.
The night before a home game, Spencer usually doesn’t leave his office until midnight since the food orders for the suites are coming in and the cold food is being prepared. He returns at 3 a.m. for a noon game when the culinary team for the suites arrives.
At 6 a.m., team leaders begin arriving. They and many of the workers park at Wolverine Towers at State and Eisenhower and take a shuttle provided from there.
Then there are team meetings, getting the equipment ready, firing up pizza ovens, assembling boxes, and the like. Gates open to the public two hours before kickoff.
Spencer said he walks for miles on Saturday around the stadium, up and down the steps, back and forth to the concessions, clubs, and suites. He usually doesn’t wait for the elevators.
"I know every nook and cranny in this stadium," he said. His day ends late at night.
Even growing up in Toronto, Spencer was a Michigan fan since it is the closest big university in the states. He remembers the basketball team with the "Fab Five" when he was a freshman in high school.
"This athletic department and university is world class," he said. "It’s an honor for me to work here. I never envisioned being part of it, and now I even have an office at the Big House"
He attended the University of Arkansas (alma mater of Ryan Mallett, the quarterback who transferred from U-M after the 2007 season), played baseball for the Razorbacks, then minor league ball before joining Sodexo 14 years ago. He and his wife have three daughters, from eight years to eight months old.
This year, Sodexo has been making their own pizza in a large room below the east concourse. Spencer said that it is by choice rather than because of the large turnover of vendors. Hot chocolate and coffee are also made nearby, and all three are then transported to the different food locations.
Though there is plenty of food on game day, the prices may keep some from eating at the stadium. Not everyone is willing to pay $4 for a bottle of water, $8 for a sandwich, $6 for a hot dog, or $5 for popcorn. The prices are set by Sodexo, not by the vendors.
Spencer maintains that the prices are comparable to other college and professional sports venues in the area, and in some ways are better.
"For example, we sell a 25-ounce bottle of Absopure, not 20 ounces as most places do," he said. "And we have a 16.9 ounce available for $3. At almost all of our stands, you can get a courtesy cup of water, and we have four hydration stations around the stadium that offer free cups of water. Our $6 hot dog is a Hebrew National kosher beef frank, but we also have a regular dog for $4.50. The rolls for our sandwiches come from Zingerman’s."
In the process of serving so many thousands of people, there has to be unused food and a lot of trash, right?
Spencer said that Don Redding and a crew from First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor collects unused food after the game and takes it to Food Gatherers to be distributed (a total of 10,400 pounds last year).
And the litter that is left from all the food purchased is cleaned up Sunday morning by Father Gabriel Richard High School.
So, now, after all the food is eaten or given away or hauled away, I’m still asking myself what’s bigger - the food or the game itself?
Bob Horning, a lifelong Ann Arbor resident, is writing U-M gameday stories for AnnArbor.com. If you have ideas for future columns, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.