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Commentary: TDN Guide To The Concession Stand

“The secret to success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside!” -Mark Twain

I just had a bad experience at a dirt track concession stand recently and it got me thinking. At first, I thought about how hungry I was and how there was really nothing around to satisfy it.  Then, I thought about that lonely 1/2 open bag of peanuts from four months before that were still in the trunk of my car, did they miss me as much as I missed them? Were they still any good?


From Dustin Jarrett Blogspot.

Of course it didn’t have to come to that, but it did. Hey, I’ve eaten 4 month old cinnamon almonds that were in my racing chair pocket when there was nothing else edible around.  But it does speak to the disparity between levels of concession stand successes and failures at different dirt tracks.

Almost every single one of us can agree, that the food has almost never once enticed us to go to a specific track. We chase the race, regardless of facility amenities to a certain point. We know what we want to see on the track, and we make a choice to go there.  General Managers and promoters are well aware of this too. And that fact, guides their decision making when it comes to how much attention and love to put into their concession program.  This is where we can start to separate the average, to the good, to the great when it comes to promoters.

You see, even though the food doesn’t bring cars into your parking lot directly, a well run concession program does generate revenue to the point that makes a difference on the ledger at the end of the night. The smart promoter/gm knows this and commits sufficient energy to the food portion of the evening.  The one’s that take it for granted….we’ll let’s just say they might be closer to buying a ticket for themselves and sitting with the fans than they’d like to believe.

We’re not chef’s here at TDN, (well, one of us used to be years ago), but here’s some useful guidelines for the gm/promoters who might be out of their depths when it comes to how to deal with the changing role of food at the track.

Atmosphere

Truthfully, and pay attention here. A fan should smell your burgers, hot dogs, and other grilled items cooking the minute they get out of their car in the lot! They should smell them before they take in one breath of race fuel exhaust! A well run concession program starts with that….atmosphere.  A clean stand, new looking and updated signage (not hand written on cardboard), and a smiling worker can make all the difference in the world! It starts the fan experience off on the right foot, and makes any mishaps later on seem secondary, not primary. Make time to keep all equipment looking great and all condiment stations stocked and wiped down very frequently. Remember, the fans will eat what you have to offer, but that negative rep you can get from looking grimy will have people brown bagging it before you know it.

Menu

We’re not going to go through a list of things we’d like to see at the track. That would be impossible as there’s no practical way to do flambeed Steak Diane to order at many tracks. But we’re going to impart one methodology that works and works well.

You don’t have to have a million things on the menu, you can have 10 if you like, but make those 10 items perfectly…..and customers will sing your praises

That said, a great menu needs the right amount of things done to perfection and a good deal of balance too. Here’s what to look for in quality productions.

Grilled Fare:
Are you char grilling your burgers, hot dogs and sausages? Why not?  It adds very little to the cost and they taste so much better. Can’t afford a huge gas grill? Use Charcoal, even more flavor there. Okay, so everybody does burgers, dogs and sausages..what makes yours better? What sets them apart? What makes the customers take notice? Do you put out fresh lettuce, sliced tomatoes, or sliced onions?  We hardly ever see fresh veggies at the track. How about some bacon?  Remember this, people are willing to pay a little more for something a lot nicer! Why not run a gourmet burger or hot dog (1/4 pound all beef frank), or bratwurst with grilled peppers and onions, and regular versions of each for the budget minded fan too.

Pizza:
Almost every track does pizza, and many of them do it with little flair at all.  Hey it’ll fill your stomach right?  While that may be true, there’s one thing we can recommend for probably 70% of all tracks that serve it to sell more of it. Make it browned, and evenly so.  We can’t tell you how many dirt track pizzas we’ve seen that barely had the cheese melted on. We’ve even seen a track that put pepperoni on the pie to order and served a slice at a time. Of course it fell right off.  Folks, if you’re using a pizza conveyor, adjust it and allow time for it to brown. Afraid of making too much? Get yourself a heated cabinet to hold it and bring it out as you need slices. It’s not rocket science, it just needs to be done with pride! Want to make it special? Get some sausage crumbles or some peppers and onions on it!

Chicken:
Okay, so most tracks do some kind of chicken tender or breaded chicken sandwich. And they’re fine as long as there’s some good dips around.  But what about wings? No..not breaded wing dings sold plain with a packet of hot sauce. What about wings fresh floured and fried, then tossed in a couple of different sauces. Would you pay more for that? Many of us would! Low cost, high profit and why more tracks don’t do it is a mystery!

Popcorn/Pretzels/Fries/Nachos:
Simple fare, but still needs attention to detail! Make sure popcorn is in a nice looking cabinet and sold in a nice looking box, and for the love of god….lay off the salt! It’s seen as a sign that you’re trying to inflate soft drink sales. People are going to get beverages regardless, there’s no need to make your customers feet swell! 

When it comes to pretzels, keep them fresh and batch make them so they won’t break your teeth! Same salt rules apply as with popcorn, and if you want to make it special, the same company that sold you the regular soft pretzels, will also sell you many other pretzels like jalapeno cheese, cinnamon, and others! 

When it comes to fries, people like them crispy generally, so why not go for a coated product that works better and by the way , change the grease every couple of weeks!

Ah, nachos, a money maker to be sure and easy to do. Take a three tiered container, chips, hot cheese and jalapenos.  Most tracks get this right, but how about a buy up gourmet nacho with taco meat, pulled pork, salsa and sour cream? People pay more for something a little nicer folks…



Exotic Tastes:
There should be a little something different, something you can’t find at any other dirt track in your repertoire. Maybe it’s something local like a fish sandwich tradition, or a bologna burger, or perhaps corn fritters.

Why not a blue plate special? Have you ever been to Screven Motor Speedway and tasted the offerings of promoter Redd Griffin? There’s homemade meatloaf, spaghetti and other complete meals that are not of the fast food variety, and it’s more healthy too.

Make it a point to pick something local and do it, and like we said above, do it perfectly!

Beverages:
If it’s feasible, always give the customer the option of selecting a bottle of their favorite drink out of the cooler, (for a little more), or a fountain for the budget or smaller sized minded folks. And when it comes to the fountain, put as many flavors out there as possible! Try new flavors too. The days of the old Coke/Diet Coke/Sprite selections are over. Better make sure you’ve got some lemonade,  flavored iced teas and other flavors out there too, or you could be basically saying no to greater sales.

And yes…people enjoy coffee! Your older folks enjoy the standard brew (think Bunn-O-Matic 3 burner). But why not use shelf stable half and half liquid packs instead of powered creamer? And also, why not get a four or five flavored cappuccino and hot chocolate machine? They don’t cost an arm and a leg and the younger folks live on the stuff! And also, please adjust the mix so it’s actually flavorful instead of lightly flavored hot water. Your customers will never get another cup once they think they can’t trust the machine!

Ice Cream:
We race when it’s prime ice cream time! So how about doing it right by opening up a hand dipped ice cream stand with waffle cones and toppings for sundaes? Of course you can sell some novelties in your ice cream freezer too for more budget minded customers, but why not put your best foot forward? Do it with pride!


Side Vendors:
Okay, so you’ve got room on the concourse to lease some space for side vendors. Bring in only the right ones of course, the one’s that are fully insured, with a good sanitation record, and also, one’s that offer something completely different that you do at the main track stand! Whether it’s a specialty sandwich, or a dessert, it should be different than what you have to offer. Depending on the lease agreements and profit/loss arrangement, you may not see an increase in revenue if they do, but you brought side vendors in for your fans, to give them something great they can’t get any where else. Some things you do for your fans, just because….

Well now we’ve got the food together….

Price
It’s going to be up to every promoter/gm what to charge for what. But at the end of the day, your pricing guidelines should contain the following mindsets  1. We do not gouge our customers shortsightedly!  2. We adjust prices to what markets will bear 

Get your product cost back of course, but figure in employees, taxes and utilities into your price structure.  And like we’ve said before, people will pay more for something a little nicer! Good guidelines say 70% above food or raw product cost.  If it costs a dollar to make, it sells for around $3-3.50

Employees
In a perfect setting, they have uniforms or at least coordinated tshirts. And every single one of them are people you’d leave your kids with and as friendly as you’d ever want to meet.  But your first impression upon interviewing your concession stand help should tell you most of what you need to know. Did they dress with pride, are they well kept, and did they present you with a firm handshake and look you in the eye? Everything else that they need to know, you can teach. But if they’ve got a good foundation for working, that’s over half the battle! Oh….and make it worth their while to be there!

In Closing
Your concession speaks volumes to your fans.  The pride, thought, and diligence you put into the operation are part of what completes the dirt track experience. It doesn’t always take a huge pile of cash, or more energy than it’s worth to make it more special, so get resourceful, talk to other tracks and network, and try to shift the fan mindset from “I eat because I’m hungry” to “I’m here to enjoy something I can’t get just anywhere.

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