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Three Deals In Three Years: Nats Seek Better Food

Adam Dunn's bat isn't the only upgrade the Washington Nationals are making this season. The team has parted ways with its food concessionaire at Nationals Park and has cut a deal with its third food operator in three years.

Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, which already holds the contract for high-end dining at Abe Pollin's downtown sports arena as well as six other major league baseball stadiums, is taking over from Centerplate, the company that ran the show during the inaugural season at Nats Park.

As these job listings for everything from general manager to sous chef illustrate, the new concessionaire is gearing up quickly to take over in time for Opening Day on April 13 against the world champion Philadelphia Phillies.

The Lerners are often criticized for devoting more energy to maximizing revenue than to investing in the on-field product. But with the acquisition of Dunn, the owners have made a significant statement to fans that they are serious about moving the franchise toward contending. Will the switch to Levy also create a higher quality experience at the ballpark for a team that needs to make a big splash to avoid a year of far weaker attendance?

Fans generally had little to complain about when it came to the variety and quality of the food at Nats Park during its first year; certainly the snacks were a huge step up from the appalling performance of Aramark, the Nats' vendor at RFK Stadium. But there were persistent complaints last season about the speed of service, the training of workers, and the early closing times (it was often hard to find food after games hit the sixth inning or so--that's how eager the concession workers were to close up shop.)

Sports business publications say the parting of the ways between the Nationals and Centerplate may well have been mutual. The Nats were not happy with the quality of service and Centerplate apparently lost money at Nats Park, both because attendance was not as high as had been hoped for and because the company's 20-year contract with the team gave the franchise owners, the Lerner family, a 50 percent-plus commission on all sales, the highest such cut in baseball, according to the Sports Business Journal. At most stadiums, the team's share of food concessions is more in the 30 percent to 35 percent range.

That publication polled its readers on competing food concession companies that serve the nation's stadiums and arenas and the results put Levy (21 percent called it the best concessionaire) ahead of Centerplate (11 percent), but behind Aramark (35 percent.) Centerplate has now lost four major league contracts in the past year, including its deal with the New York Yankees.

These are not happy times in the stadium concession business. Fewer fans are going to games in all sports, and those who do go are looking to conserve on spending while at the game. That has led some franchises to experiment with $1 menu items and combination meals, and already thin profit margins are vanishing.

That said, the Nats are looking to lure fans into more purchases with physical improvements in the popular Red Porch bar and restaurant out in centerfield, knocking out walls to open that facility to the game and to the pedestrian walkway that surrounds the stadium.

All of which is fine, but as the Nationals learned last year, physical surroundings have less to do with attendance than performance on the field. Even a snazzy new ballpark isn't enough of a lure to attract fans to watch a team that loses 102 games in a season. This year's team ought to be better, but many fans are still hoping that the Nats will make another couple of moves to bolster the middle of the infield and to edge towards a halfway-credible bullpen.

That said, spring training is underway. In hard times, that's at least a small sign of hope.

By Marc Fisher |  February 17, 2009; 6:15 PM ET
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The problem with the food is they are too concerned about variety and specialty items. Give us cheap crap, just make it edible at low prices and quick lines, and I'll buy, buy, buy. I guess some people don't mind missing a couple of innings to get a specific food item, but I would just like to hop to the concession stand between innings and then get back in my seat.

Posted by: tailwagger | February 17, 2009 7:23 PM

The food was just fine. What the Nats should be embarrassed about was the beer selection. It was worse in the new stadium than in RFK. (Remember the Guinness stand?!?) There are only a couple of locations in the park that sell microbrews or quality imports, and they often run out. More than once, I've been part of a random group wandering from stand to stand looking for real beer.

Posted by: mspatterson | February 18, 2009 11:20 AM

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