Catering to the Masses

Levy Restaurants knows how to feed a crowd—with discipline, a helping of creativity, and, as needed, a dash of resilience. Plus the occasional lasagna.

The list. It's Monday, time for John Nicely to make a grocery list. He's serving dinner on Saturday, so he'll need a few things. Let's see, 150 pounds of steak and chicken. Eighty pounds of noodles. Ingredients for 48 gallons of shrimp bisque, 400 sushi rolls, and 25 pounds of jambalaya and succotash. Plus a couple hundred pizzas and a couple thousand hot dogs.

And lasagna for Shaq, just in case. You can't leave the big guy hungry, right?

That pretty much goes for the other 19,600 guests, too.

You see, Nicely is executive chef at the American Airlines Arena in Miami. A few days from now, basketball's Shaquille O'Neal and the Miami Heat will take on the Seattle SuperSonics. And Nicely will take on one of food service's toughest jobs: He and his team will deliver restaurant-quality meals and top-grade fast food to a sold-out stadium crowd—and do it in the span of a couple of hours.

This is bread and butter for Nicely's employer, Levy Restaurants. Already this year, it has fed the masses at the Super Bowl, the Grammys, and the NBA All-Star Game. It catered last year's World Series and the MTV Video Music Awards, plus hundreds of regular-season games of football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and NASCAR races. This month, it takes on the Kentucky Derby for a fifth year. That's 350,000 guests—and 63,000 jumbo shrimp.

How do you feed huge crowds good food in a short time? It takes outrageous preparation, relentless pursuit of creativity, and a knack for improvisation. Levy brings fanatical attention to detail to 70 sports and convention venues—just as it does at its 18 restaurants. It also brings its chefs, drilled not just in food prep but in the high art of resilience. "The arena," Nicely says, "is its own beast." But when something goes wrong in the heat of the moment—and with events of this scale, something usually does—his people don't melt down. They rise to the occasion.

Saturday | 1 p.m. Six and a half hours before game time, Nicely checks on the main kitchen. The cooks call him Chef John, or simply Chef. He's 32, point-guard short, with black-rimmed glasses, close-cropped black hair and goatee, and a studious, unflappable demeanor. He's no stranger to the intensity of a restaurant. As a boy, he spent summers pitching in at his grandfather's seafood place in Tennessee, peeling potatoes.

For Levy, the game is well under way. Has been for days. Between now and tip-off, each minute counts, so everything is mapped out—the order in which food gets "fired" in the ovens (meat first, then veggies); cooking times and temperatures; which portable heating storage units, or hot boxes, go to which suites or venues.

The kitchen is busy but in no way chaotic. Claudio Daniels, a rangy kid with a perpetual lopsided grin, dunks marinated chicken in buttermilk batter by the handful. Jonathan Capo, one of the wide-eyed rookies, gives the hollandaise sauce a workout with his whisk. And senior sous chef Daniel Martin, tall and bald with a goatee, like the Heat's Alonzo Mourning, assesses the sweet perfume of lobster bisque in the 60-gallon tilt skillet they call Clarisse.

The scene strikes Nicely as "nice and calm. Just the way I like it." Leave the red-faced hyperventilation to Heat coach Pat Riley. Nicely stays cool. He tastes, tweaks, and makes sure everything is on schedule. A longtime chess player, he routinely thinks several moves ahead.

In the days before the Sonics game, his staff prepared whatever it could, chopping vegetables, marinating meats, mixing salad dressings—everything but firing the food. (Levy doesn't cook ahead of time and reheat on game day, a common shortcut. It damages the texture and taste.) At the same time, Nicely began another grocery list for Monday's game against Toronto, and one for a Queen concert three days later.

For the Super Bowl in Detroit, Levy kicked the planning up a couple of notches. Eleven months before the game, chefs and operations managers began compiling a massive checklist called the Grid. The Grid tells all: It shows not just that you need 1,000 pounds of fresh roasted poblano peppers, but which supplier can deliver the right peppers with the right taste and texture and get them to the arena on time. To increase cooking capacity, Levy brought in a tractor trailer with 14 ovens from its NASCAR team, and a refrigerated truck for cold storage. It also assigned a team to handle the unexpected, last-minute events called "pop-ups"—from distributing bottled water to several thousand security personnel to breakfast at 2 a.m. for the Good Morning America crew.

This evening's menu is based on the ingredients left over from another event (in this case, lobster shells, perfect for a bisque); which fish or produce vendors said is top-notch; and, most important, creative impulse—the urge to do something impressive that sports fans won't expect.

3:55 p.m. Clutch time. Suddenly, the kitchen becomes a joke-free zone; everyone feels the urgency. On the hour, Martin and the team serving a big lounge for season-ticket holders have to hand off the ovens and fryers to the concessions team. If Martin is late, it throws everything else off. "What's the time, gentlemen? Let's go, let's go!"

The food is out the door. The team finishes early. Huge relief.

Larry and Mark Levy started out in 1976 with a simple deli. When it began struggling, they used recipes from their mother, Eadie, to turn the business around. Emboldened, they opened more restaurants. They got into sports events when the Chicago White Sox asked them to cater its new skyboxes in 1982. Levy's chefs cooked at the restaurants, then took their food out to the ball game.

Over the years, the business shifted dramatically. Last year, event catering generated 90% of Levy's nearly $600 million in annual revenue (up from $382 million four years ago). According to the Sports Business Journal, the company is now the leading purveyor of premium food at major sports venues, with 29% of the market. That growth convinced the Compass Group, the world's largest food-service company, to acquire Levy this year (it bought 49% in 2000).

Levy encourages a hunger for new ideas. Once a year, it holds a culinary, beverage, and service Olympics to identify new ideas and best practices across facilities. This year, it launched a contest simply called the Biggie: Whoever comes up with the next big idea to help the company receives a $5,000 prize. And it runs an innovation kitchen in Chicago, where John McLean, a vice president and chef de cuisine for Levy's sports and entertainment group, and his colleagues created one-of-a-kind concert menus for U2 (with an "Even Better Than the Real Thing" cocktail of Guinness in mini-chocolate cups) and the Rolling Stones ("Beast of Burden" churrascaria).

Even with the ballpark basics, Levy stresses quality and creativity, opting for all-beef (as opposed to all-meat) hot dogs and natural casings (more snap when you bite them). For Miami, the innovations group helped introduce soft tacos, spicy tuna rolls, and Asian noodles, all cooked in carts, filling the concourse with a delectable aroma. Last year, sales at Levy's Sushi Stop, Wok Stop, Mexi-Go Stop, and Samba Stop quadrupled, jumping to 20% of concessions. Impressed, the Heat extended the concessions deal.

5 p.m. As the Heat and Sonics start warming up, Martin and the chefs have moved their operation in a brisk procession of hot boxes and cold-food racks to the satellite kitchens. In the upscale dining venues, they metic-ulously arrange buffet tables by theme: Asian, steak house, Yucatán, seafood.

Although the main concessions (hot dogs, hamburgers, and fancier fare such as nachos with BBQ pork) don't change, the premium menu does. The 200 elite season-ticket holders with access to the Flagship North and South restaurants pay $20,000 a year for the VIP treatment—three-quarters of ticket revenue. Many eat here every game. That's 40 dinners over six months, a potential recipe for boredom. "They don't mind spending a lot of money," Nicely says, "but they have very high expectations."

Jo-Jo Doyle left a local gourmet restaurant to be banquet sous chef for the Flagships. He and his staff know the regulars—their favorite tables, wines, desserts. He delights in giving them what he knows they like as well as the odd surprise, which is why he tweaked tonight's menu "an insane amount." Along with steak, a recurring favorite, he's introducing a watermelon gazpacho, crepes filled with white or dark mousse, and "a duck pâté so good it'll make your tongue slap your brains out."

Meanwhile, on the main concourse, George Scott, Miami's director of concessions, has already walked more than a dozen laps. Dressed in a navy suit and exuding an infectious enthusiasm, he'll cover several miles in the course of a game, studying each food stand and cart for anything amiss—long lines, empty or messy condiment stations, not enough smiles from employees. As he and the other managers remind the staff, "the Levy difference is in the 1,000 details."

6 p.m. An hour and a half before tip-off, the doors to the Flagships open, the rest of the arena 30 minutes after that. Nicely and his staff brace for the pregame rush.

No matter how diligently Levy prepares, it can't control everything. An oven goes out on Super Bowl Sunday. A dishwasher breaks during the Latin Grammys. A special request comes in from a celebrity. (Heat star O'Neal sometimes calls up for lasagna or a pregame snack of apples and watermelon.) Without fail, there are surprises, and Levy's ability to improvise is critical. "Clients don't want to hear about the labor pains. They just want to see the baby," says Andy Lansing, Levy's CEO.

For the Super Bowl, Levy flew in more than two dozen chefs from venues such as Wrigley and Lambeau Fields. Its strategy: Divide a large event into more manageable ones. Michael Arcomone, executive chef at Arlington International Racecourse outside Chicago, fired 2,000 pans—hardly glamorous work, but well worth it for the chance to be at the Super Bowl. This is one of the job's perks, and the chefs list off their marquee events like athletes reciting their stats.

In Miami, Nicely and his team have to solve their own share of surprises, including a shortage of cashiers, a cash-register glitch, and, for some reason, a run on roasted potatoes. After only 20 minutes, Doyle's staff radios the kitchen for more—and Nicely is ready. No, he didn't have a potato premonition. He always suspects there will be a run on something during the pregame or halftime rush. So he orders 5% more than he thinks he'll need and assigns a couple of chefs to stay in the kitchen. The backup potatoes arrive before customers even notice.

8:30 p.m. At halftime, Nicely grabs a seat in Flagship North Lounge, which is as colorful and crowded as any South Beach bar. A rapper and his entourage occupy a far table, and Jimmy Buffett commands a corner booth. A group of overcoiffed guys persuade the chef to pose with them—yes, he's become another Miami celebrity.

This isn't the path Nicely imagined when he graduated from culinary school, but it's more fun. He's running a kitchen that cooks hundreds of thousands of meals and generates $14 million in revenue a year, far more than he'd do at a restaurant. He has worked at the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the MTV Video Music Awards. "This is probably the last company I'll work for," he says.

And then, he's slipping through the crowd, his tall, white hat bouncing toward the kitchen, so he can wrap up and beat the traffic home. On his way out, he notices things that could have been better and adds them to the pocket notebook he carries throughout the night. A towel on the kitchen floor. A culinary student without his uniform hat. The long line for sushi.

A thousand details? Please. Chef's just getting started.

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer in Chicago. He likes his hot dogs Chicago-style.

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