Ball control

01 January 2000
Ball control

Former England manager and rent-a-quote Terry Venables once said during a post-match interview: "If you can't stand the heat in the dressing room, get out of the kitchen." The trouble with that advice is that kitchens are becoming harder to avoid in today's football stadiums.

In July, Granada hit the newspaper headlines on the front and back pages when it bought up 9.9% of Liverpool FC, in the process confirming that Granada Retail Catering was to take over Anfield's catering and corporate hospitality.

The exact details of that deal are still being negotiated, but it shows that the link between catering and football is growing closer all the time. Most of the Premiership club stadiums are now catering for hundreds of corporate clients every match day and providing conference facilities to rival the largest hotels on non-match days.

Liverpool's in-house catering, for example, turns over about £3m a year and in 1998 Anfield was voted the best conference venue in Merseyside by the Mersey Convention Bureau. Today's big names in the Premier League, it seems, are trying to lead the way in the catering league, too.

Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal all have extensive corporate facilities as well as slick fast-food outlets for supporters on match days. And, increasingly, non-Premiership teams are discovering that there's money to be made from their stadia even when there's no one on the pitch.

Reading Football Club is in the Nationwide Second Division but its aspirations reach much higher. Last year it opened the £37m, 25,000-seat Madejski Stadium, named after chairman and monetary lifeline John Madejski.

Unlike many of the Premiership clubs that have to extend their existing stadia bit by bit, the Madejski Stadium was built with hospitality firmly in mind.

The corporate arm of the stadium is the Royal Berkshire Conference Centre, with function suites, seminar rooms, executive boxes and even a restaurant overlooking the pitch.

There is also a 150-bedroom hotel under construction, a themed café-bar called Shooters, and 11 kiosks serving food and drink to fans on match days.

Operator Alexander Catering (Events) is responsible for all the food served at the stadium, from the pasties in the kiosks to the pan-fried calves' liver in the Royal restaurant.

The Princess suite is the centre's main event area, with a maximum capacity of 500 seated diners. Next to the suite is the Royal restaurant and bar overlooking the pitch.

There are another six seminar rooms, also used for dining, which seat between 60 and 110 people, and 28 executive boxes that can cater for up to 10 covers each, also with a view of the pitch.

A match-day table in the 150-cover Royal restaurant can be booked in advance by any ticketholder, who can enjoy the four-course meal for a fixed £25 per head. Various ticket and meal packages are available, starting from £60 per head.

All these rooms are also used on non-match days for conferences, corporate events, weddings and other parties.

Alexander Catering has been involved with the Madejski Stadium since it opened just over a year ago - and operations director Nick Burke says he is still learning.

"We're facing challenges in partnership with Reading FC. It's a new stadium for them as well as us," he says. "There's a combination of elements: new access, new stadium, new facilities. In the first season you're not quite sure what's going to happen, but you can make reasonable preparations."

Burke says that keeping the supporters fed and satisfied has been the biggest challenge.

And he isn't alone. Even though the big money is in the Premiership, it doesn't guarantee premiership-level food. At the beginning of last year the Colman's Football Food Guide for fans published a survey of all 92 league grounds in England and Wales plus Wembley Stadium.

So who came out top? Manchester United? Chelsea? No, second division Cambridge United. The only premiership club in the top 10 was Middlesbrough. Manchester United were 12th, Chelsea came an embarrassing 79th and Wembley 89th. Reading came 82nd. Leyton Orient had the dubious honour of being bottom, sparking many "Taste of the Orient" headlines.

Says Burke: "We know about banqueting - that's what we do everywhere else. Even in the boxes it's just banqueting on a smaller scale. The public areas are different because of the numbers of people involved and the time limits."

The 11 kiosks around the concourse under the stands serve traditional football-fan food: pasties, hot dogs and pies. Burke has tried introducing more exotic or tasty food such as Malaysian noodles, but to no avail.

He says perhaps one of the reasons it hasn't taken off is simply practical: noodles aren't easy to eat standing up with a pint in your hand.

In a typical league game, the kiosks can serve 10,000 people with an average spend of £1.50-£2 within a few hours. On a Saturday they are open from 1pm until kick-off at 3pm, closed until half-time when they reopen for 15 minutes, and then reopening again after the game for an another hour.

"In the first season there were no drinks served during the game - only before and after," says Burke. "Now drinks at half-time are permitted so we're opening and closing, opening and closing, all the way through the game."

The match-day turnover from the kiosks and the corporate facilities is high, but as it is taken over a short period of time it can lead to escalated overheads and costs.

"The staffing is different from that needed when taking the same money over a different time span," says Burke. "Costs are greatly increased by the concentration of business in such a short space of time. Margins are much lower than if you had the same level of income spread over a reasonable length of time."

The second season at Madejski Stadium should be easier than the first, however, as Burke can refer back to attendances from the previous year and plan accordingly.

"With, say, a Macclesfield match, I know just how many people went through the concourse and what each kiosk took," he says. "It's the same in the restaurant and the lounges as we know what the takings were and the number of bookings."

Ultimately, even the success of the catering is linked to the success on the pitch. If Reading are successful, then the true potential of the Madejski Stadium could be realised. If not, then attendances fall and custom drops. As Sunderland manager Peter Reid once said: "We all know that in football if you stand still, you go backwards."


Manchester United FC

Sir Matt Busby Way, Old Trafford, Manchester M16 0RA

Caterer: Manchester United Catering

Tel: 0161-872 3331

Manchester United is the biggest football club in the world and its catering facilities also dwarf most of its competitors'. Old Trafford stadium has 10 function suites, the Manchester suite the largest with capacity for more than 1,000 people.

Catering is carried out in-house by the specifically formed Manchester United Catering, a wholly owned subsidiary of Manchester United Plc.

It has an estimated turnover of more than £4m. On match days alone chefs prepare more than 4,000 corporate meals from four main kitchens and 25 satellite kitchens. The kiosks serve 25,000-30,000 people per match and the Red Café adjacent to the museum serves 200 covers on non-match days. The number of visitors to the museum has trebled since the FA Cup, the League Cup and the European Champions Cup have been on show.

The club even has a license to hold civil marriage ceremonies.

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