It’s not just the new £757m Wembley Stadium that will be under scrutiny this Saturday. By the time some 90,000 football fans sit down at 3pm to watch what is expected to be a humdinger of an FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester United, the first major test of the catering team at the stadium will be well and truly under way.
While fantastic football on the pitch will be what most spectators are looking for, there is no doubt that there will be widespread grumbles if the catering does not impress.
Heightened by the year-long delay in the completion of what is the world’s largest football stadium, with every seat under cover, the expectations of anyone attending football matches, pop concerts and a host of conferences and banquets at Wembley are enormous.
The man with ultimate responsibility for the catering offer is Simon Dobson, managing director of Delaware North Companies UK, who joined the group in 2004, having previously held senior positions at Sodexho, managing catering operations at high-profile venues including Silverstone, Lords cricket ground and Sandown Park racecourse.
Dobson is determined that he and his team of 39 full-time staff, boosted by more than 3,000 casuals on major match days, will rise to the occasion. “The expectations of visitors to Wembley are very different from those of visitors to football stadiums around the country, where fans go on a regular basis to support their team,” he says. “For many people, coming to Wembley is usually a one-off special occasion event and their hopes will be heightened that everything they experience on the day, including the catering, will be of the highest possible standard.”
Dobson is confident that the mix of a strong service culture imported from Delaware North’s operation in the USA, where the company is responsible for catering at major stadiums, including the homes of American football team the Chicago Bears and basketball team the Boston Celtics, coupled with an emphasis on providing freshly prepared, quality food, will make a positive impression on spectators in both the public and hospitality areas.
For Dobson, the major challenge has been recruiting a core team of highly talented and experienced staff – and ensuring that they work in a seamless manner with the enormous body of casual employees.
The fact that one executive chef has already left is an indication of the difficulties that Dobson has faced in recruiting staff for what is, undoubtedly, a unique and demanding catering venue. “Unfortunately our first executive chef didn’t make it to the opening – he became frustrated by the delays with the building and was offered a post in the Caribbean,” he explains.
Newly appointed to the post of executive chef is Frank Coughlan, currently executive chef with Facilities Management Catering, the catering arm of the Sports and Leisure Division of Compass Group, where he has responsibility for the catering at the lawn tennis championships at Wimbledon and last year oversaw the food operation at the Ryder Cup at the K Club in Ireland.
“It has been difficult to find someone with the experience we require, who has a background of providing the kind of quality food we are after and the management skills to run a place of this size,” Dobson says. “I’m certain we have now found the right man.”
With Coughlan unable to take up his new position until July, the catering team’s key personnel are currently head chefs Leon Smith and Julian Gill and general manager Andrew Taylor. Taylor’s experience includes managing a new development project at the Formula One racing venue Silverstone and overseeing the development of a new grandstand at Newmarket racecourse.
Among their responsibilities – and crucial to the success of the catering operation – they will need to ensure that the huge pool of casual staff performs to the high standard Delaware North expects. “By hiring the staff direct ourselves, rather than using agencies, we have been able to meet with everyone on a one-to-one basis before they join us,” Dobson says. “That has enabled us to take on people for their attitude and personality as much as for their skills, something we think is of the utmost importance.”
Among the comprehensive induction and ongoing training available for all staff is the Guest First Programme, which has been adapted from Delaware North in the USA. “This places a strong emphasis on excellence in customer service, ensuring that the customer is the key driver of our business,” Dobson says.
To match the solid service ethos, Dobson emphasizes that an enormous amount of work has also been put into providing a quality food product at every level of the operation – from the kiosks and bars in the public area up to the Corinthian Club, where members pay a one-off 10-year licence fee of £16,100, plus an annual season ticket of £5,450.
“Every ingredient and food item has been fully researched to ensure that we are using the very best of everything – we’re not interested in buying cheap, mass-market produce,” Dobson says. “For instance, the hot dog sausages we are using are coming direct from Germany because they are better than anything we can find anywhere else. Our pies are being hand-finished to our specifications, and the beef we are using in our main outlets is hung for a minimum of 21 days – and 28 days for that used in our high-end venues. We also have an in-house bakery for baking our own breads and cutting-edge kitchen technology that includes water baths and the best combination Rational ovens.
“Quality is first and foremost what we are about, not numbers. As a result we really believe that we are pushing the boundaries in terms of providing the very best restaurant-style food and service, albeit on a grand scale.”
Grand scale is certainly what catering at Wembley Stadium is all about – indeed, it is believed to be the largest single-venue contract in the UK and certainly one of the largest in the world. There are a total of 96 kitchens, including the main production kitchen in the basement, which is half the size of the pitch.
In addition to the 26 sporting events and pop concerts planned over the next year, a steady stream of conference and banqueting business is already booked, including major events for Coca-Cola and the Allied Irish Bank.
Delaware North is fortunate in having had, in the past year, the experience of running the catering operation at the new Emirates Stadium, the home ground of Arsenal Football Club – the company’s only other contract in the UK. However, the scale is different. The Emirates Stadium has 27 public kiosks and can cater for up to 4,200 covers in hospitality, compared with 76 public kiosks and the ability to cater for 10,000 in hospitality at Wembley.
As Dobson says: “The Emirates Stadium has helped us with setting up operating systems and adopting good practice, but Wembley is in another league altogether.”
Food and beverage turnover at Wembley is expected to be about £25m during the first year of operation – and the FA Cup Final will account for about £1m
Club Wembley will cater for 18,500 members in a wide range of restaurants and hospitality boxes
Delaware North Companies UK was awarded a turnkey contract in 2002 to run the catering at Wembley Stadium for 25 years. The contract officially starts on Saturday 19 May, the day of the 2007 FA Cup Final.
The £20m cost of fitting out the catering facilities has been met by the stadium. Delaware North has made an undisclosed investment in the business and will be paying an annual rent based on the catering turnover.
Having begun life as the brainchild of three brothers selling popcorn and peanuts to fans at sports venues throughout the USA in the early 1900s, today Delaware North Companies Inc – of which Delaware North Companies UK is a subsidiary – is a $1.6b corporation with 30,000 staff that provides the catering at major sports and entertainment venues around the world.
Its current portfolio includes contracts at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open Tennis Championships, the FleetCenter in Boston, one of three top concert venues in the USA, and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Food outlets at Wembley
Catering at the 90,000-seat stadium will be split between the public facilities for up to 71,500 spectators, and the hospitality facilities up to 18,500 members of Club Wembley.
This is available on two different levels of the stadium – the ground floor and the top floor, with Club Wembley in between.
- A total of 76 kiosks and bars have more than 800 points of sale and provide three different offers:
- Bars – selling mainly drinks, but also hot pies and coffee.
- Heat-and-serve kiosks – selling precooked foods, such as hot dogs and pies.
- Full-cook kiosks – providing freshly cooked fish, burgers, chicken and chips.
The potential 18,500 members of Club Wembley have a range of catering options, depending on their type of membership – either Club, Silver, Gold or Corinthian. Members have to pay a one-off 10-year licence fee of £3,900 plus a £1,350 annual season ticket for Club members, £5,600 plus £2,000 for Silver members, £8,400 plus £2,800 for Gold members and £16,100 plus £5,450 for Corinthian members. All Silver and Gold memberships are sold out, with limited availability for Club and Corinthian memberships.
The food offers in Club Wembley include:
- Two Champagne and Seafood Bars
- Café East and Café West – for up to 1,500 covers, offering a range of prepacked sandwiches and baguettes, as well as a selection of hot dishes.
- Two brasseries called the Venue – each caters for up to 750 covers. Two courses will cost £30.
- Two restaurants called the Arc – each also catering for up to 750. A three-course meal will cost about £50.
- The Atrium – a 900-cover buffet-style restaurant, with a one-price offer of £45.
- The Royal Suite – here a banquet menu is served to 400 covers.
- The Great Hall – with views overlooking Wembley Way, banquet menus are served here for up to 1,300 covers.
- The Corinthian Room – with a mezzanine layout, this is the largest hospitality space at Wembley and believed to be the largest banqueting room in London, seating up to 2,000 for a banquet or 3,250 for a reception. A limited à la carte menu is available on match days. All food and beverage here is included in the price of the Corinthian membership.
- The boxes – 166 boxes can cater for eight, 10, 12 or 20 covers. There are also two private restaurants, each catering for 156 covers.
Space is also provided to cater for players, dressing-room staff, coach drivers, police and ambulance staff.
Cup final facts and figures
• 10,000 formal sit-down meals will be served
• 400 Football Association VIPs will enjoy a banquet in the Royal Suite
• About 900 FA Cup sponsors and guests will eat in the Great Hall.
• The Corinthian Room will serve this menu for up to 1,900 covers:
Hand-crafted breads, olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar
Butternut squash and pumpkin velouté with seared cèpes and white truffle crème fraîche
Cornish crab and horseradish salad with sevruga dressing and lobster
OR Salad of new-season asparagus, frisée, truffle dressing and shaved reggiano
Honey-spiced Cornish best end of lamb with turnip dauphinoise, baby vegetables, lavender and rosemary jus
OR Corinthian Club signature dish of poached lobster and herb-roasted Scottish fillet of beef, asparagus Caesar and pistou salad, balsamic dressing
OR Lemon-roasted gem squash and sage risotto, fine herbs, pecorino crisps
Rum and raisin cheesecake with Bourbon vanilla mascarpone with almond tuile
OR Tom Aitken dessert of coffee and hazelnut sponge with coffee mousse and parfait
British and European cheeses with assorted dried fruit and walnut bread
Post match: mini steak and onion pies and mini smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels
- Food for 2,500 covers will be served in 166 corporate boxes. Each can accommodate either eight, 10, 12 or 20 guests.
- In the public areas, 76 kiosks and bars with more than 800 points of sale (a world record) will be available to serve up to 71,500 spectators. Hot dogs, followed by pies (minced beef, chicken balti or cheese and leek) are expected to be the biggest sellers here.
- 3,200 catering staff will be on duty.