Delaware North – the road to Wembley

07 April 2010 by
Delaware North – the road to Wembley

After many years away from the UK marketplace, US-based contract caterer Delaware North won a 25-year deal for all food and beverage services at Wembley Stadium. No contract is too big for an organisation with massive expertise in logistics, it seems. Janie Stamford reports.

When global hospitality business Delaware North re-entered the UK marketplace it was with fanfare and glory. Its first business in this green and pleasant land for the best part of two decades was the high-profile and prestigious 25-year contract to provide all food and beverage services at Wembley Stadium. Delaware North's second UK contract was no less impressive. A 20-year deal at Premiership football club Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium, awarded and launched before construction at Wembley had even finished, booting out any "difficult second album" speculation there might have been.

Now, eight years since winning at Wembley, the business has expanded to include a third stadium deal and major inroads have been made in the UK travel hospitality sector, with sites at Heathrow, Gatwick and Edinburgh airports as well as Euston railway station.

According to UK managing director Simon Dobson, the focus in 2004 was on mobilisation: large-scale creation from what was effectively a blank canvas. "It was all about operations and getting people who were visionary and detailed planners," he explains. "It wasn't really focusing on behaviour, people and development. That's where we're at now."

Dobson's first step in this new direction was to listen to his staff at large and learn of any issues. In recognition of the need for two-way dialogue, a staff survey was carried out 18-months ago. The results were enlightening. "There was a disappointing 50% return rate. The survey highlighted the need to focus on developing the business culture into one that's ready to become a high-performance environment rather than just opening a building."

The survey the following year saw the return rate rise to 91%. Dobson says that on every single problem previously highlighted, Delaware North had "gone off the chart" in terms of improvement. Added to that, every single respondent said they were proud to work for Delaware North. "But we're not going to rest on our laurels," he adds.

In some ways, Dobson's mission to instil the right culture in his team is made easier by the support of a successful parent company in the USA. He has been able to take a set of behaviour guidelines called the Pillars and Principles and effectively apply it to his UK team as an integral part of their personal development plans. But while the number of permanent staff is relatively low - 272 full time and 200 part time - game days at the Emirates and Wembley see an additional 1,200 and 3,000 casual workers on site respectively.

Instilling high standards and consistently good customer service throughout the ranks is certainly a challenge. As a result Delaware North has a 3,300-strong database of staff that have all been recruited in-house and trained using its international customer service programme, GuestPath. This allows Wembley to operate with minimal agency workers, and the Emirates without any at all.

In the early days Dobson and his senior team would be involved in every detail of an operation, but today the keyword is accountability. The aim is to build trust and empower every staff member to make decisions within their realm and give them the confidence and support to do so.

"For example, at the Emirates we have 150 boxes, which take £3m year. We need to make sure the person in charge of the boxes is of the right calibre: a leader of people with high standards and a good understanding of food. That person can't be in 150 boxes at the same time, so we want an environment where the person running the box is also empowered to make the visitor experience the best it can be."

As well as ensuring first-class performance, empowered employees feel valued, which Dobson sees as key to success. "For instance, every employee at Wembley, whether full-time or temporary, is given a secure locker with their uniform, a bottle of water and a welcome note from their line manager when they arrive for work, as well as a place to change," he says. "This may not sound that complicated until you consider the cost and the amount of space required. But it's essential - if you want to hire and retain good people you have to give them decent facilities."

As a result, staff retention at Delaware North is impressively high for an industry which traditionally has very transient personnel. Around 80% of the managers who started the business with Dobson are still at the company.

Frank Coughlan, the executive head chef at Wembley since 2007, says that the main issue is that there are very few full-time chef roles, which is common across most firms in this sector. "At peak we use 120 chefs at Emirates and 200-plus at Wembley, but we're often using the same labour pool as our competitors. The challenge is to use the best available."

To garner and reward loyalty from the cream of the crop, Coughlan says that where possible work is given to a core of lead chefs at both London stadiums. They will then take responsibility for individual restaurants, food and beverage areas and sections of boxes. Even with recurring personnel, it is vital they provide consistency and quality.


Coughlan explains: "My team and I create the menus, write the specifications and photograph the final product. We make all this information available to our lead chefs but those guys are still the ones who put the food on the plate for our customers. So we have to have a good rapport with them and they need a good sense of our aims in terms of quality."

Dobson adds that it is vital that a stadium is not taken as one complete entity. "We need to break it down and look at the individual restaurants as independent components. It's a military operation, logistically."

A great deal was learnt from the launch at the Emirates. Delaware North was given the opportunity to run two test events prior to official opening of the stadium. The second, just eight days after moving into the new state of the art stadium, was the testimonial match for Arsenal legend Dennis Bergkamp. "Of a 60,000-capacity stadium, there were 54,000 people and we had 150 boxes we'd never operated before," Dobson recalls. "It's fair to say there was a bit of stress around."

He explains that realistically it takes around two years to fully learn how to use a building, but a decision was made to take the first six games and with each one, improve by 50%. "By the seventh game, we genuinely wondered what all the fuss was about."

In some regards, the Emirates was a handy dress rehearsal, but Dobson says it still couldn't prepare his team for the scale of Wembley. "There are eight layers at the stadium, five of which are open to the public, and the circumference of each is just over a kilometre. To ensure a bag of ice gets from the store rooms at one end of the building to a bar on the other side requires a really good system."

Since the official launch on FA Cup Final day in May 2007, Delaware North has worked with the stadium to adapt its offer. Two food kiosks, two lounges and two large delis were turned into bars because, as Dobson says, "you can't just build a business and say that's it. You've got to continue to develop it and talk to your customers." A mission statement reflected across all Delaware North's business platforms, it also demonstrates Dobson's plans to grow the business.

He adds: "We're not driven by market share but we want to drive long-term profitable growth. We identify the right opportunities and employ the right people to win those contracts to ensure the future looks rosy."


In 1915, brothers Marvin, Charles and Louis Jacobs started a modest business selling peanuts and popcorn in sports stadiums and film theatres, in Buffalo, New York. Today Delaware North is worth around $2b a year in revenue.

The family business grew and diversified into countries including Hong Kong, Australia and the UK, before streamlining to focus on a burgeoning travel hospitality market.

Delaware North withdrew from the UK in the mid-1980s, but in 2002 there arose an opportunity deemed impossible to resist: the new Wembley Stadium.

It secured the 25-year turnkey contract and with it a spectacular re-entry into the UK. Simon Dobson, who previously held senior positions at Sodexo, managing catering operations at high-profile venues, was appointed managing director and tasked with building a new UK operations team from scratch.

Delays to Wembley's construction schedule gave Dobson the chance to pursue new business at London football club Arsenal's new home at the Emirates Stadium after the contract became available at the 11th hour. He was able to redirect his resource from the stalled Wembley project to a second high-profile contract win.

In 2008, Delaware North made it a hat-trick of stadium deals with an exclusive 10-year signing at Derby County FC. "There's a potential hub and spoke opportunity at Pride Park," explains Dobson, referring to the club's central location in the UK. "But Derby also turns over £4m a year, which is not to be sniffed at."

Last year Delaware North applied its global expertise in the travel hospitality sector for the first time in the UK with new openings at Gatwick, Heathrow Terminal 4, Edinburgh Airport and Euston Station.

How the contracts were won…

  • New to market with a fresh approach.
  • Customer service focus with well-proven programmes - eg, GuestPath.
  • Access to senior leadership including the Jacobs family ownership.
  • A proven, genuine approach to partnership.
  • DNC focus on stakeholders rather than purely shareholders.
  • International experience with managing complex technology in a stadium environment.
  • Commitment to a high-quality supply chain - no "lowest common denominator" purchasing.
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Jacobs Media is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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