Football fans are hanging up their scarves for the summer, but Manchester City caterer Lindley Catering still has to stay on the ball. Emma Allen reports
It's the end of the football season at Manchester City, but for stadium caterer Lindley Catering, it's pretty much business as usual, already preparing for next season.
The sheer size and scale of match-day catering means a smooth operation depends on preparation well ahead of the date, says Lindley's development chef, Keith Best. Spread across the stadium are six themed restaurants, each with a distinct price point, food offer and ambience to appeal to all tastes and pockets. They range from the fine-dining Boardroom and private-dining Chairman's Lounge to the more traditional carvery-style Legends Lounge, which offers a panoramic view of the ground. Outside the main gates, the public-access City Social Café serves up breakfasts, snacks and kids' menus.
For Best, planning the menus across the entire F&B function is a 12-month process. "In January we start looking at concepts and what's new in the marketplace then it's all about coming up with menu ideas," he says. "Once the season finishes, we start testing and cooking off dishes to fine-tune everything before we start again."
Keeping menus fresh and exciting each season can be a challenge, he admits. "People come year after year, so we try to reinvent dishes wherever we can. It's a balancing act between giving people what they want without it being boring."
Not that it's always possible to predict what people want. The recent hot weather saw the stadium's kitchens run out of fish when demand for the usual big sellers like roast beef tailed off in favour of lighter options such as tuna and salmon.
In a normal-size kitchen, this might not be too difficult, but on an average match day, Lindley turns out between 2,400 and 2,800 covers. Best says: "It's not like we can take 2,000 orders beforehand, so if something unexpected happens, it's a problem. Sometimes we can use back-up from different kitchens, but it doesn't always work."
With restaurants and 72 executive boxes spread across three sides of the stadium, one logistical hurdle is to get the food out to each unit. Food is prepped in the main production kitchen, 30m below ground level with a dedicated delivery tunnel, before it's sent out via trolleys around the concourse to the 12 satellite kitchens that service each restaurant.
"It's a military-style operation, but it has to be," says Best. "Once the gates are open, everybody's milling about, so there's no way of moving food around. Everything has to be in place in each satellite kitchen on the Friday night beforehand, then dishes are cooked off and plated up in the morning."
On match days, corporate guests start arriving about midday and filter through to the restaurant about 1.30pm for a 3pm kick-off. That gives each kitchen a serving slot of about 90 minutes. "When you're talking four or five courses, which you are in the Boardroom and Mancunian restaurants, that's not long," says Lindley's chief executive, Alex McCrindle. "Achieving that speed of service from kitchen to table is crucial."
Each restaurant is rarely less than three-quarters full and, says McCrindle, the top three are always sold out, often at least three seasons ahead. "The more expensive the restaurant, the quicker it sells out," he adds.
All-inclusive club packages range from about £65 up to £350 per person, including match tickets. Some games are obviously more in demand than others, though, with packages for the recent Manchester City v Manchester United game fetching as much as £500.
During the close season, it's the lucrative conference and banqueting market - worth about £2m a year at Manchester City - which boosts the coffers, rather than the fans.
Concerts offer another profit opportunity. Last summer, Manchester City staged four concerts - two nights by Bon Jovi and two by Take That - bringing in a total of £1.3m over the four days. Average spend and type of spend varies according to the artist. "When Oasis played a couple of years ago, we had 60,000 fans who spent roughly £6 a head and 85% of that was on beer," says McCrindle.
This summer, Rod Stewart and George Michael will appear at the stadium. These are likely to be rather more sedate affairs than the Oasis gig, but still mean big revenue. A mainly female audience means spend will be closer to £3 a head, about half of that going on food rather than alcohol. The food offer is also being tweaked, with healthy options such as noodles, baguettes and smoothies on sale rather than pies and pints.
Lindley plans to introduce healthier products for public match-day catering next season, with ideas including wraps and a hand-held pizza "pod" possibly going on trial in one or two of the stadium's 54 kiosks on the concourse, says McCrindle. "The kiosks allow us to go in slowly by converting two or three to see how sales go. If it doesn't work, we haven't lost anything."
But it takes time to fine-tune new concepts, he says. "There's no point just putting a couple of sandwiches on a shelf at the back because nobody will see them. You've got to get the signage and menus absolutely right, otherwise it won't work."
Strict stadium health and safety rules also have to be taken into account and certain foods are not allowed. McCrindle explains: "Last time Lindley sold fresh fruit at a football match, the crowd ended up throwing it at one another."
City of Manchester stadium
Floor space 7,000sq m (5,000 people seated)
Conference rooms seven (room hire between £500 and £5,000)
Executive boxes 70 (£15,000-£25,000 per year or £1,500-£2,000 for a match day)
Car park 2,500 spaces (free)
Lindley at Manchester City
Lindley Catering, set up in 1968, operates 60 contracts, including racecourses, showgrounds and 46 football clubs. Its clients include Tottenham Hotspur and Oxford United football clubs, Chester Racecourse and the Royal Centre theatre and concert venue in Nottingham. The 10-year Manchester City contract, which runs until 2013, turns over £6m a year. This divides into equal thirds for match-day public catering, match-day hospitality and conference and events revenue. The average home crowd is 42,000 and turnover for public and corporate hospitality match-day business is about £200,000 per match.
Ask an expert
Jonathan Doughty, group managing director at Coverpoint Consultancy, suggests how stadia can maximise conference and event bookings.
It's all about sweating the asset and making the most of the space and facilities you have. These days, every venue is trying to turn itself into a conference space and some are doing it well, others badly.
Competition for events and function bookings is cut-throat, especially in a city such as Manchester, so you need to find out what sets you apart. Some markets will be easy to target at Manchester City, either because they're fans or the stadium environment appeals. For other companies, it's about changing perceptions.
To some, stadium catering still has a pie-and-a-pint image, but you can overcome that with good marketing, brochures, photography and targeted mailshots.
Getting noticed in a crowded marketplace can be hard, though, however good your core facilities. Clients often want something new, so the trick is to keep recreating and renewing your offer, whether seasonally or annually, so there's a reason for event bookers and clients to talk about you and keep coming back.
0118 940 5266