Grazing tables featuring charcuterie, cheeses, condiments, breads and more. | Photos courtesy of Delaware North.
Delaware North is the foodservice provider for a number of sports arenas, national parks, museums, entertainment venues and other high-volume operations. But the company also runs high-end restaurants.
It’s that restaurant mindset that drives menu innovation for Lou Piuggi, VP of food, beverage and culinary development for Delaware North.
“We take a fine-dining approach to menu development, creating restaurant-quality food but simplifying the dishes so they can be scaled up,” said Piuggi. “Our food program is steeped in authenticity and our team members, steeped in culinary innovation.”
Piuggi himself comes from the restaurant side, with deep culinary experience at Smith & Wollensky and Patina Restaurant Group.
On-trend but not trendy
Buffalo, N.Y.-based Delaware North positions itself as a cutting-edge company hyper-focused on the food and beverage guests are looking for. “Whether it’s sporting, games, parks or gala events, our goal is to understand what’s trending so we can be on-trend—but not ‘trendy,’” said Piuggi.
The challenge is to create different menus and experiences for concert-goers, sports fans, airport travelers, families visiting Disney and more, all the way up to awards shows like the Emmys.
The sports division is the largest operation Piuggi oversees, which includes concession stands, retail and hospitality suites. For the latter, grazing tables are currently trending, featuring artisanal charcuterie, imported and domestic cheeses, house-made terrines, breads, fruits and nuts. “We also try to incorporate interesting mushrooms, like tempura-battered maitake, to give guests an elevated experience,” he said.
But he’s careful not to alienate fans who want hot dogs and comfort foods. The culinary team is taking a deep dive into regional pizzas for venues in different locales. “And we will offer the best quality hot dogs and burgers made with a proprietary blend of meats,” said Piuggi. “We aim to surprise fans by treating top-selling, everyday items with respect.”
Earlier this year, Delaware North introduced an all-inclusive ticket for the PGA Championship, entitling attendees with grounds passes to unlimited food and nonalcoholic beverages. The culinary team set up marketplaces where guests could eat all day as part of that ticket. On offer were a large array of salads, sandwiches, burgers and more—all portable and made to order.
“When you order a burger, you want to hear it sizzle,” said Piuggi. “You don’t want to get something wrapped in foil. And most people don’t want premade salads. We also thought a lot about the packaging to make sure it showed off the food.”
Despite a la minute prep, the turn time was about four minutes. “Since everything was paid in advance, it greatly sped up turn times. We innovated to really change the whole experience and both the PGA and guests were very happy,” Piuggi said.
Innovating to differentiate
Delaware North has a culinary council to vet ideas about new concepts and themes. One area of focus is plant-forward, even though “we don’t get a lot of interaction on it,” said Piuggi.
“Our teams learn how to make good food with a reduction in animal protein,” he added. “We don’t rely on synthetic meat substitutes. That’s the easy way out.”
He also goes the extra mile when it comes to cross-cultural mashups, asking his chefs whether a combo makes sense to guests. A recent crab rangoon nacho made the cut because the flavors were not in conflict with each other and the item was visually appealing—a top priority.
Delaware North prides itself on authenticity in creating menu signatures. The company’s pizza concepts were the first to import finely ground Caputo double-zero flour for their dough, the gold standard for pizza in Italy. Now the chefs are playing around with different hydration levels and fermentation to create unique items. One example—a pizza bun on the menu at Disney.
Street and birria tacos were two more global introductions that stayed true to their roots.
“We’re also constantly reinventing our chicken sandwich to make it more interesting, going beyond Nashville Hot,” said Piuggi. A couple of recent iterations include a fried chicken cutlet on a biscuit with hot honey drizzle and a Japanese-style karaage fried chicken sandwich.
On the beverage side, there’s a team that works on developing drinks that are specific to each market and type of venue. Family-friendly national park concepts have different needs than a sophisticated restaurant at a concert hall, for example. Cocktails are created, taste-tested and evaluated to make sure they can be introduced on a larger scale, often by batching.
“We are constantly working to train culinary team members to take their ideas and move them into the future,” Piuggi said.