Cooking Up Fiserv Forum's Menu
Levy started with local connections and favorites, then built around them
- by Tim Newcomb
- Published: October 9, 2018
For Levy senior executive chef Kenneth Hardiman, local connections mean fresh food and beverage choices for fans at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. (Courtesy Levy)
When it came time for Levy to start designing the menu for Milwaukee’s new Fiserv Forum, the focus wasn’t so much specific items or what might work given the layout of the arena.
Instead, it was more “How do we think of this as best-in-class quality food and work backward from there to make it work in an arena atmosphere,” said Justin Green, Levy vice president of hospitality at the arena.
That meant that, for Fiserv Forum, the menu and partners came first, then the equipment, pricing, concession design and detailed touches, such as all hot dogs coming grilled with a toasted New England-style split-top bun assembled when ordered, even if that increases labor costs.
The venue opened in early September with several concerts. The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks played their first preseason game there Oct. 3 and will play their regular-season home opener Oct. 19. The Bucks operate the arena.
Levy has championed its MKEats program inside Fiserv Forum, a local-first connection. But beyond the marketing promotion, Green said, the program accounts for 90 percent of its menu across its 17 concession stands and 34 portable kiosks. “It is our mainstay and our rock that holds our food program together,” he said. That means the vast majority of food comes from local chefs already popular in the community.
To further the local theme, 95 percent of items — whether food or the 100 percent compostable vessels food is served in —come from Wisconsin.
As the Levy team designed the menu, it worked with building designers to ensure that each of the 17 concession stands could operate as mini-restaurants, functioning independently. With their own fully functioning space for equipment, storage and walk-in coolers and freezers, each of the 17 was designed for personal utility. “We said forget about what has been done before, what makes this space the most functional it can be?” Green said.
Barbecue Board from Iron Grate BBQ Co. served at Fiserv Forum. (Courtesy Levy)
Then came creating the MKEats program, giving each of the 17 mini-restaurants an association with a local partner, everything from Canal Street Pizza to Gold Rush Chicken and FreshFin Poké to Iron Grate BBQ Co. to the Laughing Taco. A few of the stands will also include in-arena staples, such as hot dogs, but many offer only their own fare. You’ll find a few other local staples fill in the kiosks, such as at the one called Say Cheese. More than a handful of local purveyors have worked with the Levy team to create in-arena exclusives that Kenneth Hardiman, senior executive chef at Fiserv Forum, said might one day move from the arena into restaurants.
When it came time to build the menu from a blank slate, Green said a group of people got into a room and asked where the best of the best in terms of local food resides. They then started reaching out and contacting those folks. Once word got out, restaurants were coming to the Milwaukee Bucks and Levy asking to be included. “I would say that nearly 100 percent of what you see in Fiserv Forum came from that initial group asking who we know will be the best in our building,” Green said. “That is how everything started.”
Levy won’t disclose financial structures of the partnerships, but Green said that in most cases they involve multiyear commitments.
“We were building with local as the foundation and then took some of the things we know we can knock out of the park and use it to fill in the gaps,” Green said. That meant using past data to show what was popular in the BMO Harris Bradley Center, where the Bucks played from 1988 through earlier this year.
Hardiman decided to bring over popular items such as the Sobelman’s Burger and hot dogs. This time, though, he is partnering with Klement's Sausage for a consistent dog across the entire arena with toasted buns to "elevate" the choice. He uses the same buns from the bakery that Sobelman’s uses at its Wisconsin locations for the burgers, all cut in the arena and stocked immediately before each event.
“Those are the types of little touches and nuances we are paying attention to,” Hardiman said. “We are looking at the details, and that is what makes restaurants great.”
On the beverage side, the relationship with Miller remains a constant, “the one thing that I would say we didn’t change,” Green said. Even still, a new Drink Wisconsin initiative grew the beer selection. With bars built as anchors of the concourses, all with views into the bowl, the bar experience grew.
Levy decided that if it could build something better than what people expected in the sports and entertainment world, it could drive sales through quality.
“We were very cautious to make sure pricing with local partners was very close, if not on par, with pricing within their locations,” Green said. “I would say that was driven on what we do here and what our menus looked like, less than looking at trends in the market in other areas.”
Hardiman said his team will focus heavily on analytics, especially early on, to watch for obvious trends. There will be adjustments made event to event, but those will be on the production side, such as the queuing of lines and point-of-sale location comparisons. From a food perspective, don’t expect a major pivot in the menu — simply adjustments as they see the behavior of fans in the new space.
Already, Green said, they have seen the success of their approach. “People are forgoing having to go out to dinner before the event,” he said, “and go to the Forum because there is such an array to choose from.”
- by Tim Newcomb
- Published: October 9, 2018