Today’s Special? It’s A Secret

Small-batch menu items with a social media twist find an audience at events

  • by Tim Newcomb
  • Published: May 8, 2018

The fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich is one of Levy Executive Chef Jessica Helms’ creations at Portland’s Moda Center. (Courtesy Levy)

Levy Executive Chef Jessica Helms of Portland’s Moda Center loves interacting on social media with fans of the hometown Trail Blazers. She wanted to give those fans something special to look forward to when the Trail Blazers hosted a first-round NBA playoff game last month. So she created a “secret menu,” known only to fans following her on Instagram and Twitter.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, for the start of the Major League Baseball season, Levy Executive Chef Ryan Evans was doing something similar at Dodger Stadium. And the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights change their game-day “versus” menu each night of the playoffs, the theme based on the opponent.

As chefs look to excite home fans with a revolving local option, the idea of creating secret menu items and one-off creations and building social media buzz has started to grow.

For Helms, the secret menu wasn’t about a new business model, but an opportunity to capitalize on social media excitement around the playoffs and create fan engagement with the culinary aspect of the game.

“I think we got some great social media conversation started about it,” she said. “I don’t know if that was my intent, but that was my favorite part and the most rewarding. Fans were saying, ‘I’m looking forward to it, can’t wait to find it,’ and being able to have that interaction with the fans is fantastic and something I would like to have a lot more of. It opens up a line of conversation.”

The Trail Blazers hosted the first two games of their first-round series. For the first game, Helms offered a fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich ($6). Taking three slices of sourdough bread, marshmallow fluff, strawberry jam and smooth peanut butter, she battered it, fried it, cut it in half and dusted it with powdered sugar. For the second game, she created a chorizo dog ($13) with local beef, bread, pork, cheese and jalapenos.

For each game, she created only about 50 of each item and placed them in a stand on the upper level. Fans found out about the items ahead of the game only through Helms’ social accounts. She selected stands—ones that had the equipment and employee know-how to handle the more complex creations—on the upper concourse to keep them off the already hopping 100 level. A local chalk artist made signs to go with the items, the only other way to know about the addition to the menu.

Unfortunately for Helms, the third-seeded Trail Blazers collapsed in the playoffs, getting swept in four games by New Orleans, leaving her without an opportunity to continue to grow the new concept. “I had three or four more ideas, and hopefully we can roll them out for some specialty games” next season, she said.

And that’s where this secret menu concept is headed. “You talk about local, seasonal, specialty items that you are only able to get in small quantities,” she said. “The options at Moda Center have yet to be tapped.”

Evans embraced his secret menu concept at the start of the MLB season, offering 60 D.C. crab cake sandwiches for a single game in April. He carried on the concept by offering new menu items for limited times that tie to the opponent. In baseball, where a team will host another team for three or four straight games, the menu items will often span the series.

Vegas’ NHL team has embraced that concept for the playoffs, while the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer carry on their tradition of a quesadilla of the match this season.

Helms said she hopes to someday do one new menu item every game, although she may start with just Sunday games. “I definitely think there is something to it, something we can continue to do that will only gain traction,” she said. “It has the opportunity to take off, if we continue to do it.”

Helms said that it takes a strong culinary team wanting to expand its horizons and, ultimately, take on extra work. She knows that Portland’s intense love of food culture helps drive fans toward the new and different. Plus, giving season-ticket holders something that’s always changing provides a draw too.

“It is for fans looking for more, different, exciting and fun,” she said. “The social media aspect of it has a ‘look what I found’ element that furthers the conversation.”

  • by Tim Newcomb
  • Published: May 8, 2018