Fans of Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers crowd into 92-year-old Providence Park for a match. (Tim Newcomb)
PORTLAND, Ore. — A 92-year-old stadium provides all sorts of logistical challenges for Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers, but its abundance of character helps the Timbers create a revered game-day experience.
Providence Park, capacity 21,144, is home to an active sellout streak over 125 straight games that started the moment Portland joined MLS in 2011, and supporters help power the atmosphere with their singing, chanting and general merriment.
But feeding the frenzy, literally, presents challenges for concessionaire Levy.
Dealing with an old stadium isn’t anything new in the world of soccer, where European leagues boast iconic relics aplenty. And age isn’t entirely unheard of in North American sports, which boasts some tried-and-true NCAA venues and Major League Baseball’s Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston, both more than a century old.
What makes Providence Park unusual in North America is the mix of age with nature of soccer itself. The action never stops save for a short halftime, creating “inherently more challenges than sports that have breaks,” said Ben Forsythe, Levy’s general manager at Providence Park.
Mike Golub, Timbers president of business, said, “Soccer, by virtue of its game structure, is a bit different. It is more challenging, but also adds to the game environment.” The vast majority of fans crush into the stadium 30 minutes before game time and generally remain loaded into their seats during both 45-minute halves, not wanting to miss a goal.
“People are completely engaged and riveted on what is going on the field, ultimately leading to the tremendous environment we have,” he said. “We have 21,144 people really glued to what is happening and invested in the game.” But the lack of breaks in the game may prevent fans from joining in another round of beers or visiting the team store.
The margin for error becomes small, especially on the food and beverage side, because of the limited window to serve fans, Forsythe said. Even with 90 minutes to two hours of ingress, Levy still sees the majority of sales happening in the last 20 to 30 minutes before the game starts.
“We just have to be a lot more specific on prep timelines,” Forsythe said. “It is like the Kenny Rogers song. We have to know when to hold and know when it needs to be sold.” He likened the pregame timeframe to a slow ramp-up till a half-hour before the game, when they take the leash off and get as much food into the holding window as possible, knowing it will sell within minutes.
Once the game starts it becomes a quick change for Levy staff (Levy is in its first year at Providence Park but retained much of the same team that Centerplate had running the venue).
They’re still taking care of the stragglers while racing to reset before the halftime rush, which starts five to 10 minutes before the official 15-minute break.
That’s where the age of Providence Park comes into play. With the majority of food production and keg storage in the kitchens downstairs because of the lack of space on the original concrete concourse, getting everything up the freight elevator and through the tight confines of the historic venue before halftime starts becomes essential.
“If we are not reset for halftime 10 minutes prior, our product is going to get caught in the same crowd everyone else is in,” Forsythe said. “It is a precision drop sequence with two really hot periods.” In those periods before the game and at halftime, Levy handles 80 percent of sales in just 45 minutes of time.
Forsythe said “menu engineering” is critical to handle the rush, as entrees and drinks prove most popular before the game and snacks and beer at halftime. Dishes must get prepared fresh and quickly. Some items have partial prep that allows for a quick finish to get them out of the window.
Providence Park and Levy have tried to make the food experience authentically Portland, a local partnership strategy that not only lends authenticity to the experience but also helps with freshness.
The Timbers partner with Zenner’s Sausage, meaning the all-beef hot dog — the top-selling food item in the stadium — is made less than half a mile from the stadium, placed in Franz buns made less than two miles from Providence Park. Partnering with the Food Cart Alliance brings a local purveyor inside the stadium and additional partnerships, such as the highly visible Portland Timbers agreement with Tillamook Cheese, seen via branded concession stands and advertisement inside the seating bowl, allows Forsythe to create limited runs of specialty loaded tots and quesadillas, among other everyday items.
Turning to the specialty items, early preparation and condensed quantities help create newfound features each game without adding too much of a time wrinkle into the already congested scheduling.
“With our partnerships, we offer what Portland offers and a traditional stadium experience with a cool, local flare,” Forsythe said.
Maybe because, well, Portland, or maybe thanks to the nature of soccer, beverages tip toward a 60 percent to 40 percent lead in sales at Providence Park, with Portland-based Widmer Brothers’ IPA the reigning king. Getting kegs in place for halftime requires a bit of a dance.
“We try to avoid changing kegs during the halftime rush,” he said. “We have kegs strategically placed. We are a small, older stadium. It requires a lot of creative thinking.”