Down, set, ketchup

Jan. 2020

Six long shelves packed shoulder-to-shoulder with cans and bottles spill forth a symphony of color behind the frosted glass pane of the newest addition to…wait, what is it again? – that’s right: Empower Field at Mile High. Standing in front of the display near Section 114, it’s impossible not to marvel at the sheer visual resplendence of this finely appointed beverage nirvana. Up top and to the right, a stately can of Dale’s Pale Ale gleams behind the glass, the familiar nameplate reversed in white type from behind a red shield. One shelf below there’s the brilliant orange of an oversized Shock Top can, and four cans to the right, a gleaming green vessel labeled, simply, IPA. Can after can and row after row, the net effect is a sort of beverage blizzard so rich with color and sparkle that you can find yourself entranced for minutes just staring at the thing.

What is this place, exactly? Backlit letters above the window describe it as Drink MKT (as in, “market”). It’s an upscale addition that’s part of a makeover designed to elevate the vibe from the hot dog-and-a-beer persona that long has typified the American stadium experience.

Aramark Inc., the food and beverage company that’s a major power on the sports-concession scene, conceived of the deli-styled retail concept in association with the stadium’s tenant and game-day operator, the Denver Broncos Football Club. While the Broncos’ brain trust was furrowing brows over off-season draft picks, crews at the stadium were carting off old-school metal counters and installing sleek new replacements like Biker Jim’s (hot dogs) or Tenders Love & Chicken, replete with nine sauces.

During a press tour before the Broncos season began, executives from the team and from Aramark seem genuinely proud of the new accoutrements, which include not just the cashier-less Drink MKT but several new walk-up food counters that are designed to beckon the hungry and the credit carded.

What’s happening at Empower Stadium is emblematic of a league-wide rethink of the stadium experience, aimed partly at combating the siren song of the kitchen and the high-def TV screen at home. Jay Roberts, a Denver Broncos executive who has worked on the new project, says the driving agenda here is greater choice in foods/drinks, plus improved speed of service.

For some participants, the allure is about trying out new ideas. Frank Bonanno, the peripatetic Denver restaurateur whose credits include Mizuna, Luca and Lou’s Food Bar, has plunged in with FB Concepts, a walk-up restaurant that takes favorites from Bonanno’s restaurants and brings them to Empower Field. Bonanno’s idea is to vary the menu by game, thanks to plug-and-play appliances that let him change out the kitchen hardware to suit his whim. During the press tour, I ask Bonanno what’s in it for him, business-wise, given that operating in an abbreviated game-day window can’t produce the day-in, day-out revenue streams restaurants depend on. Bonanno waves off the question with a practiced flip, as if he’s tossing a pasta dish. “Ah, who does anything for money?” he says.

Still, there is money being made somewhere. When I take a stab at estimated total food and beverage revenues – I’m theorizing roughly 75,000 individuals multiplied by average spend of $40 each, for a cool $3 million – Roberts tells me I’m off by a million or more. The actual game-day average runs south of $2 million, he tells me, as retail costs for food and drinks at Empower Field are nestled roughly in the middle of the NFL average.

That may be news to my new friends here at Drink MKT, one of whom is sticker-shocked to be paying $9.25 for a 32-ounce can of Blue Moon. Still, there looks to be plenty of interest budding in the new food concepts. Or at least it seems that way during the second regular-season game in September (the Jacksonville debacle). Troy Karnes, a bearded Broncos fan who’s standing with a buddy ahead of me in the line, tells me he’s intrigued not just by the breadth of beverage choice, but the novelty of a high-tech machine that obviates the need for a person to ring up the sale. Instead, patrons set their stuff on a horizontal surface, where a camera detects what it’s seeing and applies the correct charge. “It’s sort of like ‘Star Trek,’” Karnes tells me.

Stepping up to the register, I see what he means: You half expect your drink to beam up under the soft light. But no, all that’s happening is the credit-card reader, having determined I’m in for a hard seltzer, is asking me if I’d like a receipt via text message or email. I opt for the former, just to see if it works, and before I can take my first sip, there’s the telltale vibration in my pocket – a modern-day example of what happens when a robot sells you a drink at a football game.


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