Stadium caterer Lindley Catering was involved in the design of the kiosks, kitchens and restaurants at Manchester City FC's stadium before it opened in 2002. It's now a testing ground for ideas that could see the end of the traditional half-time stampede for pies and beer. Tom Bill reports
Who ate all the pies? According to Lindley Catering chief executive Alex McCrindle, only a third of the crowd did. And he's not happy about it.
His research shows that while another 33% of football fans would never eat anything at half-time, the remaining third stay in their seats because they are put off by the queues. It's their money he's after at the 46 football clubs where his Stoke-based company runs the catering.
McCrindle hopes to boost sales by removing cash from the equation and changing how fans get hold of half-time food. The laboratory for his new ideas is Lindley's flagship City of Manchester stadium where Premiership team Manchester City plays at home and 8,000 pies are sold on match days from 56 kiosks at £2.20 a go.
"If we could capture that extra third of the market, we would double our turnover," predicts McCrindle.
Lindley and Manchester City's relationship goes back 38 years, and the caterer ran three-quarters of the public kiosks at the club's old Main Road stadium. In 2003, when Lindley took over the £6m-a-year exclusive deal at the new venue, which was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, it helped design the kitchens and hospitality areas while they were still on the drawing board.
The 10-year contract at Manchester City, where home crowds average 42,000, runs until 2013. The £6m turnover splits equally three ways between public match-day sales, match-day hospitality and the conference and events market. While the last two are driven by good selling, feeding as many fans as possible during a home game requires a more creative approach.
One idea that will be trialled this season is a mobile hot food unit, which will be wheeled around the side of the pitch at half-time to take the pressure off other points of sale. It's hardly revolutionary stuff, but McCrindle says it hasn't been done before in what has traditionally been an unadventurous sector for caterers.
McCrindle is realistic about the chances of winning everyone round and says contract caterers are limited by the facilities at venues like stadiums, theatres and showgrounds. "Feeding the public here is more of a logistical operation than a catering operation. It's like being on a jumbo jet. If everyone wants to go to the toilet at the same time, they can't all go, no matter how well it's been built," he says.
But things are changing, and consultant Jonathan Knight says increasingly sophisticated customers have prompted a "rapid evolution" at football stadiums. "With the price of tickets going up and fans seeing more innovative food on the high street, caterers have been forced to rethink things," he says.
This is, perhaps, reflected by McCrindle's other plan: to use mobile phone technology to let fans order their food by text message, prepay for it and collect it from lockers with swipe cards that double as match-day tickets. McCrindle jokes about it being "sky-blue thinking" (Manchester City's colours) but is determined to introduce the technology in coming seasons.
Knight has a word of caution, though. "The trouble with catering at football matches is that you can't afford to overinvest in something that may only be used 30 times a year, maximum." He says practical steps should not be overlooked, including turbo-heated ovens, multiple-headed beer taps and the sharing of portable equipment between grounds.
Managing director of Tricon consultancy, Tony Horton, agrees that it's a tough market. "In order for businesses to survive when the core market of football represents less than 60 hours' trading per year, they have to explore other markets, like restaurants, conferences and banqueting."
The message needs no repeating at Manchester City, which has played the "quirky" card to win business from rival city centre hotels and conference centres. Offers have included "duck, duck and more duck" menus, promotional red and yellow cards, and blue ketchup - a bottle of which recently sold for £5,000 on eBay. It has helped the club grow the lucrative Christmas party market at 40% per year since 2003.
Having John Benson-Smith as its boundary-pushing consultant executive chef also helps. A former judge on TV programme Masterchef, he was also involved with the Better Hospital Food programme and has acted as a consultant to companies including Nestlé, Walkers and Campbell's soup.
According to Benson-Smith, Lindley was originally taken aback by some of the novel ideas being pushed by the club. "At the beginning we were like chalk and cheese. We're now like Wensleydale and Stilton. We come up with the crazy ideas, and they have to put them into practice."
Lindley Catering was set up in 1968. It operates 60 contracts, including racecourses, showgrounds and 46 football clubs. Its clients include Liverpool FC, Oxford United, Chester Racecourse and the Royal Centre theatre and concert venue in Nottingham.
Industry experts estimate the net profit on a football stadium contract to be in the region of 30%. When a guide concession fee figure of 15% (paid by Lindley to Manchester City as a percentage of sales) is subtracted, experts estimate the final net profit on the Manchester City deal to be in the region of £900,000 before capital repayments.
Chief executive Alex McCrindle was one of three people who completed a management buy-in (MBI) of Lindley from former boss Peter Coates in July 2001.
After one change at the top since then, the company is run by McCrindle, sales director Paul Biffen and financial director David Hulme. Coates is now the owner of Stoke City football club and online betting company Bet 365.
Between 1982 and 1996 McCrindle was chief executive of Wembley International, the facilities management and catering division of the Wembley stadium operation.
At the time of the MBI Lindley had 30 stadium contracts and turned over £18m. It now turns over £46m. This divides into equal thirds for match-day public catering, match-day hospitality, and conference and events revenue.
In May Lindley bought Heathcotes Outside, the event catering business of chef Paul Heathcote. The deal added £8.5m in turnover and six contracts to the Lindley books, including Bangor and Chester racecourses. Umbrella company Lindley Catering Holdings runs the Heathcotes Outside and Lindley Catering brands.
Paul Heathcote is a non-executive director of the holding company, together with McCrindle, Biffen and Hulme. The chairman is Ian Daly, who was the director responsible for brand promotion at former Compass Group travel concession business SSP. The board is completed by two members of private equity backer Sovereign Capital.
Ask an expert
Tim Cookson, chairman of food service consultancy Litmus Partnership, on maximising match day sales...
The inevitable congestion at half-time will always deter some consumers, although queuing could be lessened by the introduction of "buy-then-collect" stations common at US stadia.
Effective use of perimeter space, offering high-quality hand-held foods that reflect the more sophisticated profile of supporters, should bring fans closer to the ground earlier as well as detain them as traffic disperses after the game.
Outside the ground, the potential of club-branded foods could be reflected at high-street sites, with the ground forming the centre of a retail web of
local food businesses. Each outlet becomes a point from which the club can promote its offers to supporters, transforming what traditionally is a 60-day-a-year operation into a year-round branded "production kitchen" feeding the local community.
Club-branded goodie bags, pre-assembled and including healthier options, could include "surprise" club merchandise to tempt younger buyers.