Encouraging Vegetarian Foods at Concession Stands

By Johanna McCloy

Most consumers are not familiar with the logistics of the food business. Information is power when trying to affect progressive change, so here’s a little background and some suggestions that can make you more effective when trying to influence local food services, such as vendors at baseball stadiums.

Essentially, there are two halves to the food dollar: retail and food service. The following chart briefly summarizes each one.

Divisions of the Food Business and Their Characteristics
(Often prepared by consumers)
(“Food Away from Home”)
Items are sold for private consumption (i.e. grocery stores, markets, etc.) Items are sold for public preparation and public consumption away from home (i.e. concession stands, restaurants, etc.)
Smaller packaging with consumer-targeted labeling information Bulk packaging with vendor targeted labeling information
Utilizing a retail distribution network Utilizing a food service distribution network
Hiring retail marketing and sales specialists (brokers, consultants, staff) Hiring food service marketing and sales specialists (brokers, consultants, staff)

Food Service Logistics

As you can see, retail and food service are totally different entities. Each has its own food packaging specifications, distribution channels, and specialized personnel. Clearly, the costs for a manufacturer to pursue both types of accounts are considerable. This is why most manufacturers choose to focus their time, money, and energies on generating sales through retail accounts alone. Smaller manufacturers may not offer items through food service distribution because their budgets don’t yet allow for it. In some cases, manufacturers will offer a few select items from their retail product list through food service channels. Boca, for example, offers their veggie burgers to food service accounts, but the company does not offer its sausages this way.

For manufacturers to get food service distribution, they need to: 1) convince distributors that there is business for the food item(s), 2) pay a fee for each item that is picked up, and 3) dole out marketing money for the distributors to spend on behalf of the items they decide to carry. Aside from the large budgetary constraints, the requirement to have existing business can also be problematic.

It is difficult to generate food service (vendor) interest if a distribution channel is not already in place, making it a bit of a catch-22. Additionally, each food service account contracts with one main food distributor. For a food item to be convenient, the contracted distributor must already carry it. However, if the demand is compelling, a food service will consider using another distribution channel or will convince the distributor to carry the item for them. Sometimes there is a contractual “no competition” clause with an existing food provider, which stops a vendor from even considering a food suggestion. This has been the case at some Major League Baseball stadiums. The hot dog provider has stipulated that veggie dogs fall into the competition category.

Despite these hindrances, vegetarian fare is making its way into food service accounts, largely due to the fact that the demand is rising. It used to be that veggie burgers were the standard for vegetarian options, but this is also expanding. Last year, Sysco, the largest food service distributor in the United States, launched a new vegetarian division called MoonRose. It is comprised entirely of vegetarian (and mostly vegan) food items. (For more information about MoonRose, see this article.) Bill Stewart, president of Real Food Services, says, “Vegetarian foods fall into the healthy dining category, whether it’s organic foods or natural products. This is how to sell them.”

Offering Solutions

As an individual consumer, you have the power to change everything. Why? Because demand is the key that opens all doors. It’s a food business after all, and the goal is to sell food, make money, and generate profits. Vendors and distributors will be more likely to meet requests if they have enough demand. Keep in mind that competing and making money are the biggest motivations. With the recent additions of vegetarian options to fast food menus, concessionaires and retailers are now listening to these suggestions with a keener ear. Did you know that many vendors often tally requests from customers when considering new menu items? Ask for the concession manager to offer your suggestion in person, and place comments in those suggestion boxes.

Davy Davidson of VegTimeĀ®, maker of HandilPies and previous owner of a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, offers this advice to consumers: “The more homework you do before requesting a product, the better. Provide the vendor solutions, and it will make it easier for (him or) her to carry a product. The requests that come with helpful, practical solutions are the most likely to get implemented.”

How do you offer solutions?

  • List the competitors selling the items you are suggesting. When competitors are doing it, most businesses are apt to pay heed. If the items are selling well, be sure to emphasize this fact.
  • Offer statistics on consumer demand for healthy or vegetarian fare and communicate how adding vegetarian fare will translate into dollars. Check www.soyhappy.org/conc.htm and www.vrg.org/nutshell/market.htm for references. This information is key. If you make the case, they will make it available, even if it isn’t immediately convenient through distribution.
  • Bill Stewart offers this: “If the item isn’t a heat and serve item, it’s a good idea to offer five hot recipes that really work and which promote ingredients that are easy to use in the kitchen.” Offer recipes that will compete with mainstream menu items.
  • Ask the vendors who they use for distribution. If the distributor is Sysco, tell the vendors about the MoonRose division. It’s offered nationwide.
  • If you have a brand preference, check with the manufacturer before making your brand suggestion to ensure it is available through food service distribution or can be shipped directly to vendors at a reasonable cost.
  • When offering suggestions, do so with diplomacy and a smile. A friendly and respectful approach will open doors and keep them open. Take a few minutes to thank vendors when the item you prefer is on the menu, too!
  • Encourage other supportive consumers to take these actions.

This article is based on Johanna McCloy’s experiences in working with Soy Happy!, a consumer advocacy service, to have Major League Baseball stadiums carry vegetarian hot dogs and other items. For more information, visit soyhappy.org.

Milwaukee Baseball Park Premieres Veggie Dogs!!!

Soy Happy has been notified that veggie dogs will be available in three stands at Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park during the 2004 MLB season!

Concession locations are as follows:

F4 Behind home plate, main field level.
F6 By first base, main field level. Open on busy days and during their Women on Wednesdays promotion. It is in the middle of activity for this promotion.
F7 Right field bleachers, main field level.

Soy Happy! would like to extend a warm thank you to the concession manager at Miller Park for responding quickly to our encouragement for better signage and for making sure that concession staff is informed regarding veggie dog availability and stand locations in 2004. In addition, Soy Happy! encourages Brewer fans to extend their words of appreciation to the concession staff and the manager when noshing on tasty veggie dogs at Miller Park this season!