Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment provides a diverse, best-in-class dining experience at multiple locations.
By Stephanie Crets
From hockey, basketball and soccer games to concerts and live events, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) is committed to delivering unforgettable sports and entertainment experiences to its fans in Toronto. One of the many ways MLSE excites its fans is through diverse, high-quality restaurant and concession menu offerings.
“We provide people what they don’t expect in our environments,” Head of Food and Beverage Dan Morrow says. “Traditionally, when you enter a stadium or arena, you don’t expect high-quality, fresh, innovative offerings. We are changing the way people view foodservice within arenas and stadiums. Our a la carte dining options and fresh new concession menus showcase Toronto’s diversity and are game-changers within the industry.”
Air Canada Centre houses four premium restaurants and 18 concession stands, serving everything from popcorn to foie gras. “We do from-scratch cooking for everything,” Chef Chris Zielinski says. “MLSE is committed to having great chefs, leaders and culinary inspirations and ensuring our food is as great as any restaurant in the city.”
The biggest challenge for any arena or venue is feeding many people at the same time. On any given night, MLSE throughout its venues could feed 60,000 people with 1,500 staff members cooking, serving and bartending. “The logistics of managing volume while providing high-quality product is something we’ve become very good at,” Morrow notes.
“You’ve got to build the recipe and kitchen plan around the fact it’s all going to come at once,” Zielinski says. “We embrace that challenge and the whole goal is to figure out ways to create a feasible menu in that setting while delivering a high grade of food. It’s not easy to find those people, but we find the right combination of team members who can handle the high volume we do in a short period of time and wake up every day to figure out how we can be better.”
Being a culinary leader is what MLSE achieved with the opening of its massive Real Sports Bar & Grill (RSBG), located just outside Air Canada Centre. With a capacity of 900 people, RSBG houses an incredible 39-foot feature screen. Known as the next best place to be if you don’t have tickets to the game, RSBG embraces the philosophies of its parent company by serving only fresh, house-made food while its fans browse through sporting events from around the world on one of more than 200 TVs.
MLSE recognizes that to be competitive in the future it needs to move from a “one to many” style of fan engagement to a “one to one” personalized approach to its fans. Critical to this is an on-going process to replace POS systems across all of its venues and restaurants. “We will acquire best-in-class technology that provides traditional, mobile and self-ordering capabilities while incorporating advanced data and analytics for better business and predictive capabilities” Morrow explains. “This is a game-changer; how we connect with our fans will be dramatically different in the future. In the future we will have the capability based on data analytics to proactively provide fans with real-time notifications on everything from restaurant reservations to their favorite concession item availability.”
Recognizing that we live in a world where mobile technology is transforming consumer experiences, MLSE partnered with Mastercard a year ago to implement their QKR! with Masterpass mobile commerce application. The application, which allows 10,000 lower bowl fans at Air Canada Centre to order from their mobile devices for delivery to their seats, has seen immediate success through incremental sales. Repeat business is approaching 40 percent, indicating that fans are embracing the technology. “Working with the Qkr! team has been great,” Morrow says. “The application was easily formatted to meet the unique needs of an arena environment.”
Food and Beverage Trends
MLSE implemented significant changes to its quick-service offering last summer. “The Toronto food scene is fresh and vibrant,” Morrow notes. “We needed to make changes to our offerings in order to compete with outside food trucks and restaurants.”
As a result, MLSE focused on authenticity with its product offerings. “Our burger is fresh and our carve sandwiches are big and bold, like you would get in traditional neighborhoods of Toronto,” Zielinski says. Wanting to give back to the food truck community, MLSE came up with the idea of outsourcing a concession stand to a local food truck operator. The group looked at several vendors and decided to partner with Fidel Gastro’s, giving it the opportunity to serve 20,000 fans every event night at Air Canada Centre.
Morrow adds that offering authentic, hearty vegetarian meals was important to its new vision in quick service. “We have seen demand for vegetarian items increase dramatically the past several years” he says. “Nearly every one of our concession stands has a great-tasting vegetarian item available. We took the approach of offering restaurant-style vegetarian food and have seen immediate success.”
For beverages, Morrow notes that beer is still its highest seller but that alcohol trends are moving away from draft beer and toward packaged beer and liquor-based cocktails. MLSE works very closely with its beer partners, Molson-Coors and AB InBev, to provide best-in-class beer lineups. At BMO Field, the Budweiser King Club is a destination bar for Toronto FC fans, while at Air Canada Centre the Draught Deck is an incredible location for fans to relax, enjoy some music and drink a cold Molson Canadian while at an event.
Along with its spirits partner Diageo, MLSE recently created Captain Morgan, Crown Royal and Ciroc branded bars to provide a more vibrant experience for its fans and to expand the portfolio of drinks that can be served.
Unique in the World
When asked about what they are most proud of, Morrow and Zielinski differ in their answers. Morrow is most proud of the experience that MLSE provides in its premium clubs. “No other arena in the world provides an a la carte dining experience like we do,” Morrow says.
Each night a team of 10 sommeliers works the floor of their four club restaurants selling wine from their cellars that house 6,000 bottles. “California Cabernets sell best,” Morrow says, but, he adds, “the sommelier team is incredible – pairing great wines with great food is not easy but they do it flawlessly”.
“We have a culinary team of nine chefs who are consistently on trend, trying to figure out what flavors go best with what, ensuring we’re staying ahead of the curve to what our competition is doing,” Morrow adds.
Zielinski offers that he is most proud of what MLSE has created at Real Sports Bar & Grill and e11even, its two external restaurants. “Real Sports is difficult to describe,” he says. “Picture the biggest and best sports bar in the world and you are only half way there.” He offers that e11even is simply “classic American-style comfort food.” Offering classics like ribs, roasted chicken and a burger that was recently voted one of Toronto’s top burgers, e11even is simply “comfortable,” Zielinski says.
Everyone’s a Fan
MLSE’s culinary team is a proud supporter of the local Toronto economy, farmers and businesses. Working with Ontario farmers, they hand pick their beef for aging to be served at its steakhouse, Hot Stove Club. Air Canada Centre is also the first arena to be a partner with Ocean Wise, a sustainable program for seafood. “We wanted to be out there and show that we care about the environment by making good choices for our fans,” Zielinski says. “We are creating concepts that are more in touch with the Toronto food scene and can better serve an increasingly diverse audience.”
The creativity and innovation in menu offerings comes from a fan engagement philosophy that is fostered throughout the company. After an extremely successful 2016 that brought the NBA All Star weekend and the World Cup of Hockey to Air Canada Centre, everyone is looking forward to what this year will bring. “We had a record year that pulled the whole team together to execute these events,” Morrow says.
“I’ve always been a sports and live music fan, so to be part of an organization like this is rewarding,” Zielinski says. “There’s a whole lot of pride and dedication that goes along with working for this organization. We are all about winning either on the ice, court, pitch or on the dinner table, we just love winning. I’m happy to work with a lot of people that feel that way too. It’s exciting every night.”