The future of food and beverage concessions at Qualcomm Stadium will soon be up for a vote at San Diego City Hall, giving local craft beer enthusiasts a chance to be heard in the public process. If local brewers are to ever gain a toehold at Qualcomm, change will be required at our largest sports facility.
At issue is the foodservice management contract at Qualcomm Stadium, which is currently up for renewal. In January 2015, the City of San Diego issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for foodservice management at Qualcomm Stadium, offering potential vendors a lucrative five to ten year contract.
Currently, the contract is held with Centerplate, a multinational food and beverage corporation which operates at more than 300 public and private venues, including convention centers, pro sports facilities, and restaurants. Centerplate may ultimately be recommended for a long-term renewal by the Evaluation Committee overseeing vendor proposals, which should cause alarm for San Diego craft beer patrons.
As Chargers fans and other stadium guests can attest, Centerplate has failed to demonstrate a serious commitment to serving craft beer in its time as Qualcomm’s culinary concessionaire. San Diego craft beer is for all and intents and purposes locked out of the stadium. The only craft beers this author could find available at the stadium are Green Flash and Sam Adams, which are not easily accessible, depending on the event and your seating location (the Chargers also have a separate sponsorship deal with Oggi’s Pizza, which allows them to sell their own beer in the stadium). More easily found are the “crafty” brews produced by Big Beer and marketed and sold as craft, including Goose Island IPA, Third Shift Amber, and Shock Top Belgian White.
How to explain then, this dismal state of affairs at the largest sports arena in America’s Craft Beer Capital? It’s not the $1.2 billion Anheuser-Busch sponsorship deal with the NFL, which some critics suggest stands in the way of better beer at football games. Prominent blogs and sports websites have reviewed other NFL stadiums with vastly superior craft beer offerings than those found at Qualcomm.
Nor could blame hypothetically be placed on an obstructive beer distributor that somehow only allows macros to be served; a quick Internet search revealed that Centerplate sells a wide variety of craft brews at its various other partner facilities, including those local to the respective region. As a publicly-managed, publicly-owned facility, Qualcomm Stadium isn’t limited to the opaque personal preferences of an unaccountable manager with total facility control. The answer to this question remains elusive, but it likely isn’t surprising.
Applying Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is often the correct one. We can reasonably deduce then that, quite simply, neither Centerplate nor the City of San Diego have made serving local craft beer a priority at Qualcomm Stadium. To some degree, this is understandable. From Centerplate’s perspective, San Diego is only one of hundreds of accounts it has to manage worldwide, and not one that has the glamour or attention that its larger and more profitable clients do. The City of San Diego has been unable to prioritize far larger issues besetting the aging stadium, including a backlog of repairs and deferred maintenance which at last count totaled at a staggering $80 million, according to news reports.
Craft beer enthusiasts shouldn’t accept the status quo at Qualcomm. It’s our public stadium, and we deserve concessionaires that support local business and cater to our tastes and preferences. We have good business to offer as well; city documents reveal that approximately $8 to $9 million in revenue is generated from stadium concessions each year. With a 71,000 seat capacity and 125 food and beverage kiosks, Qualcomm Stadium could be considered San Diego’s largest dining room.
The Evaluation Committee and the San Diego City Council have an important choice to make. Centerplate has shown it can support local craft brewers if it wants to; what it lacks in San Diego is higher expectations and public pressure. Research efforts by this author found that Centerplate provided far more local craft beer selections to patrons at the sports facilities in serves in other craft beer regions, including Asheville (McCormick Field), Portland (Providence Park), and Seattle (Safeco Field). Why not San Diego then? What Centerplate and the City of San Diego need is to hear from the public – clearly and loudly – on what needs to be on tap at Qualcomm Stadium. If you want something in this world you have to demand it, and local craft beer at sports stadiums is no different.
A decision may be coming in a matter of days. A new proposed agreement is expected to be introduced first to the Budget Committee sometime in April, and members of the public will have an opportunity to provide input before the Budget Committee before any final decisions are made. This author will update craft beer enthusiasts when a preliminary concessionaire decision is docketed for a committee hearing, and provide details for public input in a future West Coaster online update. Until a new agreement is approved by the City Council, Centerplate’s current contract will continue on a month-to-month basis.
With Dean Spanos the Chargers organization making endless headlines in their pursuit of a new football stadium, it’s easy to forget that San Diegans will still own Qualcomm Stadium regardless of the outcome of negotiations or future elections. What Qualcomm serves on tap matters; Chargers home games and other major stadium events draw thousands of visitors to our region each year, and more local craft beer sold means more revenue being re-invested back in the San Diego economy.
It’s time for a change at Qualcomm Stadium. If our business won’t be taken seriously by the concessionaires that serve us, we should take our business elsewhere.
Vince Vasquez is the Senior Policy Analyst at the National University System Institute for Policy Research, an economic think-tank based in San Diego.