SARATOGA SPRINGS — This racing season, fans at the Saratoga Race Course will notice two big changes in the track’s food and beverage offerings: the absence of many local vendors and new low price points.
The New York Racing Association has been working with its dining subcontractor Centerplate, a hospitality business that oversees the food at professional sports stadiums and entertainment venues across the nation, to reinvent the food layout at the track in order to follow a new strategy and cut costs.
“For a great many years, it seems people haven’t been paying attention to the customer base at Saratoga,” said Centerplate General Manager Drew Revella. “They’ve been asking for increased variety and lower price points — we have a new management team and that’s what we’re doing to meet those needs.”
One of the ways that NYRA and Centerplate have responded to these needs is an overhaul of the vendor line up at the track. Many familiar businesses like P&H popcorn and Jack O’Brien’s 27 lemonade stands staffed primarily by local students won’t be returning trackside for the 2011 season.
What the cuts do allow, however, is the implementation of new lower price points on staple items like beer, lemonade and popcorn.
Mark Bardack, whose Ed Lewi firm handles public relations for Saratoga Race Course, revealed some of the reduced prices offered this year at the track.
In 2010 the cheapest beer option was a 20 oz. domestic beer that went for $6.75. This year the cheapest beer on-track is a 12 oz. domestic that will go for $3.
When it comes to imported beers, the prices have been slashed even further. In 2010 a 16 oz. imported beer sold for $8, this year a 12 oz. imported beer will go for $4.
Both NYRA and Centerplate acknowledged the value of including local businesses at the track, but Revella said that many of the old local lemonade and popcorn vendors were coming at an additional cost for the race course.
“As a company we realize the importance of Saratoga and its history,” Revella said. “We are a concessioner so things like popcorn and lemonade we already sell at our stands so there was really no need to have a secondary contractor do the things we already do and do well.”
With Centerplate running the concessions this year, they have been able to cut prices on more than just beer. It might not be from one of Jack O’Brien’s lemonade kids or a P&H vendor, but this year fans will be able to purchase a 16-oz. lemonade for $3.50 and a 32 oz. popcorn for $3.75. Last year, both items ran for $4.50 or more.
Another new addition is the $5 value meal in the backyard, which includes a choice of hot dog or slider as well as chips and a soda.
Other changes include the Carvel ice cream stand, which will be replaced with a new Dunkin’ Donuts booth offering a variety of cold and hot beverages and breakfast items.
“Carvel was kind of one dimensional in my opinion with their soft serve and we think Ben and Jerry’s can service the ice cream well,” Revella said about why the company chose to drop Carvel and expand Ben and Jerry’s.
“We’ve spent money to build a beautiful new deck and patio area with fencing at our tent in the carousel,” said Pat Pipino, owner of the Ben and Jerry’s on 34 Phila Street in Saratoga Springs.
In previous years, Ben and Jerry’s operated two tents: one in the carousel and one in the paddock. This year Ben and Jerry’s will have its carousel tent as well as a full stand located on the second floor and various cart locations around the track.
“We’re so excited that NYRA is working with us because we are a local business,” Pipino said.
Other local businesses making an appearance include this year’s line up on restaurant row, which will feature the Irish Times, Cantina, Putnam Market and Saratoga Chicken. Revella also said that both Hattie’s in the Backyard and Carolina Barbecue will be back this year to represent local eateries at the track.
One other absence is the branch of the Saratoga Post Office, a decision made by the post office due to financial costs of operating their trackside stand.
NYRA President Charlie Hayward explained the reasoning behind many of the new renovations and dining options.
Hayward said that last year the track’s local advisory board conducted a series of interviews with fans, officials and local businesses and then presented the findings.
“One of the most significant findings wasn’t economic, but there was a feeling that the area behind the clubhouse and the grandstand had become very cluttered and felt more like a flea market than a race track,” Hayward said about the report. “We took a very hard look at our third party vendors and with Centerplate’s new management it created an opportunity to clean up some of that clutter and to address a secondary issue, which was the pricing.”
In terms of the improved aesthetic at the track, Hayward said that NYRA has standardized the tents in the area where local artists and vendors sell their products in order to make it look cleaner and more uniform.
“This year we have some nice new tent options, we have clear stand tents, which look a lot more professional that the old more carnival looking tents,” Revella said of the track’s new aesthetic. “It’s very neat, clean and organized as opposed to in the past when people see clutter and hodgepodge they think of carnies. This is much more streamlined.”
NYRA also works with Centerplate at Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, where similar enhancements and changes have been made.
Revella said that Centerplate has been making significant renovations at Belmont where they renovated the old food court, now the Heritage Club to include a full service bar and expanded menu options.
Hayward said that NYRA is also working on larger capital improvement plans that would take place over four to five years at the Saratoga Track, which he stated, “Will be much more extensive than what we did at Belmont.”
Revella also agreed that both NYRA and Centerplate still have work to do to improve the Saratoga Race Course.
“We’ve addressed a lot of the things that need to be done, but we’re not finished yet — we’re not satisfied yet,” Revella said about the changes at Belmont and Saratoga. “We really want to make all of our venues a destination where people can get the ultimate experience.”