Wining and dining at the ACC: A dinner party for 18,000 people
Image: Ben Johnson
While recent years have done much to lower our expectations when it comes to the athletes who call the Air Canada Centre home, there is a group of people who happen to work in the same building who put in a remarkable effort every single Leafs and Raptors game (not to mention Toronto Rock games and all the concerts).
They are the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment food service employees and, while the city has clearly grown all too forgiving when it comes to “off nights” from both the Raptors and the Leafs, we’re far less apt to show forgiveness when it comes to the beer and hotdog we buy at the game, so these people need to be on their game.
Thankfully, it’s a responsibility they take seriously. As Robert Bartley, Senior Director of Food and Beverage will tell you, “We like to think of it as hosting a dinner party for 18,000 people every night.”
Indeed, the ACC is one of only a handful of professional sports facilities that opt to cook for their dinner guests themselves. Most sports facilities, like The Rogers Centre down the street, contract third parties to handle foodservice. The Jays, for example, have left the foodservice to Aramark, a massive US-based foodservice company that handles sports facilities in addition to educational institutions, healthcare facilities, and even prisons.
In addition to instilling a sense of pride in employees who can say they actually work for the team, Bartley says handling the food in-house is an effective means of ensuring quality. “When you bring in other parties,” he says, “they tend to watch their own profit margins, and occasionally that means their quality slips to meet those margins.”
And while you can say a lot of things about Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, having a keen eye to keeping costs down probably isn’t one of the things that first springs to mind. Indeed, thanks to a rare playoff run last year, the Leafs have seen fit to push their average ticket price up to $368.60 (up a whopping 13.95% from last year), making them the most expensive ticket in the NHL, according to Forbes. To put it politely, as Bartley prefers to do, shelling out for a Leafs game means you’re getting a “premium ticket,” and so the MLSE tries to provide premium service; service that includes three full-service restaurants, with varying levels of exclusivity based on your ticket and depending on if it’s a Leafs or Raptors game.
Those restaurants, all overseen by executive chef Chris Zallinsky, include the Air Canada Club, the Hot Stove Club, and the Platinum Club; the latter of which is available only to Leafs Platinum season ticket holders and Raptors courtside season-ticket holders and where, for the most part, fans opt to dine on red meat and drink wine between periods. Indeed, according to Bartley, over 50% of all dinner orders at ACC restaurants are for steak and the organization goes through 250lbs of house-cut ribeyes and tenderloins every Leafs game in addition to 35 whole prime ribs.
Helping fans fans wash down their meals in these venues is the ACC’s extensive wine selection. The Platinum Club, for example, features a 2800-label wine room where mostly-Bay-Street-types buy bottles of big California reds and Italians with names like Shafer, Dominus, Caymus, and Antinori. When asked if one might be able to find a bottle of Two Oceans anywhere at the ACC, Head Sommelier Anne Martin says, “Not even one ocean.”
“We have a team of eight certified sommeliers working the floor in all three restaurants in the ACC to ensure that everyone’s wine expectations are met from the most straightforward request for a nice wine by the glass to choosing a bottle of the best vintage for the seasoned wine lover.”
In addition to their on-staff wine experts and in-house butchering, the ACC makes all their own sauces, they smoke all their pulled-pork in-house, and they even have their own in-house pastry chef, Wally Arruda, who has five employees under him making the pastries for all the restaurants.
Of course, while the restaurants are full every game, most people don’t come to a Leafs game for a ribeye and a cab sauv.
The majority of the fans dine at the concession stands, which are, in fact, the bulk of the ACC’s business. And while there’s clearly an effort to bring quality here, too, the concession business is very much about quantity.
At a typical Leafs game, for example, the ACC will sell 2500 slices of pizza (the best selling item on any menu), in addition to 2000 hot dogs, 800 pounds of pulled pork, 500 carved prime rib sandwiches, 2000 bags of popcorn, 200 orders of sushi, 500 subs, and 500 orders of chicken fingers.
And of course you’ll want a cold beer to wash all that down.
Naturally, the ACC has you covered there, too; however, craft beer fans might be disappointed to learn that the attention paid to diversity and selection elsewhere in the ACC has not yet translated to their draught lines. Instead, MLSE is still a “proud partner” of Molson-Coors, meaning that you’ll mostly just find the usual lineup of that company’s lagers on tap throughout the building.
That doesn’t seem to be an issue with Leafs fans though. In fact, the ACC still pours roughly 7680 litres of beer at every Leafs game--an amount that’s about 40% more than what they pour at Raptors games and, interestingly, an amount that increases 5%-10% when the Leafs are playing another original six team.
So, whether you fancy a cold beer or an expensive wine, a hot dog or a prime rib, the busy folks of the MLSE’s foodservices team clearly have you covered. Of course, whether or not they’ll get to offer their services past the regular season for either team this year remains to be seen.