Prepping food for 90,000 Triple Crown hopefuls at Belmont Park
If hot-water dogs and soft pretzels—so New York, right?—aren’t quite your thing, don’t fret: The Belmont Stakes has plenty more (think beef tenderloin and mixed drinks) in store for the 90,000 fans descending on Belmont Park June 6 to watch American Pharoah attempt a Triple Crown run.
Food provider Centerplate runs the eats at Belmont Park, but normally at less than five percent capacity during racing season. Ramping up to over 100 percent capacity requires some careful planning and plenty of additional menu prepping, Peter Matra, Centerplate’s regional vice president in charge of Belmont, tells SI.com.
“All of the restaurant menus are new every year,” he says. “The staples that stay on there have a twist with how they are prepared.”
Planning for Belmont starts with understanding the crowd. Last year about 120,000 came to Belmont. This year, the New York Racing Association will cap the all-day event at 90,000. On years when a Triple Crown isn’t in play, that number can drop all the way down to between 45,000 and 60,000.
Not all 90,000 fans this season will dine in the same location. With a garden terrace, turf and field club, a trophy room, champagne room and multiple other terraces and tents, the premium spaces serve about 5,000 guests. The other 85,000 guests get served via the main concessions.
Matra says he started planning menus for the differing areas in August 2014, holding weekly meetings since. All menus are created based on what Belmont can source, using New York purveyors for cheeses, meats and as many local products as possible, allowing the 25 salaried chefs and 25 front-of-house folks to assist operations from the main kitchen. Food preparation started weeks before the race, with the final preparations filling the week leading up to Saturday and “execution” happening Friday and into Saturday.
The premium space menus change year to year, even if Belmont staples, such as beef tenderloin, simply take on a new twist. And, oh, don’t expect Centerplate to forget traditional Italian pastries for dessert, another Belmont favorite.
But that’s all just premium seating, which works separately from concessions and its 185 locations and 624 points of sale will try to handle the crush of 85,000 folks crowding the park for 12 hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The hot-water hot dogs, soft pretzels and sausage and peppers get sold throughout the park, the popular staples for every level of ticket holder. Expect to see barbecue pulled pork, soft-serve ice cream and even some New York-style pizza make its way into one of the clubs.
But no horse race is complete without a signature drink. In Elmont, N.Y., folks line up for the Belmont Jewel. Served throughout the park in a commemorative glass with the current Belmont Stakes logo and the names of the winning horses adorning the side, the glass fills with ice before merging with 1.5 ounces of Knob Creek bourbon, 1 ounce of pomegranate juice and 2 ounces of lemonade. The vigorously shaken drink is served up with a lemon twist or red cherry.
Getting all these favorites, plus the finer items for the premium spaces such as arepas and gluten-free options, up and running doesn’t fit the normal routine of Belmont Park. And while the sheer size of the event seems like it would be on par with a Super Bowl or other major sports competitions, Matra says it can be quite a bit tougher.
“The major difference is the obvious ramping up,” he says, “going from less than 5 percent capacity to greater than 100 percent and using temporary points of sale and 900 temporary employees. For a Super Bowl, it is just a normal day. We are going from zero to 65 miles per hour and it has to happen overnight. It is not easy.”
The length of the event makes it tough too. Whereas a traditional team-sporting event has a few hours before the game and a few hours during the game for food and beverage purchases, Centerplate will serve food for at least 12 hours on Saturday.
“This is a massive, massive process,” Matra says. “It is just one day, but it takes a year’s worth of planning to execute.”
Whether beef tenderloin, a soft pretzel or a Belmont Jewel, feeding 90,000 folks is—in this case—a day at the park.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.