March 20th, 2017 | By Mike Raven
I flew to Philadelphia in late January to meet and interview Peter Zilper, Vice President, Operational Excellence and Food & Beverage, Aramark Sports and Entertainment. My approach into the city was delayed for what the pilot said was “some VIP action on the tarmac.” As it turned out, Air Force One was taxiing on the runway to its resting spot at an auxiliary terminal as we flew onto the runway. Congressional Republicans were in town along with President Trump, causing traffic suppression and demonstrations to make for an interesting start to the day. I finally made it through the city to meet with Peter and Bill McClure, Director of Category Management with IMI Agency, and liaison to Aramark for our company’s business with them.
My first encounter with Peter had been while he was working on a made-to-order pizza concept with Edward Lake, Regional Executive Chef, Aramark Sports and Entertainment. As we talked, Chef Edward kept bring out pizzas to us from the oven to taste. I was amazed at the exceptional product created in less than two minutes. Why am I bringing up pizza in a beverage magazine, you ask? I reference it many times in the interview and it makes for a great analogy when discussing Aramark’s uncanny ability to create fresh, premium products in very little time.
Peter is an easy person to talk to, and in no time you can feel his warmth and passion for this business. Like the heat coming from the pizza oven, it was strong and consistent. He is a Russian immigrant with a “cat that ate the canary” grin, making it easy to tell he is truly happy in what he does – hospitality.
He has built and led both Aramark’s Marketing and Operational Excellence and Food & Beverage teams, and has also managed R&D teams for the company’s Strategic Assets Group representing culinary, strategy and design. His early experiences were shaped at leading hospitality companies including The Breakers Hotel and Resort, Sedgefield Country Club, Woodlands Resort and Inn, and The Cloister Hotel and Resort. Peter also holds a Master’s degree in Management from Cornell University, a B.A. degree in Philosophy from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and an A.A.S. in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University.
But all these degrees could not match his intensity and outlook on this business, which are conveyed in the interview below.
Mike: When I first looked at your responsibilities, I was taken aback because I didn’t quite know where to start. Maybe you could just tell the readers a little bit about the many things you do with Aramark.
Peter: I head up Food & Beverage for Aramark Sports & Entertainment. We serve more than 200 premier stadiums, arenas, convention centers and concert venues. I have a background in operations, culinary, marketing, R&D, consumer insights, brand, sales and innovation. Those experiences serve as a foundation for how I approach our food and beverage efforts. What we strive to achieve in F&B is to create memorable experiences our fans will embrace. These are experiences that make fans say, “You get me, you get my people, you get my city, and I’m loving this!” To create this, we spend a good deal of time trying to understand the fan/consumer in each market we serve. We follow local, national and global trends. We deeply analyze behavior and analytics down to the concept and point-of-sale level. All of this becomes a guiding force for our research and development efforts as we push the envelope in innovation of products and concepts. In addition to developing these experiences, my team spends a lot of energy focusing on service, quality and operational efficiencies to ensure success. So there’s an R&D component and a focus on operational execution in my team’s efforts.
MR: In our pre-meeting you were working with some pizza, and that was the model of efficiency.
PZ: I’m glad you got a chance to see that because it serves as a good example of how we think about and approach F&B. We are getting ready to launch a made-to-order pizza concept. It’s effectively going to change the model of how pizza will be made in the sports and entertainment business. If you look at pizza in the industry just a few years ago, you would find a fairly static and tired environment in much of the industry. There is takeout, restaurants with salad bars and pizza by the slice. Often the pizzas are ready-made, freezer-to-oven solutions, or they are put together from scratch to stand up to being held for a period of time, which leads to a heavy, very filling product. It usually takes six to 10 minutes to cook one of these pies, and it often sits there until a customer comes up and asks for it, or it’s delivered to your home in a box within a 30-minute window.
Pizza is rapidly evolving today to being much more about the experience. If you look at any new made-to-order concepts like Blaze or MOD, you see they figured out how to make pizza fun. They brought in bold flavors, they brought in interaction and transparency, and they allowed customers to customize their pies. And they figured out how to do this very quickly. It made us think, why can’t we change the model for pizza in the sports and entertainment business? What you witnessed today is our foray into that. As you and I were talking earlier, to us that is really the essence of how we look at food and beverage at Aramark – we’re not satisfied with how we’ve done it in the past.
We have a lot of complexity in our offerings within the sports and entertainment model, from fine and casual dining and catering, to luxury suites and concessions, which is a high volume business. Most people would say there is no way we could do a custom made-to-order pizza in a high volume scenario such as concessions. But we did not let these hurdles stop us. Instead, we started with a best-in-class product with the goal of providing a custom made-to-order pizza in under two minutes. Admittedly, it was a tall order. What you saw today, what you tasted today, is the culmination of extensive work. That pizza you tasted takes under two minutes to cook and yet is a high level, Neapolitan-style solution that we believe is at the top of the market in terms of style, taste and experience. We’ve also solved for significant operational hurdles, where we can produce this pizza in multiple ovens so that we are not beholden to infrastructure or equipment constraints. This is an economically viable solution for us, as it makes the offering very scalable and more affordable from a capital and investment standpoint.
Our made-to-order pizza solution is helping us achieve greater transparency and authenticity in a high volume environment such as concessions. It is helping us provide a quality offering and it’s a great experience. I know we’re mainly talking about beverage today, but this is a great example of how we approach F&B as a whole.
We think about food and beverage very holistically. So in this concept, we are thinking about beverage very much in terms of a pairing of flavor, of what makes sense but also the experience of how the fan will choose his or her pairing. Craft beer is a part of this experience, given that it is a craft pie. As well, we’ve given a lot of thought to how the fan should interact with this craft experience, at what point in the ordering process this should happen and how does it add value to the made-to-order experience. That’s effectively how we approach food and beverage development and execution.
MR: How long was that pizza going to take?
PZ: We’ve got it under two minutes. (Laughs all around)
MR: I tell you what, it was delicious! It was a great foray into this conversation because it was really something to witness. Really.
PZ: Think about it, Mike, as we were talking about the same idea for mixology with mixed and craft cocktails. Why can’t we solve for mixed and craft cocktails in the same way? Some of the work we are doing in our space is helping us up our quality game with mixology – being able to provide a beverage that is as high quality as if you were going to a swanky craft bar, and effectively provide the transparency and the show and experience around it.
MR: Special events are a fairly large program for Aramark. One of your clients, NRG Stadium, is about to host the Super Bowl and the NFL Fan Fest, which is also a big deal. Of course, my Atlanta Falcons are playing in that game. This seems like a tidal wave of responsibility.
PZ: One of the things I’ve always been in awe of since I’ve been with Aramark – and I’ve been here for over 15 years – is how we pull these things off and how well we pull them off. I think we are really the only company that truly has the firepower, experience and expertise to do that. Super Bowl is one of those great examples. You have one of the largest, most prestigious sporting events going on at NRG Stadium – with that comes a ton of catering and special events, pre- and post-game parties. We also run a lot of events at the George R. Brown Convention Center and Minute Maid Park, and on top of all that, we operate the NFL retail store. So you think about the amount of planning, people, menu execution – all the special things we want to do to help showcase not only Aramark but also our clients, partners and the NFL. We look at these events as our Oscars. We’ve become experts at it. You look at the World Series, NBA Finals, the Olympics – these are Herculean lifts. Every time, we do it a little bit better and we always try to see how we can up our game in all phases – beverage, culinary, retail merchandise and experience. With each event I’ve been involved in with Aramark, I’m amazed … well, not amazed because you’re not amazed anymore, it’s an expectation. But I’m continually impressed by the fact we not only deliver but also we get better and better at it.
MR: Good luck, because by the time our readers get this, it will be over.
What are the opportunities with adult beverage sales to enhance the fan experience all over the country? For instance, making a craft cocktail fast and good, just like that pizza we just ate. At the volume you’re doing, that’s a tough job.
PZ: It is. I always think about the old ad slogan of Virginia Slims cigarettes (laughing), “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
MR: Sure, if you’re 45 or more years old … (laughing).
PZ: I think about that saying often in this business because when I came in it, close to 12 or 13 years ago, there wasn’t as much variety in beverage choice. This was very much a beer-focused business; it still is and we sell a tremendous amount of beer. The model keeps changing; the expectations of our customers keep changing, as does our understanding of our consumers. I want to say over a decade ago we started investing very heavy into insights and analytics, as well as segmentation studies, to understand our fans more intimately. We started to look more closely at what their life preferences and behaviors were, both inside and outside of the venue – what product and experience choices they are making, and what their actions and desires are at different sport types and within different areas of their lives. Translating that consumer demographic and insight data into actionable business objectives allowed us to better evolve our product and concept offerings, to help our fans embrace our offerings and value the experiences we create.
Some big things popped – we started thinking very differently, especially in baseball, for example. Close to 50 percent of our impactful fan base is female. Finding that out was a big “aha” moment. This base is broken out into what we call sports purists and social fans. Ten years ago we said, “What are the opportunities we have to better meet their needs? What do we need to do in terms of product offerings to meet those needs?” A female demographic 10 years ago, for example, didn’t have many options other than the light beer category and maybe a couple of other things here and there. So today, you walk into a venue and you have tremendous options from the beer companies with the ‘ritas and things of that nature, malt alternatives and tremendous wine options. You now have a variety of bars and experiences, and all of a sudden you look at a model within a decade that has completely blown up in terms of product and experience.
What have we done? We’ve done deep analysis of distribution – in other words, how much should we have by product type across a venue. So we do heat maps against demographics; we look at understanding exactly where we sell things and what we should be distributing. So if you look at the craft beer category, it initially was over indexed in our world. However, what we’ve done is say we like the variety but let’s figure out the right distribution points for that variety. We’ve worked very closely with our beverage partners to identify that, to have a lot of variety but with smart distribution across the buildings. We’ve worked on things such as destination bars. We were the first to go to market with Irish pubs over a decade ago and today what you have are exciting destination bar concepts. Today you walk into a venue and find great variety in general concessions, destinations, great variety in the club levels and the restaurants, with much more interaction with those products and our food offerings, in terms of ease of ordering, experience and education around those things. We continue to push the envelope around that; we are currently looking at mixology and craft cocktails, and upping our quality game around this.
MR: Okay, I have to use the pizza thing again as an analogy of how to make a great product, fast. Can you do that with craft-style cocktails? What is the physicality of that?
PZ: It’s the same thinking process as how we are going to market with food. It’s easy to look at the hurdles and volume we have in this business as deterrents, but it is much more appealing to look at these challenges and say, what if? And how can we figure it out? That is how we are approaching development with mixology. You have a bar at halftime in an NFL game – it’s going to get hit hard and you have fifteen minutes to turn. You look at that opportunity – we actually want to streamline the menu, right? And that makes sense because speed of service is extremely important to our customers. Then the next thing is quality. We have an obligation to figure out how to provide more and more value in what we’re serving from a quality standpoint, and provide value for the price customers are paying, especially as the cost of the entire sports or special events experience continues to go up.
MR: You’re not dealing with people in the $2 bleacher seats.
PZ: No, it’s not. Therefore, we have to figure out how to execute that with the constrained labor model we have and the operational constraints on us of speed and time. One way we’ve thought about that is, what really are the steps in the process of making a craft cocktail? And typically any great craft cocktail is a three-step process. We work with experts in this area that do it best in class in the restaurant and bar world. That is why we chose to partner with Alchemy Consulting and master mixologist Joaquin Simo. We have been working with them in helping us evolve our mixology and bar solutions.
We have tested our work in a number of bars and distribution points within our business. They have a great three-step syrup process that’s helping us figure out how to drive the operational component of executing a quality cocktail fast and efficiently. But it’s not just about the cocktail – it is also about how you dress, the experience of making the cocktail, the marketing and the collateral at the point of sale. We look at it in terms of the whole experience of the customer coming up to one of our bars. Can we deliver that Whiskey Sour, Margarita or Moscow Mule or signature cocktail authentically and fast? These are simple drinks, which when made well, can all of a sudden drive the acceptance of what you are producing tremendously.
We’re figuring that out, just like we’re figuring pizza out, and it’s starting to transform the way we go to market. For example, we are setting up a destination craft mixology concept that is getting ready to launch as a pilot in two of our convention centers, and it will be awesome. Think about it: A customer in a convention center is at a big show; they are thirsty and are craving a cocktail. He or she will now be able to come up to this new craft bar and have an experience analogous to the experience they are going to have at a high-end bar in Chicago, Philadelphia or New York. But you’re going to be able to do it at a volume and with a speed of service that you never imagined at a small bar in Manhattan.
That’s the level we’re pushing ourselves to in terms of the experience we are creating. And really, I think this is the way bars and hotels, resorts or anywhere, should be thinking about how they can create a best-in-class offering regardless of the environment or constraints. It’s not just about a fancy ice program or fancy products, it is really about quality, execution and having someone feel good about what they are paying for, and love the product you’re serving them. To me, that’s what we will strive and push for and try to achieve.
MR: When you say there is a three-step process to make a craft cocktail for you, what are those steps?
PZ: We have a crafted syrup program with flavor enhancers that Alchemy developed. We take a high-quality base spirit, add the syrup, flavor enhancer (which are all natural and of the highest quality) and finish it off with either a high-quality juice or soda, whatever the drink calls for. So there are never more than four pulls in the creation of the cocktail. The bottom line is, you’re getting the same taste in this craft cocktail that you would get in a cocktail bar but you are getting it at a convention center or a sporting event, at a really cool looking bar. A really well executed simple drink is really fantastic. It is all about having good product to start with, but also having the quality control to make sure the balance and proportions are right. To me, that’s ultimately so much more important than having some fancy drink with a ton of ingredients and a fancy garnish!
You can have a great experience (with complicated cocktails). Last night, we had a great dinner and I had a Manhattan that was smoked, and it was just tremendous. But very few places can pull that off without it being ostentatious. And really, I don’t think people are looking for that in our world. I think what they’re looking for is a great drink, made well and delivered with great service.
MR: How about cocktails on tap? Is that a no-brainer? Is it something you’re going to do a lot of, or none at all?
PZ: Well, it’s a little bit of both. It is a no-brainer and a brainer. (Laughing) You can have a really bad cocktail on tap, and I’ve tasted it. But yes, we love cocktails on tap but it’s really just a means to an end. To me, it’s about the quality of ingredients in the right distribution points, not the delivery mechanism. Cocktail-on-tap is simply a delivery mechanism and we like it, as it provides us with a piece of equipment to be able to deliver beverages quickly.
So it’s all about the product. If you’re putting a sub-par mix in it and a sub-par execution, it really doesn’t matter what the delivery mechanism is. It’s all about beginning with the product, experience and service, and then the mechanism of how you get there is just one more step.
MR: How about the packaging on wines that you can sell individually. There are quite a few new ones with some revolutionary packages. Is it just a pretty face or do they have some good quality as well?
PZ: They are kind of like Virginia Slims also – they’ve “come a long way, baby” as well. We’re finding some really good quality wines in those packages. I think it’s a nice way to deliver the wine in a portable atmosphere. I don’t think it’s the total answer but is more of an evolutionary step in this business.
My wife is Spanish and we go to Spain almost every year. Wine there is a very different part of the culture. It’s a very sessionable and drinkable thing. You walk into someone’s home and they always have a nice, easy-drinking red in the fridge. They pull it out and you’re having it with your tortilla de patatas, and you’re happy! In America, it’s not really like that. I think one of the things that wine has to figure out is how to get past the snootiness of what it is in America. I think most people – the masses, if you will – in the U.S. are really lost with wine.
MR: You think so?
PZ: We industry types can get lost in our own world and I think a lot of folks in the industry get a bit blinded by that. I truly don’t think that most people find wine very approachable as an everyday, sessionable beverage choice. Easy drinking wine as an everyday beverage choice is so much more a part of the culture in Europe. We need to figure out a way to get to volume and acceptance like that of wine here. If you think about it, a nice cold wine with a splash of soda – that is a great drink but it’s not a mainstream thing here.
I think the trend to solve for sessionability or appeal to the masses, has been for the people in the industry to move towards sangrias or very sugary types of solutions, which aren’t that easy to drink on a hot day (albeit, a well-made sangria is not sugary but most of what you find out there is very sweet). The initial drink may taste okay but the sugar and sweetness bog you down. We are thinking about wine in multiple layers and multiple solutions. We have so many different solutions with wine offerings from catering to restaurants, and there’s a place for all of it. We have a wonderful program through our restaurants and different tiered programs that makes sense for catering. However, I see the big volume gains, big acceptance and massive paradigm shift in wine is figuring out how to bring it to the masses in a very drinkable form. So it’s a big cultural step – that’s the breakthrough moment in America, when we get to that culturally.
We’re looking at ways to do that in concessions. We’re looking at ways to evolve wine and use different delivery systems such as wine cocktails and wine as a mixer. We’ve been first to market with wine on tap and we’re putting really great quality wines out there. It’s done really well in our environment and made it much more acceptable. It’s a great quality drink in a way we can manage very well. It’s always going to be about beer in football, baseball, basketball and hockey but could it one day also be all about wine? And I think the answer is “yes” – at least a larger share of it can be.
MR: Let’s talk a little about training. You have huge, fast-paced outlets and also the more elite catering functions you do. How do you approach all these different aspects of your business?
PZ: If I look at the industry as a whole and where training is today, compared to where it was five or 10 years ago, there’s more training available today than there ever was. We certainly have evolved our training. Technology helps us do that, experience helps us do that; and, we are taking advantage of many things in terms of how we are trying to meet a service execution, even using virtual reality and gaming around training.
MR: That should make it fun.
PZ: Yes. We’re doing all kinds of mobile training on things like the iPhone and personal devices, allowing us to reach our employees in ways you couldn’t really do before. When I think about training and service, I see that one of the big opportunities is upping our service game. What we ultimately do comes down to service – great service trumps everything. Something as simple as a uniform or a nametag is important to how people view themselves and how they act as service leaders. We launched a consistent nametag program last year, where we mandated a consistent look with the person’s name and their hometown. It was a big hit. Something as simple as that gave such pride to all of us. It said to all of us we will call you by your name, we will hero you as an individual. We want us all to be proud of what we are doing and it made all of us feel more valued.
One of the things we need to think about in hospitality is, what is service? How do you define service and how do you define hospitality? This question kind of hit me hard one day because I went to hospitality school, and we often talk about hospitality and what it means. I often ask people, “What is hospitality?” The answer I usually get is, “It’s about serving and making sure people are happy.” I don’t know if it’s that; I don’t know who wakes up every day wanting to serve. I think what people ultimately want to do is wake up and do something meaningful. They want to feel good about what they’re doing.
I also heard an interesting question one time: “How do you define love?” Well, there are so many definitions but the best definition I ever heard of love was “to give.” And really, that hit a chord for me because that’s what service actually is – it’s to give. When you have somebody in your home and you want to give him or her a home-cooked meal, when you want to give them a memorable experience – that’s hospitality. So ultimately, hospitality is the business of giving, which effectively is the business of loving. I was at a restaurant last night and the lady that was serving us was tremendous. You could tell she had a love for it, a passion for it. More than anything, that’s what we are trying to teach. So we’re not just thinking of the tactical aspect of training, we’re thinking of the overall human component of service.
Is that too deep? (Everyone laughing; Bill commented he wished he had a video of it.)
MR: I don’t think so – you have me sold.
The craft beers have become a big part of the business. It’s very diverse. Talk a little bit about your feelings on this. Is it still on fire?
PZ: It’s an important component of what’s going on in the market. I think what’s important to understand is that light beer is still extremely popular, and it works great in our environment.
MR: Is it (Light beer) the number one seller?
PZ: Absolutely it is. And I think one of the things we’ve seen is that people want to drink both light and craft beers. Light beer is easy drinking; it’s very much a part of how people want to experience a game. I, for example, love light beer; I also love craft beer and there’s a place for it. What we’ve seen over the years is that we probably got over indexed with craft originally. What we’ve gotten smarter about is having the right variety.
I mentioned earlier about how we are leveraging our insights and analytics to help us figure out the right distribution. We developed a heat map of all our venues and came up with the right varieties and the right distribution for craft. What we found is we are able to meet the desire people have for craft but the majority of distribution points in this business is still owned by light beer. It’s where the demand is in terms of greater proportion of beer consumption; but sometimes fans will want a craft, then move to a light, or vice versa.
MR: I do that; I’ll have a craft and move to a light.
PZ: We work very closely with all of our partners to insure that we are providing the right product at the right place at the right time, responsibly. And I think that is the real answer to craft. There’s a place for it, it’s on fire; but when you look at the absolute number of units of beer sold, it’s still a very small portion of what we’re selling.
MR: You have a good craft beer national partner with Boston Beer and have a good balance going, from what I can tell.
PZ: Yes, absolutely.
MR: Where do you see the beverage category moving, in both the broader food and beverage space as well as in sports and entertainment venues, within five to even 10 years?
PZ: We all wish we had a crystal ball, but sometimes the way to look at the future is to understand the past. Look at the past with food, for example, where we are today compared to 15 or 20 years ago. In the 1970s, going into the ‘80s, haute cuisine ruled and with the advent of California cuisine, we saw an eruption of food in this country that has catapulted food and its craftsmen to a very different place. You’ve got an industry today that is now hero-ing the chef, hero-ing the craft of food, tapping into local foods. Food has become top of mind with people. Look at the amount of celebrity chef partners we have, the number of celebrities that are into food, and the people’s interest in what they are watching – “The Chew,” which is mainstream now, to The Food Network, which was kind of the beginning for me when I was coming up watching this stuff. Food is very much mainstream. Beverage today is similar to the growth food and chefs had, and where we saw food in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
MR: Even with all the celebrity mixologists and famous craft cocktail bars now?
PZ: Beverage also evolved but not at the same rate as food. I think, for the most part, beverage has been thought of as a separate entity from food, with intersections with food as pairings or within food but not completely one in the same, or leading the offering in a full F&B concept. The “chefs” of beverage, the mixologists, are not as mainstream as celebrity chefs but they are getting there.
I still feel that beverage, for the most part, is thought of second to food but I think that is changing. We talked a lot today about experience. When it comes to food and beverage, we are trying to change the experience. It may be led by a beverage occasion versus a food occasion. But really, we don’t think of them as different; we think of them as on par, together. I think five years from now, you’re going to see beverage and food on much more equal footing in terms of the overall experience. Not just “here is the bar program,” and “here is the restaurant program” – there’s a pairing of the two, a seamless experience. You are seeing this more in restaurants where you are hero-ing that occasion of the drink. The day part might be different; it’s the same in our world. If you think about it, we don’t work in static environments in stadiums, arenas and convention centers. There are Sunday games, afternoon games, Friday games, Saturday games – and each of those represents a different occasion. Some of them are going to be more beverage forward, some more food forward. So I think, depending on the occasion, time and day of week, you’re going to have a different experience and we are thinking about it differently. We don’t just open the doors and act the same on any of those days. We adjust where we’re putting craft beer, craft cocktails. We have different show types at our convention centers – we are thinking about how we will optimize for this demographic, for this show type. Some of that is very beverage forward. Where I see the evolution five years from now is a much more seamless approach around beverage and food being together. I see beverage kind of catching up to that. Where I say now it might be a bit behind the food scene, I think it will be getting closer to it, if not right on par with it.
MR: Is the European community more like what you’re describing?
PZ: Culturally, we’re different and I think Europeans have different occasions. I think beer in Spain for example, is much more a part of your day at multiple day parts. You have a beer with lunch, or with an afternoon snack or with dinner. It is just a part of the everyday consumption habits – it’s a different lifestyle. I don’t think the goal is to be like Europe or to follow that trend; I think the goal is to understand where it is in America and that it is changing and evolving, and we want to make sure we’re on that wave. You have to be careful when you are trying to predict or look at the future, and not try to think you understand it. I think one thing you have to constantly do is talk to your customers. Be there. Sometimes that’s a qualitative question, sometimes it’s quantitative research – it’s constantly being aware of where things are and how people are experiencing things. I think with all these conversations we’re having on a personal level, or the research we look at or the insights of the analytics we have, all of it tends to point to some big trends. And those trends are things like transparency, customization, better quality and higher expectations, and ultimately more real experiences. When you start to understand that, you start to ask what that means in terms of what and how we have to execute. Then the path forward becomes clearer because the path forward is about authenticity, transparency, customization and driving the experience of this business in an ever-changing, dynamic way.
MR: Well said, and thank you for taking the time out of your day for us, and thanks for the great pizza!
PZ: You are so welcome. It’s been fun!