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No stranger to trailblazing, chef Michael Mina melds a fine-dining steakhouse with a relaxed pub atmosphere at his restaurant in Levi’s stadium.

Game Changer

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Stadiums are catching up with the chef-driven era of dining, and leading the charge is Chef Michael Mina, whose premium tailgate and high-end restaurant inside Levi’s Stadium is owning the reinvention.

By Sonya Chudgar February 2015 Executive Insights

It’s a crisp 57-degree Sunday morning in Santa Clara, California. The late-autumn sun sits shrouded behind clouds. On the corner of Tasman Drive and LaFayette Street is Levi’s Stadium, the 70,000-seat home to the San Francisco 49ers that opened in fall 2014. Somewhere inside the tunnels of the stadium, players are stretching, visualizing game plans, and sliding gloves and protective gear over their bodies while adjusting their fight faces.

On another side of the stadium, one 49ers diehard is sliding on gloves of his own, visualizing a game plan, and adjusting his game face. This man is strolling through a kitchen, checking freezers for inventory; he’s passing the grill-ready fire pits and eyeing the indoor, 13-foot-tall rotisserie wall, where shortly he’ll roast 1,200 pounds of Japanese beef; and he’s thinking ahead to gargantuan pots that hold 400 gallons of water, which in a few hours will host hundreds of boiling lobsters, lowered in by cranes.

Welcome to Michael Mina’s Tailgate.

An Unrivaled Game Plan

Chef Mina himself describes his tailgate scene as a carnival. What the chef has actually created, however, is a dining experience unrivaled by any chef or stadium in the U.S. His 17,000-square-foot restaurant, Bourbon Steak & Pub, is open to diners seven days a week for lunch and dinner—never mind that it boasts a mailing address of Levi’s Stadium, and sports venues are typically closed to the general public outside scheduled of events. The concept sticks to a high-end, white-tablecloth steakhouse with the Bourbon Steak brand, which has five other locations in the country (although the other locations don’t possess mirrors that transform into TVs during football games); and on the other side of the space, Bourbon Pub offers a gastropub environment, complete with an open kitchen, live fantasy-football standings, and betting lines.

On 49ers game days, the real excitement starts: An indoor/outdoor tailgate overtakes the space, which accommodates nearly 1,000 people before kickoff at 1 p.m. Food is prepared in custom-designed kitchen equipment, guest chefs such as Thomas Keller whip up divine dishes, and beef, ox, chicken, and duck swivel enticingly on rotisseries so tall they take up one and a half levels. The premium experience is for members only; they pay $5,000 a year, or about $500 per home game, for the scarlet-and-gold revelry, but cost is hardly prohibitive for fans who want their game-day experience levitated to the realm of chef veneration.

“I’ve been to all sorts of stadiums, since I go to a lot of 49ers road games and I have for a long time,” Chef Mina says. “A lot of stadiums had started to elevate their cuisine, but definitely, there wasn’t anything like this that I saw. Especially considering what we did—there was no roadmap for it.”

The trailblazing James Beard winner may have ignited a new trend: Stadiums and sporting venues are evolving into a hotspot for chef-inspired creations, whether it’s Chef Mina’s tailgate adventures or concessions operators such as Legends, which offers handmade charcuterie at its premium club in Dallas’ AT&T Stadium. AT&T Stadium, in fact, is preparing to open its first seven-days-a-week restaurant, a gastropub styled after the Dallas Cowboys, before the 2015 NFL season kicks off in September.

“What you’re seeing now is a more sophisticated palate from the fans and particularly from those who buy premium amenities in stadiums,” says Dan Smith, president of hospitality for Legends Hospitality, which provides foodservice and restaurants in multiple sporting venues. “Fans are coming to these facilities to have a great dining experience. You couldn’t say that five years ago.”

A Golden Opportunity

Born in Cairo, Egypt, and raised in Ellensburg, Washington, Chef Mina always dreamed of living in San Francisco. It didn’t take him long after graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, to receive an invitation to develop an upscale seafood restaurant in San Francisco with George Morrone, at the time the executive chef of the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles. Twenty-two years old, Chef Mina jumped at the opportunity, and shortly after arriving in the city in 1991, he made an investment with the 49ers.

“I don’t have a lot of time outside of work, but the one thing I’ve always made time for, it’s been my treat to myself, is the 49ers,” he says. “It’s one of the more elaborate purchases in my life. When I was young, when I was first starting out in San Francisco, I bought two season tickets, and that grew to six over time, so my wife and I, our kids, and friends could go.”

In the ensuing years, Chef Mina won accolades at Aqua, the restaurant he opened with Chef Morrone, where he served as executive chef from 1993 to 2002. He left in 2002 to open Mina Group with his partner, tennis star Andre Agassi. Today, Mina Group comprises 23 restaurants in destination cities from Las Vegas and Miami to Seattle and Washington, D.C.

When he wasn’t running restaurants, Chef Mina could be found on Sundays at Candlestick Park, manning his rigorous tailgate that attracted local chefs and winemakers. He speaks with zeal about the tailgates, a preacher evangelizing his culinary religion.

“Great tailgaters, when you go around to peoples’ tailgates, it’s all about equipment. They’ll cook different things each week, but if there’s a guy with a smoker, he’s always got a smoker there. If it’s a guy with a grill, he’s always got his grill. Some people have two or three pieces of equipment. That’s what you do: You load up your truck, you come, and then you’ve got your tailgate based around your equipment.”

The tailgate specialties also included Bloody Marys crafted by Chef Mina’s wife, Diane, who five years ago began growing produce for the cocktail in the Minas’ home garden in Nicasio, about an hour away. As Chef Mina’s tailgating grew, he gathered a following of 200 to 300 people, and by the end of his parties, he and the fans would follow each other from one tailgate to another, bathed in camaraderie and 49ers spirit.

Through his reputation as both a chef and 49ers fan, Chef Mina met the York family, who own the 49ers, and Paraag Marathe, the team’s president. When the 49ers broke ground on Levi’s Stadium in 2012, with plans for the 49ers to move there in 2014, a space perfect for a restaurant prompted Jed York and Marathe to approach Chef Mina.

“When Paraag said, ‘Are you interested?’ I had to downplay it a little bit,” Chef Mina recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I can get out there, we can take a look.’ I probably fired off 10 calls right after that.”

For a fan, Levi’s Stadium comes with all the bells and whistles: It offers Wi-Fi and access to 4G Networks so visitors can check fantasy football scores and post online; an app guides guests to their seats and to the closest bathroom with the shortest line; and employees bring concessions to guests, who order food and drink from their seats.

“Season ticket holders, they were showing us well in advance what the builders were doing, so I was exposed to the premium level of stadium they were going to create,” Chef Mina says. “It started to make sense. It’s important to make sure your brands match up with what’s going on and that it’s going to be right for your clientele, as well.”

When Chef Mina saw the space for the restaurant, which is on the outer ring of the stadium and doesn’t overlook the field, he pitched a package: the high-end Bourbon Steak, the gastropub Bourbon Pub, and an event space half a floor down that doubles as a members-only tailgate during home games.

“I said, ‘What about moving my tailgate party inside?’ And they took that idea and ran with it, and said we could do a very cool membership, and that’s what I was really after. There was a certain spirit that I didn’t want to lose, and with having everything paid for ahead of time, there wouldn’t be this distinct change of cash. It’s just this really fun, well-thought-through 49ers party for everybody.

“So, I re-created my tailgate in dramatic fashion inside.”

Elevated Arenas

In the months leading up to Chef Mina’s golden opportunity, the world of stadium dining did not stand idly by. An evolution occurred over the last five years that makes it feasible for an elaborate tailgate and high-end restaurant to exist, and gain such fervent support, in a stadium. Members-only amenities and in-suite dining, which have always been a premium offering, are becoming even more upscale, driven by micro-local sourcing and beer brewed at stadium restaurants.

Unlike Chef Mina’s restaurant in Santa Clara, concessions operators control much of the full-service stadium dining. Legends, Levy Restaurants, and Delaware North Sportservice are some of the other heavy hitters in the concessions world, and they also cater to the premium crowd with full-service options and members-only dining clubs. The premium suites are only elevating their offerings, experts say.

The Legends Club at Yankee Stadium, for example, comes with an all-inclusive ticket for a seat in the first six rows, generally from dugout to dugout, according to Smith, who says Legends Hospitality provides foodservice in multiple venues including Yankee Stadium, Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, and Angels Stadium in Anaheim, California. “We provide every bit of a five-star dining experience to those guests. We have the budget to do a plated, five- or six-course meal, but based on the time everybody arrives to a baseball game, we don’t have the luxury. We have to get them in and out of that experience in about 35 or 40 minutes.”

Stadium kitchens operate much as those in stand-alone restaurants; the concessions partners bring in their own chefs and kitchen staff, but will also rotate in celebrity and visiting chefs, providing guests a different experience each time they come to a game. To provide an exceptional experience within the abridged time and unusual venue, stadium restaurants also bring the chefs out of the kitchen, mimicking the trend started in stand-alone restaurants over the last decade.

“The days of chafing dishes are long gone,” says Mike Phillips, COO of Delaware North Sportservice, foodservice provider in more than 30 sports venues. “We do a lot of action stations, whether it’s induction dining or where the food is prepared right in front of the guest at the time he orders it.”

Legends, Delaware North Sportservice, and Levy each say they make efforts to match their dining options to the home team, akin to Chef Mina’s ambitions. At the Legends-operated Audi Club in New Jersey’s Prudential Center, home of the NHL’s Jersey Devils, for example, the moniker “Jersey born and bred” reverberates through the rich history of New Jersey foods the stadium pays homage to. Premium dining at AT&T Center in Dallas involves a handmade charcuterie program, where the Legends’ chef has his own facility to cure salamis and prosciuttos. And in Sacramento, at Sleep Train Arena where the NBA Kings play, the venue capitalizes on the fact that 90 percent of the agriculture is grown within a 150-mile radius of the facility. “There, our chefs are developing a very sophisticated farm-to-fork program,” Smith says.

When Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, it installed a high-end steakhouse, NYY Steak, with Yankee paraphernalia on the walls—though nothing over the top, general manager Henry Gordon insists. “It’s the kind of place for people who like to entertain their clients,” Gordon explains. “Some of the major premium-suite ticket holders like to come here before they go upstairs. You could see anybody, so there’s that level of excitement, too; [former Yankees pitcher] Mariano Rivera could walk in, [former Yankees relief pitcher] Goose Gossage might drop by, people like that.”

The idea of fine dining in a venue typically dedicated to nachos and beer in plastic cups doesn’t jar the guests, Gordon says. “We seem to cater to a particular clientele, mostly businessmen. I mean, maybe once over the last three or four years, someone came in and it didn’t work for them, but they have so many other options.”

The challenges of operating a fine-dining restaurant in a stadium might seem out of left field to a typical operator: Gordon cites the weather, which will influence whether guests try to overstay their reservations; the vehemence fans feel toward the opponent team; subway traffic; getting deliveries into the stadium; and keeping inventory fresh when the restaurant only operates a few days a week.

“The guests themselves, they can be challenging, because everything is important,” Gordon says. “And I believe it’s true: They have clients, they got these tickets, the price of the game isn’t as reasonable as it might have been a couple years ago—so the people expect more and they are less tolerant of any kind of operational issues.”

The Future of Stadium Dining

One element that is not yet in vogue is keeping stadium restaurants open beyond game days or events. Alison Weber, executive vice president of strategy and creative at Levy Restaurants, says she can count on one hand the number of restaurants that Levy operates as a freestanding restaurant seven days a week, like Bourbon Steak & Pub. And Sportservice offers only a few that are open year-round, including Curly’s at Lambeau Field, one of the most historic U.S. stadiums, located in Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Dempsey’s at Camden Yards in Baltimore, operated in partnership with Rick Dempsey, a former catcher with the Baltimore Orioles.

AT&T Stadium plans to open its Cowboys-themed gastropub by September, offering retail components, as well. The decision to do so came from AT&T’s robust non-event-day stadium tour business.

The room for growth of high-end dining concepts in stadiums is unlimited, experts say. Restaurants themed around the home team with normal operating hours can compete with local, hometown eateries by boasting an unrivaled venue. “Every one of our stadiums is starting to develop its own specialty and what it’s known for,” Smith says.

While no stadium restaurants is yet on the level of Chef Mina’s, the operators hint they’re being just as proactive at elevating their stadium offerings as restaurants on the outside. They also now have Levi’s Stadium to look to for inspiration.

Chef Mina expanded the three key components of his tailgates—his burner, wood grill, and rotisserie—and magnified them, so that about 65 percent of the restaurant’s equipment was custom-designed. For starters, there are two large wood-fired grills that function as fire pits for grilling.

Move on to the three induction tops that hold 400 gallons of boiling water and require cranes to operate. And then there are the floor-and-a-half-tall wood-fired rotisseries, including one capable of cooking an entire ox or cow, about 1,200 pounds of meat. Filmmaker George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch provides one Wagyu cow before each 49ers home game for the restaurant, and in all, the rotisseries can cook 12 animals at once, the entire system rotating like a Ferris wheel.

The way the tailgate works is this: Guests mosey through the chef’s line, manned by Chef Mina and typically a guest chef, and enjoy a traditional, sit-down meal with about 10 selections for the first hour. On home-game days, the steakhouse is stripped of its tablecloths and tailgaters feast on the warm wood tables. After that, guests walk around to the myriad bars and stations to enjoy pastries, charcuterie, and cheese.

It’s not all about the 49ers and the scarlet and gold, however; selections are creatively themed around the 49ers’ opponent of the week. When the team played the Chicago Bears in September, Chef Mina rolled out steakhouse fare with an Italian flair: meatballs, lobster rolls, deep-dish pizza, Alaskan King crabs, and, of course, Chicago-style hot dogs. When the Philadelphia Eagles soared into town two weeks later, Chef Mina conceptualized a Wagyu Philly Cheesesteak, in addition to nearly 10 other plates with Pennsylvania roots.

Guest chefs play a big role in the process, and Chef Mina clearly enjoys mixing it up with his comrades. “I’ll bring in local chefs usually and then somebody from out of town who’s a lot of fun,” he says. “It could be a chef, or it could be the best barbecue guy from that city.”

Chef Adam Sobel of RN74 crashed the tailgate in September with a meatball bar, Chef Thomas Keller dropped by in October, and Chef José Andrés visited the Sunday before Thanksgiving. “That’s the level it’s been,” Chef Mina says.

During every week of football season, Chef Mina adds a tailgate favorite from the previous Sunday to the pub menu; he intends to redo the list each year with the current season’s greatest tailgate hits. The biggest challenge he has faced so far hasn’t been learning the custom equipment, or dreary weather forcing a tailgate adjustment, or receiving 1,200-pound meat shipments: He says it’s letting people know Bourbon Steak & Pub is open, even when there’s no game.

The 49ers diehard—who insists he can’t pick his favorite all-time player, but when asked to choose three rattles off Patrick Willis, Eric Reed, and Vernon Davis—doesn’t quite see himself as a trailblazer within the arena of stadium dining. His purpose, he says, is simply to carry on a tradition with authentic spirit and camaraderie—and if that’s within a greater food movement, so be it.

“When you try to bring better food into the stadium, that’s going to happen, period, because the food everywhere in the United States is getting better,” Chef Mina says. “The grocery stores are better than they used to be; at the small cities in the center of the country, the food is better than it used to be; and there are just better chefs.”

By 10 a.m. on this Sunday, the sun has shed its cloud cover and the temperatures have warmed to the mid-60s. Gloves on, Chef Mina adjusts his uniform, a white chef’s coat with the 49ers logo sewn on the back, and steps into his tailgate.

The charcuterie, shellfish, and pastry stations are prepped. The cranes are lobster-ready. The ox has arrived.

It’s game time.