As the Tampa Bay Lightning continue to be among the elite NHL teams on the ice, it’s making sure the 27-year-old Amalie Arena is keeping up.
Since Jeff Vinik took over ownership of the team in 2010, he’s invested more than $100 million of his own money into the county-owned building, according to Darryl Benge, Amalie Arena executive vice president and general manager.
This offseason, the investments included a concessions overhaul, including new brand partnerships and concepts.
“[Amalie Arena] hasn’t had a formal facelift, but a lot of the projects have added new pieces and modernized it,” Benge said.
Many of the projects are maintenance and often not obvious to the casual fan, like replacing rusty pipes, but Benge said fans appreciate when the toilets flush. This year’s improvements will be much more obvious.
For starters is a partnership with Cigar City Brewing, a well-respected brewery from Tampa, which recently became the team’s official craft beer. As part of the partnership, the brewery will be featured with a built-out bar area on the arena’s club level, serving up four taps of Cigar City beers. Likewise, the beers will be available throughout the building during games.
“We’ll embrace their designs,” Benge said. “Tampa is known as Cigar City, so having them in the building is important.”
Amalie Arena is also taking on a joint venture with concessions company Delaware North in a 5,000-square-foot Cigar City Brewing-branded taproom across the Amalie Arena plaza on the ground-floor level of the Pam Iorio Parking Garage. Benge said the Amalie and Delaware North were going to lease the space for a restaurant before the Cigar City partnership, but the synergy made too much sense.
The taproom is slated to likely open in December and will provide fans a place to grab a beer and a bite to eat prior or after games, Benge said. The taproom to start will only be open on game days, but Benge said it may become a 7-day-a-week operation in the future.
The Cigar City taproom and in-arena bar is part of a larger trend of incorporating local and regional beer options during games, said Carlos Bernal, president of Delaware North Sportservice. He mentioned similar concepts at TD Garden in Boston and SunTrust Park in Atlanta – which even features an experimental brewing system for Terrapin Brewing.
While Budweiser and Miller products are still popular, Bernal said fans are looking more toward local and regional offerings in both food and beverage. For that reason, he doesn’t see the trend of incorporating local and regional brands into concession offerings ending anytime soon.
“It’s a win for the attending fans,” he said. “It gives them a broader choice and they vote with their pocketbooks.”
Amalie Arena also welcomes another well-known brand into the arena this year, Portillo’s. The Chicago-based chain, known for its hot dogs, burgers and chocolate cake, has two locations in the Tampa area, so Benge said fans have been excited to seek out the restaurant’s menu during preseason games and concerts.
The renovation required taking a concession space down to the studs before working with Portillo’s on the design.
Also, fresh this year will be plenty of general concessions stands, Benge said. Because Amalie Arena was built in 1996 on a tight budget and timeline, a lack of food and beverage point-of-service points caused an interesting concession set up.
“We cobbled it all together with these branded portables,” Benge said. “They all were installed on different dates, had different looks and it felt like an eclectic, clunky mess.”
To solve that, the renovation pulled out those carts on the 100 and 300 levels and replaced them with a new concept of grab and go and fresh kitchen stands. There are hanging racks of snacks, like beef jerky and cookies, and a few beverage coolers with a walk-up counter for payment and ordering of fresh-cooked foods. The foods are cooked on grills facing the concourse, so fans can view the food and look out the arena windows behind to either downtown Tampa or Harbor Island.
Benge believes the new concessions will help entice fans to grab more to bring back to their seats.
“It’ll take time, but the hope is more ancillary sales and per caps because they see fresh right in front of them,” he said. “I don’t think anyone goes out of their way for a hot dog that was cooked a roller around the corner.”