"Serving up Success," from the 2011 Magazine
"Second to None," from the 2011 Magazine
"15th Season," from the 2010 Magazine
"A Rivalry is Born," from the 2008 Magazine
"Mark Prior on the Mound," from the 2005 Magazine
"Seventh Heaven," from the 2004 Magazine
"The Comeback Kids," from the 1998 Magazine
"A Season to Remember," from the 1997 Magazine
"They won. They lost. They battled back." from the 1997 Magazine
"How the Lugnuts came to Lansing," from the 1996 Magazine
Cover story from the 2011 Lugnuts magazine:
Serving up Success
Ten years after the ingredients came together in Lansing, Professional Sports Catering is shaking up the Minors
by Jesse Goldberg-Strassler
Quick – what do the Lansing Lugnuts have in common with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and Asheville Tourists? How about with the Tulsa Drillers, Peoria Chiefs, and the Erie SeaWolves?
The short answer really is short, only three letters long.
It stands for Professional Sports Catering, a growing force in the area that perhaps most affects a fan’s experience at the ballpark: Food.
PSC is run by Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers, the Lugnuts’ co-owners, along with CFO Jonathan Harris and COO Greg Rauch. Their clients currently number 12 Minor League baseball teams, a number that shoots upward every off-season.
How is the young company making such inroads into the once-exclusive field of Minor League food services?
The longer answer begins right here, with the Lugnuts’ arrival in Michigan’s state capital 16 years ago.
“When we brought the Lugnuts to Lansing in 1996, we had our hands full trying to get the ballpark built, sell tickets, and put on a good show,” recalls Dickson. “We didn’t know anything about the food business, so we hired an outside company to come in and run it for us on a five-year contract. They did not have the same customer service orientation that we do, and so we were frustrated from day one that we could not control the food service, the product, or the pricing.”
After the 2000 season, the contract ran out. Dickson and Rauch, the Lugnuts’ General Manager at the time, decided against extending the contract or signing with a different food service provider.
“We had learned a lot of baseball business at that point in time,” says Rauch. “Collectively we saw an opportunity to capitalize on, a challenge to take on that part of the operation, bring it in-house, and learn the business. We knew when we did it the first time around that we weren’t necessarily going to be perfect at it, but we figured even at that, with the right attitude and the right work ethic, we could do just as good a job as we were currently seeing.”
It was not an easy transition.
“Before you get into it,” Rauch notes wryly, “you don’t realize there’s a lot that goes into feeding anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 people.”
“Greg and I worked a lot of long nights and pulled our hair out a lot trying to learn the food business,” says Dickson. “It seems easy. You walk in and there are hot dogs on the grill and cold beer waiting for you, but the whole process of getting it, really understanding the inside of that business, is a more complicated than we thought. It may have taken us a little while to figure it out, but we were glad that we did. We felt that right off the bat, we made a positive difference.”
Dickson and wife Myers purchased a second Minor League baseball team in 2004, the Orlando Rays. The team was moved to Alabama’s state capital and was renamed the Montgomery Biscuits. With three years of food service independence in Lansing under his belt, Rauch moved down to Montgomery to become the team’s first General Manager and preside over the company’s second in-house food service department.
Finding a Niche
Two years afterward, a pair of Midwest League teams came calling. With the first, a new company was born. With the second, a trend was set: the company would be in high demand.
“So now, a few years later, we’re running two food service operations and we’re starting to understand the business pretty well,” says Dickson. “PSC really started with the team up in Midland, the Great Lakes Loons [moving from Battle Creek to open the 2007 season]. Their management approached us and asked if we would consider running their food for them; they’d been in Lansing and Montgomery and they really thought that we did a good job. That was really when we started PSC. We took over their food service business when they opened their ballpark and that was really the beginning of the company.
“The South Bend Silver Hawks heard that we were starting this company. They had been sold and the new ownership was looking to improve their food service operation. They also had heard that we were doing good things down in Lansing and they hired us as well. So we came out of the chute that 2007 season running the operations for Lansing, Montgomery, Midland and South Bend. That’s how we kicked off our first year with PSC.”
And when the year came to a successful close, the Professional Sports Catering braintrust understood that they were onto something significant.
As Dickson explains, “We determined that first year that we had found a nice little niche here since we were the only food service company in the country that focused solely on Minor League baseball. All of our competitors were the really big food service companies like Aramark and Sports Service. Yes, they did Minor League baseball, but they’re really more focused on Major League sports, convention centers, and hospital food. They really don’t understand the world of Minor League baseball like we do. We understand Minor League business. We own Minor League baseball teams. We’ve lived and breathed this for a long time. So our vision was to stay focused on Minor League Baseball.”
That vision has been justified over and over again in the seasons since. The fifth team to join the PSC fold was another Midwest League colleague, the Quad Cities River Bandits. Like the Silver Hawks, the River Bandits were sold to new ownership, which decided to sign with Professional Sports Catering entering the 2009 season and promptly saw their concessions per cap increase by 26%.
Firmly convinced of the PSC’s quality, the Double-A Tulsa Drillers signed aboard in the autumn of 2009 as they prepared to open beautiful new ONEOK Field for the 2010 season. In October, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the High-A California League brought PSC’s client lineup to seven.
This past off-season was the busiest yet for the company. During the hot stove season, PSC signed contracts with the Peoria Chiefs and Kane County Cougars of the Midwest League; the Asheville (NC) Tourists of the Class-A South Atlantic League; and the High Desert Mavericks of the California League.
The biggest announcement came shortly before the season. On Tuesday, March 15th, Professional Sports Catering partnered with the enormously successful Mandalay Baseball Properties, LLC, owner and/or operator of such thriving Minor League teams as the Dayton Dragons, Erie SeaWolves, Frisco RoughRiders, Oklahoma City RedHawks, Staten Island Yankees, and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.
“We are delighted to form this partnership with PSC and are excited about the unique value proposition they offer in the market,” said MBP CEO Art Matin in the press release announcing the partnership. “We have been very impressed with their people and the results that PSC has delivered to their existing clients. We look forward to contributing to the very exciting growth prospects for the company.”
On a Local Level
PSC may have teams all over the country, but Dickson is quick to point that “it’s not one size fits all. We serve biscuits in Montgomery. If we served biscuits here in Lansing, people would look at us like we had two heads. Rancho Cucamonga is in a very heavily Hispanic market, so we have a different menu there. People have different tastes in different regions, they like different things, and we have to cater our menus to match that.”
Yet there are most definitely similarities in tastes throughout the country, and the Lansing Lugnuts serve an important part in test-marketing those tastes. Last year, for example, the Lugnuts added “Pomodoro’s Pizza” to the menu to gauge whether the pizza should become a fixture at all PSC stadiums. Also test-marketed last year, the “Big Bone” smoked turkey legs and “Spare Tire” giant pork tenderloin sandwich. Each was promoted prior to the season via the team’s Facebook page, garnering immediate attention and anticipation.
This year, the newest delights offered by the Lugnuts include a funnel cake cart, a gourmet burger cart, footlong corn dogs, fresh turkey wraps, and BBQ ribs, added on to the portable BBQ Cart. “Slow cooked and fall-off-the-bone delicious,” the team promises, and they’ll be eager to see if you agree. After all, positive feedback impacts the other teams in Professional Sports Catering.
The man in charge of the menu options at Cooley Law School Stadium originally came to interview for a different position. Brett Telder boasted over 17 years of experience in the kitchen, including the position of Executive Chef at Lansing’s Cadillac Club, when he interviewed for the Lugnuts’ own job opening for Executive Chef.
“I really wanted this job,” says Telder. “I’m thinking, I’m going to be the chef for a baseball team. They told me at 10 o’clock that Friday morning to get in front of a computer and they’d make the offer. It was Tom Dickson, Greg Rauch, Jonathan Harris, [PSC’s] Nick Kavalauskas, and myself. And they said, ‘We’ve decided not to offer you the job for executive chef.’ I was staggered, I didn’t know what to say. They saw the expression on my face and quickly said, ‘Hold on, hold on. We’d like to offer you the Director of Food and Beverage position.’
Since he accepted the position in October of 2008, Telder has been in charge of all aspects of food service for the Lugnuts. “I think it’s a lot of chefs’ dreams to get out of the kitchen eventually and take over the business aspect of the operation,” he says. As for the hard-working employees who make up his staff, he speaks in straightforward terms about the company's standards. “We look for strong characters with a passion in food. It’s that simple. Passion.” Telder wears his passions literally, sporting a tattoo of PSC’s logo on his right shoulder.
"You’re going to have long days,” he admits. “You’re going to have hard days. But you know what? We continue to strive forward.”
Lansing is the perfect example of the forward progress and upward mobility PSC presents, a fact that Telder knows well. His handpicked right-hand chef in 2009, Jenny Coleman, is now leading the kitchens in Great Lakes as the Loons’ Executive Chef. Mike Koski is another source of pride. “He started in Midland as a catering guy and worked his way up to Catering Supervisor,” describes Telder. “Last year he was sent to Lansing as Assistant Director of Food & Beverage, and now he’s the Director of Food & Beverage in Kane County, running their food service operation, and I know he’s going to be a success.”
Optimism shines from everyone involved with Professional Sports Catering, from Tom Dickson to Greg Rauch to Art Matin to Brett Telder.
“We have been amazed by how fast this company has grown,” says Dickson. “We’ve gone from those four clients the first year to rapidly becoming the largest food and beverage company in minor league sports. Still, we’re not as focused on being big, we’re really more focused on being good at what we do. We’re in a growth mode, but it’s controlled growth. We want this thing to grow but we want to keep the quality there.
“We’re looking hard at hiring good people and growing good people internally. We have a full-time staff of almost 50 people now, which is amazing coming from nowhere five years ago. We’re focused on keeping those people motivated and growing them. I think the rest will take care of itself.”
This season, at venues ranging nationally from the Carolinas to Chicagoland, fans will be savoring ballpark fare far beyond their expectations, all thanks to a risk taken here in Lansing ten years ago. In ten more years, who knows how large those three small letters – PSC – might be.