The Bite

Dining at Mile High Stadium was no picnic -- if the hot dogs didn't getcha, the bad sauerkraut would. But with its brand-spanking-new facilities, Invesco Field at Mile High, which opens this weekend, would seem to be in a perfect position to score with food fans by contracting with thirteen local concessionaires.

But then someone dropped the ball.

Last week, M&D's BBQ and Fish Palace pulled out of its deal at the new stadium, citing "promises made that were never kept" and "a setup that doesn't allow us to serve food" as the reasons for calling it quits.

"Right from the start, we had concerns about the food warmers," says Renee Shead, manager of M&D's and daughter of the popular barbecue joint's founders, Mack and Daisy Shead, who started the original eatery at 2004 East 28th Avenue back in 1977. "There is one food warmer in place, and we needed two more. We were told we could get one more, but we haven't seen it. And the bottom line is, if we're going to bring over hundreds of pounds of food, we need a place to keep it warm or it's not going to be serveable. They told us we could pick the equipment we needed, but that hasn't been the case. And on top of that, there's a problem with the area where food gets sent through. There's a wall between the kitchen and the place where someone could pick up the food. How are you supposed to get food through a wall?"

And M&D's wasn't the only concessionaire to pull out of the stadium. Elegant Catering, a five-year-old Denver catering business based at 300 South Jackson Street, canceled its agreement two weeks ago.

Bringing in local restaurateurs was a collaborative effort of Volume Services America, the stadium's general concessionaire, the Denver Broncos and the much-maligned Metropolitan Football Stadium District, which eagerly embraced a plan to promote, rather than sell out, Colorado. "As far as we know, this is the most progressive outreach program for a facility of this type in the country," says Jim Cundiff, general manager for Volume Services America. "Rather than us picking out a particular brand to sell at our own stands, this allows Denver businesses to get recognition."

The selection process began with public notices inviting interested parties to attend a series of four meetings and submit applications; from the 133 companies that initially showed interest, VSA whittled 65 applications down to the final thirteen. "The main challenge with this was that the building was already designed," Cundiff explains. "In picking vendors, we were looking for an ideal match between the vendor and the facility." But in some cases, he acknowledges, the matches weren't quite ideal, and vendors had to make adjustments in order to work in their spaces. There are no hoods in the lower-level concessions areas, for example, and subcontractors are not allowed to bring in their own equipment.

So the Denver Buffalo Company will grill its buffalo burgers and pheasant sausage (does any other stadium on the planet serve pheasant?) one flight below in a VSA kitchen, then use the freight elevator to take the food upstairs, where it will be kept in a warmer. "It isn't ideal," admits DBC executive chef DeWayne Lieurance, who joined the restaurant based at 1109 Lincoln Street a month ago (a Denver native, he has cooked at Ristorante Catalano, Yia Yia's and the now-defunct Ciao! Baby and Moondance). "Still, I think everybody at Volume Services has been really helpful in trying to make this work. It's not their fault there's no hoods." As further display of its can-do spirit, the Buffalo Company's stadium banner will read "We Got Game!"

Big Mike's BBQ, which will run six carts at the stadium, doesn't need hoods - but owner Mike McCrea did have some initial concerns about the warmers, he says. The stadium gig is a big deal for McCrea, who bottles and sells Big Mike's Original BBQ Sauce and had previously sold most of his barbecue at farmers' markets and fairs ("Think Big," August 31, 2000).

The club level, where the two-year-old Sage Southwestern Grill (the restaurant's located at 699 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton) will have two units, does have hoods. And while Sage's owner, Rich Brown, admits the setup isn't perfect, he thinks VSA has done its best. "Absolutely, I've thought they were great," he says. "But we still don't have everything we'd like to have. We'll make it work, though, because this is like a dream come true."

Some local concessionaires don't need to worry about equipment at all, since they'll provide their products directly to VSA, which will then sell the food out of its own stands. According to Cundiff, about a quarter of the concessions will be run by subcontractors, with Volume Services running the rest.

For instance, La Casita, a longtime tamale kitchen run by Paul Sandoval at 4390 West 44th Avenue (Sandoval also owns La Casa de Tamales at 3561 Tejon Street), will be offering its excellent tamales at an area VSA is calling the "Red Zone," which will be devoted to spicy foods. "We'll also be serving the chimichangas there from a company called Culinaire Inc.," says Cundiff. "And we have different arrangements for one or two products from places like Lindita's Inc., which will provide us with the salsa for our nachos."

The stadium's construction isn't to blame for a mixup inspired by the recent announcement of the winning concession bids. Gabrielle's Gourmet Catering is sometimes confused with Gabriella's Catering, an offshoot of Gabriella's Cafe (911 East Colfax Avenue), and Marlene Ziyad, Gabriella's owner, says people have been mistakenly congratulating her on scoring a space at the new stadium. "Gee, I wish it was me," Ziyad says. "I had no idea there was someone with that close a name in the area."

Gabrielle's Gourmet Catering is run by Loretta Parker and her son, Tony Williams, who for the last four years have operated the cafeteria at Agilent Technologies (9780 South Meridian Boulevard in Englewood). They'll turn their homestyle Southern cooking up a notch at the stadium. "At the cafeteria, we've kind of been doing everything," Parker says. "At the stadium, our focus will really be on Cajun specialties, such as jambalaya and sweet-potato pie."

While their stadium space lacks a hood, they got around the problem by shelling out $25,000 for a special hoodless fryer. "With the kind of business they're expecting us to get, I figured it would be a worthwhile investment," Williams says. "After all, you don't get a captive audience like that every day."

And there's no guarantee they'll have it for many days, since the subcontractors' contracts run only one year. "That gives them the benefit of trying it out as well as us trying them out," Cundiff says. "Obviously, with the success we believe they'll have, it will turn into a long-term thing, a real win-win for everyone."

And that could include M&D's. "We're disappointed that it's come to this," Cundiff adds. "We're not going to give up yet on the hope that we can accommodate them."

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner