Game On: Dining With the Vancouver Canucks

Change is coming,” herald the headlines and the websites and the YouTube videos. “Change is coming,” say the coaches and the players and the spokespeople. As slogans go, the new rallying cry for the Vancouver Canucks isn’t a bad one — a bit political campaign-y, maybe, but seemingly accurate. In addition to major overhauls on the management and coaching and player sides, the team is hoping to win back fans with a total rebuild of the beleaguered food and beverage offerings at its home base, Rogers Arena.

Back in March, the Canucks ended an 18-year contract with Aramark, one of the largest arena food-service providers in the world, and fired all 1,000 of its concession workers after deciding to bring oversight in-house. Around the same time, Aquilini Investment Group, which owns the Canucks, bought the renowned Toptable Group — home to Blue Water Cafe, West, CinCin, Araxi, and Thierry — for an undisclosed sum.

The timing seemed suggestive, but as Michael Doyle, Canucks executive vice-president and arena general manager, explains, “At no time did we think that Toptable was going to run Rogers Arena or that we’d have Toptable restaurants in the arena. But certainly having that expertise and that purchasing ability was a major factor in the decision, and we think that will give us the upper hand in the arena.”

To help put these changes — which ring in at over  $8 million — in motion, the Canucks created the position of VP of hospitality and filled it with Jeff Stipec, a long-time food and beverage executive with experience in ski, golf, racing, and gaming operations. His vision for the new concessions at Rogers hinges upon the concepts of freshness and interactivity. “We’re going to be taking a lot more of the food and making it a part of the experience,” he says. “We’re not going to be popping corn the day before or the morning of the game; we’re going to be popping it while the fans are here, and creating those smells and animation that I think adds a lot. There’s going to be a lot more fresh food, and fans will see the chefs preparing it in front of them.”

The man hired to oversee the culinary side of the operation is executive chef Robert Bartley. A former Four Seasons chef, he was most recently executive chef for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in Toronto, through which he managed all of the food at the Air Canada Centre, an arena considered by many to have one of the best F&B programs in North America. “It’s not easy to do good stadium food,” says Bartley. “It sounds simple to make a good hot dog, fresh popcorn, pizza, and beer, but ultimately a lot of people don’t do it very well.”

To ensure that it’s done well at Rogers, Bartley  has created an in-house pastry shop, built a full onsite butchery, and pulled together a management team that includes six sous-chefs, a pastry chef, and a quick-service chef. New concepts, which will appear with the first Canucks’ regular season home game on October 11, include Carve, offering a slow-roasted prime rib sandwich on a brioche roll and porchetta on ciabatta with salsa verde. The seafood-focused Catch will feature a “West Coast salmon roll” — lightly smoked salmon on a butter-toasted roll — and a lobster roll. One of the first things Trevor Linden was asked after assuming the presidency of the Canucks was if there would be poutine at the stadium. He said there would be, and he’s made good on the promise by bringing in Smoke’s Poutinerie.

Ultimately, though, most people heading to the stadium will be hungry for one thing: hot dogs, and the team intends to go all out for them. “Our hot dog concept is named after Stan Smyl,” Bartley explains. “He’s one of the famous former Canuck captains, and he’s from the town of Glendon, Alberta. When you drive into Glendon, the landmark of the town is a giant perogy with a fork sticking out of it, so we’re going to have some fun with that and do a perogy dog, which has a couple of small perogies on top of it.” (If that seems a little starchy, not to worry: there will be a full dozen dog styles available.)

As any barfly can tell you, the best possible pairing for a stadium hot dog is beer. Rogers has a contract with Labatt, so there won’t be any immediate changes to the taps. But as Jay Jones, the stadium’s newly hired wine and beverage director, explains, “We’re making a big investment to ensure that the beer is the temperature and the effervescence that it should be. We’re taking out the 20-year-old beer system that was in there and putting in a brand-new Perlick system throughout the entire arena as a foundation for the quality of the beer. If the lines aren’t premium-quality and perfectly maintained and hygienic, then you miss the whole point about why people enjoy beer in the first place.”

The hiring of Jones, winner of this magazine’s Bartender of the Year award in April and a recent inductee into the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame, suggests that the organization intends to get serious about its libations, and the timing is excellent: among the many recent changes to liquor laws in this province, spirits — and serious cocktails — can also be served at arenas for the first time.

Jones sees the evolution of offerings at Rogers as something driven by more sophisticated, demanding consumers. “As much as the local fan is educated about trades and acquisitions and salary caps and the starting lineups of the team, so are they familiar with the developments in the food and beverage industry,” he says. “We have a very educated, savvy customer out there, and we want them to come into the arena and be proud of what they’re seeing.”

Photo details:

Solid Copper ice box, $161.95 available at Williams Sonoma 

Chevron flatware 5pcs setting $39.00 available at West Elm Market