Whetting a Big Red Appetitie

photo by Eric Tadsen

"We’re throwing a party for 80,000," smiled Mike Schemberger, concessions and operations manager for the National "W" Club. That can only mean one thing: Another UW football season is underway.

While a typical fan may lament the long stretch between the end of NCAA basketball each April to the first home football game, to Schemberger, 37, the seasonal blur is less dramatic. He is, after all, always planning for the next event, the next game, show, or tournament. But though he’s held this position for nine years, nothing, he said, compares to the hype and excitement of that first football game each September.

As an employee of the National "W" Club, which is not affiliated with the University, Schemberger is not a state employee. The "W" Club, he explains, exists as an independent organization that supports the UW Athletic Department, and an exclusive "W" Club membership of over 2,100 active and 4,000 inactive letter-winners. The "W" Club has handled concessions for the Athletic Department since 1962.

While it’s no secret that Camp Randall holds over 80,000 fans, concessions are handled by just five full-time, salaried individuals who rely on hundreds of service group volunteers and hired vendor help ("hawkers") to pull it all off.

Schemberger’s position has a number of touch points. "I oversee the front and back house operations," he said, including menu development, ordering and receiving products, forecasting and making sure all concession stands are chocked full of hot dogs, brats, and other tasty fare on event days.

Between the Camp and the Kohl, 60 area service groups help make it all possible, each committing to work the stands for an entire season. Each receives a 10% cut of sales in return, which Schemberger said totals about $500,000 annually. As many as 600 service group workers will staff a Saturday football game.

A month before game day, Schemberger and the rest of the concessions team is getting the stadium in order. All stands and cart areas (for pizza, beverage, sandwiches, or cookie sales, for example) are being inspected and cleaned. Service group volunteers are installing chair backs to over 27,000 bench seats, creating pixels of red inside the empty bowl. The groups get paid per seat, and will also dismantle the seats in one 12-hour sweep the day after the home season ends. Concessions oversees the installation and maintenance of chair backs, a revenue generator for the Athletic Department; UW leads the nation in the number of chair backs ordered each football season.

Another concession team member has been interviewing vendors — the hardworking hawkers of sodas, peanuts, etc. — since June. Between 200 and 300 will work the first football game. Hirees must be 12 years old to be a vendor, and 16 to work in a stand.

Schemberger said the department has most game preparation down to a science, but challenges always arise. "Camp Randall, itself, is a challenge because it’s older," he said. "We don’t have enough points of sale to meet the demands of the crowds. We have small concession areas, so we stick with the quick items — water, hot dogs, brats, nachos, sodas, and popcorn."

Except for a few glitches here and there, Schemberger said most issues were alleviated when the stadium was renovated several years back. "[The renovation] made our jobs so much easier. It was like night and day. We were able to add more points of sale and grow revenue."

Camp Randall has 28 permanent concession stands, 15 cart locations (for pizza, cookies, drinks, etc.), five "wholesale" areas for vendors ("hawkers"), and two main production facilities, where all hot dogs and brats are cooked prior to being delivered to the concession stands.

Underneath the stadium, about 1,100 hot dogs and 950 brats are cooked (not boiled) every 15 minutes in large "combi-ovens" — a process that begins at 5:30 a.m. for an 11 a.m. game. For food safety reasons, Schemberger said all hot food, including chicken, arrives pre-cooked.

Ordering enough food to satisfy thousands requires Schemberger to keep his eye to the sky. "Mother Nature’s the boss at football," he said. "If it rains, people won’t eat. If it’s cold, people won’t eat. If it’s hot, people are thirsty and can’t get enough bottled water."

Schemberger stays two games ahead on football food orders, and watches weather patterns to help determine the size of his orders. With years of history at his fingertips, he compares similar dates, game times, weather conditions, and past sales data.

Start times have a significant impact on revenue. "In earlier games, people are hungry. The 11:00 a.m. games mean a big lunch crowd," he said, while evening games can bring in 10% to 20% less in sales. "We wish every game could be hot, sunny, and begin at 11," he quipped.

Do Badger fans want healthier food choices at games? Evidently not. "We’ve tried almost every healthy item out there — milk, salads, fruits. They don’t sell," he said, "so we’re always looking for the ‘next hot dog.’" Perhaps it will be found in a couple of new offerings this year — Italian and German sausage sandwiches, or a new Wisconsin-made trail mix with cranberries.

Stadium recycling efforts are significant. Leftover meats and chili are frozen and then shipped, along with other items, to The River Food Pantry on Madison’s north side. "We all take pride in that," he said. Plastic cups and bottles are also recycled.

A week before kick-off, Schemberger checks to assure all stands are loaded with non-perishable foods, and menu boards with correct pricing is up. All equipment is turned on to assure everything is working and heating properly. A day before, popcorn staff pops all of the popcorn, and all hot dogs and brats have been thawed.

Schemberger, an Eau Claire native who worked for a year in a similar capacity at Milwaukee’s County Stadium/Miller Park, rarely "sees" a home football game, but says the crowd noise clues him in. Once in a while, he gets to attend a Packer game with friends. "I embarrass them because I’m constantly taking pictures of concession stands," he laughed.

With the season upon them, staff hours can nearly double from 40 to 70 per week, based on the events at hand. And when other sports begin, "everything gets crazy," he said. On the docket: the Badger Blast and Chili Kickoff tailgate parties at the Field House, a Las Vegas tailgate, events at the Natatorium, McLimon Track, Goodman Diamond — oh, and a little building called the Kohl Center. It’s all part of being affiliated with a successful Big Ten sports program.

So how would a down season compare? "I don’t know," he smiled. "I haven’t seen one."

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