Fans don't eat much during close games.
Those anxiety-fueled moments from back-and-forth lead changes leave stomachs tied in knots. The sweaty palms from knowing the mood will radically swing depending on a random deflection off a skate or a friendly bounce of a rim leaves hands too slick to hold a beverage.
This makes a fan a non-traditional diner, says United Center Executive Chef Michael Arcomone. He's had ample time to observe fan behavior, as he attends most games whether they're on weekends, nights stretched by overtimes, holidays and matinees. Since he took over helming the food operations at the home of the Chicago Blackhawks and Bulls, Arcomone has strived to raise what fans expect from their culinary experiences at the arena.
"I want the people in concessions to have the same experience as they would in a premium restaurant," he says. "Make sure it's hot. If it needs to be cold, make sure it's cold. It should be fresh. It gets lost."
It's early in the season for Chicago's basketball and hockey teams, with both holding on to hopes of a long season ending with a championship. Despite the shared championship dreams Arcomone notes a few differences between the two fan bases.
"The Bulls crowd is more of a food crowd," he says. "The Hawks crowd is more of a drinking crowd."
Levy Restaurants, which handles food at stadiums across the country, employs Arcomone, who oversees a bevy of food options at the United Center. That type of variety wasn't always available, as fans now want more than a hot dog at the game. The United Center solicits food feedback from its fans, and Arcomone and his staff will listen to that input and update their offerings. New items for this season include a house-made chicken burger and a ribeye steak sandwich, only found at the Highland Baking Co., booth near section 115.
Not all items make the cut season to season, Arcomone explains. If you think fan reaction to Bulls' star Derrick Rose's assortment of injuries is harsh, you should hear what happens when a beloved menu item disappears.
"The steak sandwich in Ironworks (outside section 309), we took it off the menu...and after the first preseason game (fans) blew up, we had to put it right back on," Arcomone says. "The response was overwhelming."
Arcomene came from a restaurant and hotel background and freely admits that he didn't know much about stadium food or concessions before he joined Levy 16 years ago. The Philadelphia native has worked for Levy at Chicago-area sporting venues including Arlington Park and Schaumburg Flyers Stadium. A white-tablecloth restaurant will never have to worry if a patron is enjoying an item that's being eaten while using a lap as a table. This often leads to creative brainstorming, and some ideas never make it. At one time, Arcomene says United Center staff considered a mini-fridge for some seats.
Food at the United Center varies depending on how much a fan wants to spend. There are two clubs that require annual memberships, and that membership is only available to season ticket holders. Membership to the Ketel One Club, located on the main floor near gate 7, costs $350 per person, and that excludes the cost of any food.
Inside the Ketel One Club, diners have access to food that Average Joes sitting in the nosebleeds with their foiled-wrapped wieners can only imagine. A bone-in ribeye, lobster macaroni and cheese and short rib gnocchi are all on the menu at Kettle One. The latter's Arcomone's favorite, as he raves about the housemade pasta.
"We're into the fall, winter and the beginning of spring so comfort food is big for us, we don't have a lot of accessibility to stuff that grows in the summer time," he says. "You come to a hockey game and it's like 30 degrees. The gnocchi is very comforting, very homey, it's something that you would get at someone's house when they invited you over for dinner. "
There's also an increased focus on local ingredients and brands. When Anheuser-Busch InBev purchased Chicago's Goose Island Brewery, it was a win-win for the United Center, which already served InBev products. Goose Island's Fulton and Wood street brewery stands about a mile north of the stadium, and arena concessions quickly brought Goose into its flock of offerings.
But not to say there's any corporate interference. Chicago is known for its local pizza scene - whether it's deep dish or thin crust. However, the United Center is tied to an agreement with Nestle, and only offers slices of DiGiorno's national brand to patrons. That differs from the local options at Wrigley Field, which offers pizza from Giordano's and U.S. Cellular Field, which serves Beggars Pizza. Arcomone declined to comment about the arena's choice in pizza, saying he wasn't the right person to ask. Sometimes the chef has to battle for items deemed worthwhile for the menu, the size of a chop can be scaled back to satisfy any fiscal constraints.
Last week ESPN ran a piece prior to when this interview took place about a series of food code violations inside Kauffman Stadium, the home of Major League Baseball's Kansas City Royals. Chicago inspectors haven't found any violations inside the city's sporting venues. But even then, in his interview, Arcomone mentioned keeping the importance of keeping food areas safe and clean.
"We have tasting spoons –no double dipping– yeah, the focus on sanitization is big," he says.