At the Super Bowl, the Boston Culinary Group provided hot dogs as well as honey-baked ham. Here in Springfield, the MassMutual Center touts the availability of ‘everything from burgers to Beef Wellington.’ Whatever the menu items, the message is clear: this is a company that has built a reputation for being able to handle any culinary task. And even as national notoriety grows, local facilities that work with the catering and concessions giant say it’s a big company that hasn’t forgotten the little guys.
The day before boarding a plane to the Super Bowl, which was catered from soup to nuts by the Boston Culinary Group, members of the company’s management team were at the Big E.
Testing recipes for cream puffs to be served in the Dolphin Stadium luxury boxes, they were not; the stop at the Eastern States Exposition was all business, as BCG staff checked in on their operations at the Better Living Center, for which they assumed food service duties just over a year ago.
Sue Lavoie, vice president of the Big E, said she was impressed with the visit, and the timing thereof. She said it was proof of a hands-on management style within BCG, which she appreciated, and also of the wide array of services this national company can handle without alienating smaller clients.
“We enjoy working with them, and they come and check their operations constantly,” she said. “It’s kind of this hidden secret. A lot of people don’t know about BCG, but they are huge, and we’ve been very impressed with what they can do.”
Indeed, the acronym ‘BCG’ was new to many as they scanned Super Bowl headlines earlier this month, several of which mentioned the catering company’s menu choices at the big game, including mozzarella salad topped with ciliegene, braised beef short ribs, Florida stone crab claws … and hot dogs. Lots and lots of hot dogs.
BCG, which changed its middle name from ‘Concessions’ to ‘Culinary’ in 2004, has been a growing presence in the national food and beverage scene ever since, though the change was more to affect outside perceptions than internal operations, according to staff at all levels. It has always handled hot dogs, but although few realized it until recently, it’s been handling lobster tails and Bananas Foster for nearly as long.
“I think it was a wonderful choice,” said Lavoie of the name change. “When you’re on my side of the business, ‘concessions’ means hamburgers and hot dogs, but they do a lot more than that and still maintain the concession end, which is exactly what we needed.”
And with jobs like the Super Bowl and the 2003 World Series between the Yankees and Marlins (who also play at BCG client Dolphin Stadium), the company seems to have succeeded in its plan to better translate its diverse model to a larger audience. But as Lavoie attested, this ‘well-kept secret’ in the culinary world has actually been a major player in Western Mass. for several years, with no signs of leaving for longer than the length of a football game.
‘Culinary’ is Their Middle Name
BCG was founded in 1961 in Cambridge by Everett, Mass. native Joe O’Donnell, who remains the company’s chairman. His objective was to serve the food and beverage needs of the recreation and leisure industry, including at convention centers, stadiums, museums, theaters, and ski resorts, among other venues, and today, that business model largely persists, though it has expanded considerably.
In 2004, said Dave Oberlander, regional vice president, the name change was happening concurrently with a greater marketing push to tout the various services and accomplishments of BCG, as well as a level of quality and high-end service he said had existed for many years.
“As much as everyone knew that the old name was well-respected, they knew that it was not reflective of what we do,” he said in a formal statement. “Has anything changed besides the name? Yes, I think we’ve set the bar even higher for the type of quality and service we expect from our employees, and they have risen to the challenge.
“It’s not like our managers showed up at their facilities the day after the name change went into effect and said, ‘all right, everyone start doing culinary stuff,’” added Oberlander. “The culinary knowledge was there long before it appeared on our shirts and business cards.”
BCG is the full-service provider of food and beverage services for more than 100 diverse properties throughout the country, including LaGuardia Airport, Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, Boston’s Wang and Schubert theaters, and Miami Arena.
It works with a dozen college athletic facilities, including those at Yale, Harvard, Wake Forest, and Kansas State University, and 13 ski resorts, including Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont and Sugarloaf in Maine.
BCG also provides catering and food services for a number of seasonal events, among them King Richard’s Faire in Carver, Mass., and the Florida State Fair in Tampa, Fla., and, in addition, owns and operates 23 movie theatres across the nation, from art houses to multiplexes.
Finally, four fine-dining restaurants round out the list of responsibilities: the John Harvard’s Brewery chain, with locations in five states, all purchased by BCG in 2004; Porcini’s Mediterranean cuisine in Watertown, Mass., Tia’s Waterfront in Boston; and Figs, at La Guardia Airport.
But even with this growing national reach, BCG has maintained a strong presence locally, which augments the business of some of the region’s primary economic drivers.
The company provides both arena concessions and high-end banquet and catering services for the MassMutual Center in Springfield, for instance, as well as for the Eastern States Exposition and the Mullins Center at UMass. BCG has also handled food operations at Hancock’s Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort since 1970, and opened a John Harvard’s location there in 2005.
Hockey Pucks and Haute Cuisine
Diane Smolenski, general manager for BCG at the MassMutual Center, said the company has handled concessions at the site, formerly the Springfield Civic Center, since 2000. When a request for proposals was issued for catering and banquet service providers as the new MassMutual Center reached completion, she said BCG was able to secure the contract, thanks in large part to its ability to provide both high-end dining options and casual fare.
An executive chef was hired, as well as the necessary culinary team to serve the largest banquet facility in the area, when the change to operations was made, but Smolenski, who has worked with BCG in various locations for nine years, said many corporate practices and services have remained unchanged.
She said the expansion of services that contract necessitated is probably the best example of why the name change was a small shift that nevertheless speaks volumes about BCG’s capability.
“The word ‘concessions’ has a certain connotation,” she said, “and ‘culinary’ suggests a sort of cultural upscaling. People are so savvy these days in terms of food and food service, that the name change does make a big difference in terms of how we’re perceived.”
Although prior to the MassMutual Center’s opening the civic center had worked primarily with arena food — hot dogs, nachos, and the like — the transition to a wider array has been relatively seamless.
“Now, we handle everything from burgers to Beef Wellington,” she said. “That’s one of the great things about working with a company of this size — we have a fantastic network of good people if there is a change to a facility’s needs, or if we need help. ”
Smolenski added that the company’s size also allows for the same amount of attention to be paid to consumer trends at concessions and catering levels. There was a small coup for the center recently, for instance, when it became the first venue in the area to offer the popular frozen treat ‘Dippin’ Dots,’ and wrap sandwiches have been added to the arena’s list of snacks in response to customer demands for healthier food choices.
Conversely, banquet business has been brisk for the 200-person BCG staff at the center; it has catered events recently such as the Bright Nights Ball, a welcome-home celebration for troops returning from active duty, Rock 102’s 10th anniversary roast of morning show hosts Bax and O’Brien, and a 70th anniversary dinner for Big Y foods, which Smolenski said was one of her staff’s more formidable tasks: a seven-course, plated dinner for 1,500 people.
“Being able to offer a wide array of services allows us to be very community-oriented,” she said, noting that despite its size — BCG employs about 11,000 people nationwide — she rarely feels like part of a vast, corporate organization. “I’m part of a big company, but I don’t see that on a daily basis. What I see are the people we serve as a downtown facility, and the people we employ — 200 local people.”
From the Mountains, to the Prairies, to the Oceans
Still, with gigs like the Super Bowl, there’s no denying the growing size and scope of BCG.
“I hope it affects us in a positive way,” said Smolenski, who noted that on a local level, business has been good, and showing promise. “Of course, last year was great, because we were new. But this year is right on track, and clients are rebooking, which I think is the key.”
Jim Bronson, director of Food and Beverage at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort (through BCG), agreed that as BCG becomes a more recognized name nationally, it brings a little of that notoriety home to Western Mass. and the facilities that use BCG’s services.
Bronson has been with the company since 1982, when he began working at the now-defunct Mt. Tom ski area in Holyoke. Since then, he’s worked in several BCG locales across the country, and has seen firsthand the changes the company has made. But he said he doesn’t foresee the company becoming too big to serve its local clients.
“I’ve seen the company grow into something new and exciting,” he said, noting, however, that while BCG may have changed its name, its internal identity has remained intact.
“We changed our name because we offer so many different levels of service. We catered the Super Bowl, but everything else that leads up to that point, too.
“We’ve always had that capability,” he added. “Saying the name change was a sort of culture change suggests that we weren’t doing something right before, when really the performance is largely the same. The word ‘concessions’ was limiting, but the service was not.”
Indeed, Jiminy Peak itself is a sort of mini-representation of the breadth of services offered through BCG. Bronson oversees the food-service operation of three ski lodges, John Harvard’s Brewery, a gourmet coffee shop, a tavern, and several ongoing events, such as the resort’s children’s program and all corporate and social events held at the mountain.
“BCG is an entrepreneurial company that is big and getting bigger all the time, but with a small-company feel,” he said. “The owner’s name is Joe, and everyone knows that. What’s more, if I see Joe, I just say, ‘hi, Joe.’ None of our management members are untouchable; in fact, I think they’re inspiring.”
As an outside vendor who utilizes BCG’s services, Lavoie said she too has noticed the company’s accessibility. She explained that prior to BCG taking over food operations at the Better Living Center, a family operation had handled concessions and catering for more than 40 years. As family dynamics changed, the company chose to opt out of the assignment — very quickly.
“They left in December, and we had a show booked for Jan. 1,” said Lavoie. “I was familiar with BCG because of all of the places they operate, and contacted them immediately. They were ready to take over within 24 hours, and since then, they’ve made a lot of upgrades.”
And when all is said and done, that attention to service is more impressive to Lavoie than the splash made by the Super Bowl menu. The Big E has plenty of cream puffs; what’s more important is a team that will get to the meat of the matter.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]