When Target Field opened in 2010, it revealed itself as more than just a ballpark. Among other things, it almost instantly became one of the best open-air summer dining destinations in the Twin Cities.
Partnerships with local institutions such as Murray's (steak sandwich) gave fans extra reasons to check out the new ballpark and keep coming back.
"It was designed to be a really large restaurant in many ways," Twins President Dave St. Peter said Thursday.
It also changed the game for pretty much every other sporting venue in the area.
Soon after, the Wild and Timberwolves were taking a page from the Twins' playbook by attempting to lure fans (and media members before them with preview tastings) with restaurant-quality options that went beyond the standard stadium fare of hot dogs and popcorn.
U.S. Bank Stadium, the new home of the Vikings, did an extensive rollout of specialty food items before opening in 2016.
It was only a matter of time, then, until the University of Minnesota jumped into the game in earnest. On Thursday, TCF Bank Stadium — which opened in 2009, the year before Target Field — hosted a food-tasting event to showcase some of the new foods that will be offered at Gophers football games this season.
"I think [other teams] prodded us forward," said John Cunningham, Gophers deputy athletic director. "We looked around the city and realized we have to step up our game and increase value."
If you're going to get into this game, you'd better do it right. The Twins model, St. Peter said, was built on picking the right brands and making their food partners feel like it was special and valuable to be inside Target Field. It appears the Gophers duplicated that nicely with their choices of both partners and food options.
Ike's Restaurant, Pimento Jamaican Kitchen, Curds&Cakes and Jax Cafe will offer a menu of items while operating in a revamped west end of the stadium on game days. That area, which is open to all fans in the stadium, will also include a standing-room drink rail and new beer options (to be announced soon).
Every item sampled Thursday had appeal. None of the meal-sized items cost more than $12, while the smaller items were more in the $6-$8 range. The loaded tater tots ($10) from Jax Cafe and the jerk chicken and pork bowls ($11-$12) from Pimento Jamaican Kitchen were particularly good.
Upgrading food makes sense, of course. Teams can correctly pitch such upgrades as initiatives that cater to fans' changing expectations and needs. The modern fan doesn't always have time for separate trips to a restaurant and a game. If you can combine the experiences, though, it's win-win. Teams, meanwhile, can reap additional revenue from specialty food items that are in demand and typically more expensive than regular stadium fare but no more pricey than, say, what a fan would find at a restaurant.
"This is really focused on the fan experience," Cunningham said. "Hopefully, any revenue would come just because we were offering a better experience. We want people to come into the stadium and feel really good about the food options."