As another Super Bowl nears, the Vikings, with a few other teams in the National Football League, are leading a charge to upgrade food in the tradition-bound world of football stadium concessions, one of last big captive markets to address the broadening culinary sensibilities of fans.
That bad cup of hot chocolate inspired a frozen version made with local cream and dark chocolate, which Mr. Zimmern sells for $8 at one of the two concessions he operates at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Along with his cumin-marinated rotisserie lamb sandwich and two other sandwiches he created with his stadium food partner, Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, it made a list of the best food at the new stadium compiled by Rick Nelson, the restaurant critic for The Star Tribune.
“The Vikings have done a nice job of making people want to go inside and eat,” Mr. Nelson said, even though “they’re hiding the fact that they are still peddling a lot of schlock.”
Food has been steadily improving in places like airports, movie theaters and concert arenas, where people gather for reasons other than to eat. In professional sports, baseball has led the way, driven in part by 22 major-league stadiums that have been built since 1990.
Although staples like hot dogs, pizza and popcorn still make up about two-thirds of food sales in sports stadiums, baseball menus have matured to include gochujang-glazed eggplant buns, fresh Dungeness crab sandwiches, ceviche, espresso and craft beer.
Football has lagged behind baseball largely because the sports are different, people in the concession business say. Baseball is played at a slower pace, with built-in breaks that allow fans to wander around a stadium sampling food. The crowds are smaller, and stadiums are open for about 80 games a season, which makes it easier to polish and sustain creative concessions.
Football is a different beast. Crowds can top 80,000 fans, most of whom want to be in their seats for every play and visit concession stands only before the game and at halftime. With only eight regular home games a season, it’s hard to create a system that produces consistently great food.
“The doors open and 65,000 people come in, and you don’t open your doors for again for a week,” Mr. Zimmern said.
Then there is tailgating, although it’s hard to say whether bad stadium food led to tailgating or tailgating led to less emphasis on food inside the stadium.
NRG Stadium in Houston, where this year’s Super Bowl will be played on Sunday, has one of the strongest tailgating games in the league, said Robb Walsh, the Texas food journalist who researched it for his 2010 book, “The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook.”
“We’re talking about stellar barbecuing with these giant land yachts that unfurl giant TV screens,” Mr. Walsh said. “It is more fun than going inside to eat.”
N.F.L. franchises are starting to respond to complaints about both the cost and the quality of stadium food, team representatives said.
“When we ask fans what’s the No. 1 pain point, it’s food,” said Rich McKay, the president and chief executive of the Atlanta Falcons, who will play the New England Patriots this weekend. So next season, when the Falcons open their $1.5 billion stadium downtown, they plan to sell the least expensive food in the N.F.L.
Lowering prices was a mandate from Arthur Blank, a founder of Home Depot, who owns the team. He wanted a family of four to be able to eat at the stadium for about $28.
That means hot dogs, soda or a bottle of water will each cost $2. A 12-ounce beer will be $5. The rest of the core menu of what the team calls fan favorites will be priced significantly lower than at other stadiums, where the average price of a hot dog is $5.19 and a beer $7.38, according to the market research agency Team Marketing Report.
To make the economics work, the Falcons struck a deal with Levy Restaurants, one of several national companies that provide food at N.F.L. stadiums. The agreement gives the team more control over setting prices but could cost it in profits. (Although concession sales are a small slice of the income for N.F.L. teams, profit margins can reach 77 percent.)
The food is likely to taste better than it did at the Georgia Dome, the old stadium, which will be torn down this year. The menu is expanding to include fresh handmade pretzels and the Mitchell dog, which rests in a sweet bun that tastes like a glazed doughnut. It is topped with bacon jam and Gruyère cheese.
Vendors from Atlanta’s beloved 89-year-old drive-in the Varsity will roam the stands yelling, “What’ll ya have?” just as they do at the restaurant. Booths will offer favorites from other local restaurants, including Antico Pizza, Delia’s Chicken Sausage Stand, Farm Burger and Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q. Managers for the Falcons say they will prohibit the restaurants from charging more for food at the stadium than they do at their restaurants.
The Falcons are also installing a raised-bed garden for cooks and bartenders working at the stadium. It’s the league’s second. A 4,000-square-foot rooftop farm was planted at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., which opened in 2014 as the home for the San Francisco 49ers.
Kevin Gillespie, a star of the Atlanta restaurant scene who rose to fame as a “Top Chef” contestant, couldn’t wait to join the food revolution at the stadium. “My family has had tickets to the Falcons my entire life, and I have always just accepted that the food at a football game is terrible,” Mr. Gillespie said.
But now younger fans who grew up eating better food are pressuring teams to change.“They’re saying, ‘Why can’t we have football alongside good food and drink?’” he said.
His stadium restaurant, called Game Changer, will sell a homage to the In-N-Out Burger and his popular Closed on Sunday fried chicken sandwich, which he makes at Revival, his restaurant in Decatur, Ga. (He named it that because the owners of Chick-fil-A, whose chicken sandwich inspired his, never open their restaurants on Sundays.)
Mr. Gillespie plans to serve a rotating “devour the competition” dish inspired by the opponent. If he were to create one for this year’s Super Bowl, he said, it would be a New England lobster roll.
Unlike restaurant fare, stadium food depends as much on logistics as on culinary acumen. Even little details like the placement of the napkin holders or the soda machine can make a big difference in waiting times for fans eager to get back to their seats.
To understand how to better design the more than 670 concession stands at the new Falcons stadium, Mr. McKay worked the soda line at a game this season. “Halftime was like, ‘Whoa, put a helmet on,’” he said. “I was the bottleneck.”
Managers realized that they could save 17 seconds per transaction if they moved soda machines from behind the counter and let customers serve themselves. They also decided to pull more beer from taps; it’s faster than opening a bottle and pouring into a cup. And everything is priced in dollar increments so servers don’t have to make change.
Those adjustments make a huge difference at games, where the crews working the stands are often volunteers from nonprofit groups that keep a small percentage of the profits.
Still, N.F.L. teams have never made a lot of money from concession stands, and neither do the chefs working to make the food better. “It’s not a moneymaker,” said Mr. Zimmern, the Minneapolis chef. “It’s a business card.”
But it’s a lot of fun, and a challenge. That is why he will meet several N.F.L. executives and food service executives at the Super Bowl in a quest to get his food into every stadium in the country.
“It’s like a crossword puzzle,” he said. “I love it.”