Follow Your Nose at the PNC Arena

Raleigh Venue a Food and Beverage Industry Trendsetter

Story by Dave Droschak
Photos courtesy of the PNC Arena & VAB Catering

I’ve never really liked the word concessions. Exactly what are we “conceding” when partaking in food and beverage offerings at sporting events or concerts? Quality? Taste? Value?

“We don’t even use the word ‘concessions’ anymore because it really isn’t,” said Chris Diamond, who for a decade has been the food and beverage director of VAB Catering, the exclusive food service provider at PNC Arena, which is the home of the Carolina Hurricanes and NC State basketball.  

Independent food and beverage operator VAB Catering makes up just eight percent of the industry. The rest of the concession space at entertainment venues is occupied by the so-called big boys – large firms such as Aramark, Centerplate, or Levy.

“They are the masses, and they have a certain way they do things; we don’t have that,” Diamond said. “We’ll sit in a room and bounce ideas off each other, and then we’ll say, ‘let’s try this.”’

Summertime is when Diamond, executive chef Michael Flood, and concessions director Rick Rhodes brainstorm, deciding what items to cut from the menu and what new ideas to bring to the table.

At times, the conversations can get a bit interesting. Diamond recalls Flood calling one day from a Carolina Panthers football game raving about a prime rib sandwich option the NFL team was offering. The price was $15.

“I told him he was absolutely crazy, that it would be sticker shock and people were going to run away,” Diamond said. “But we set it up for success. We have a guy there with the white coat on, with a carving knife, getting you a nice portion of prime rib and putting it on a freshly-baked bun. It’s a presentation. When that stand first opened fans were gawking, saying, ‘Oh man, look at that. I’ve got to get that.’ They didn’t even look at the price tag.”

Section 123 is now the hot place to be during Carolina Hurricanes’ games. Diamond says his crew sells approximately 120 prime rib sandwiches a night.

The arena’s homemade pulled pork BBQ and sauces, along with Flood’s grandmother’s coleslaw recipe, are also big sellers, with the executive chef smoking 1,600 pounds of BBQ per game. Diamond says VAB recently turned down an offer to sell the BBQ at a grocery store chain. “We said no, because we want you to get our BBQ when you come to the arena,” Diamond said.

The popcorn is also made fresh, with staff popping it throughout each game, not pre-bagging two or three days in advance. Diamond said the arena’s popcorn was recently endorsed by the circus director as the best he’s ever tasted.
“We’re pretty proud of that, because he’s a guy who travels all over the world,” Diamond said.

Flood also directs a homemade bread operation (now in its fourth season) in the bowels of the area. The only bread or bun VAB purchases are for its hot dogs. “I didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks worrying about it,” Flood said when the bread idea was first floated. “But it has just taken off and is a no-brainer for us now.”