Illini football fans in prime seats enjoy suite eats at stadium

CHAMPAIGN – "Grapes, someone wants grapes."

Don Block's walkie-talkie is squawking at him. It's about 90 minutes before kickoff at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium on the last home game of the season. With more than 2,000 people to feed, the director of dining services for the UI Housing Division is on the move. From the stadium's new second-floor kitchen, he'll make several trips up to the west-side luxury seating areas to assure both the food and the service meet fans' expectations.

"Do we even have grapes today?" asks a food employee, who snatches a moldy blackberry off a fresh fruit tray that's being served as part of a pregame breakfast.

What fans eat at the 85-year-old stadium depends on where they sit. Most buy their sandwiches, popcorn and soft drinks from concession stands positioned through the stadium.

But fans who have spent thousands of dollars to sit in the stadium's new luxury areas have much different food and drink choices.

Memorial Stadium's $121 million renovation included a forward change in food, said Warren Hood, associate director of the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. The UI is the seventh school in the Big Ten Conference to upgrade its football stadium. But Hood, who was in charge of the project, says, "I like to think we stole everybody's best ideas."

Hood picked the in-house Block and his staff to feed the premium seat holders.

"I've had a lot of experience working with Don Block and his group, at athletic events and others on campus," Hood said. "His staff always has done an excellent job. ... I wanted someone who had the expertise and could do many settings, someone used to a five-star meal or informal. He has the experience."

Hood calls the staff well-trained and hard-working.

Take Louis Gornick, an executive chef. Last weekend, he was in charge of a Friday breakfast at the stadium, a Friday dinner at the UI president's house until 10 p.m. and was back at the stadium by 4 a.m. Saturday.

"We'll take off some extra time later," says Eric Larson, a pastry chef, who's been awake since 2:30 a.m.

"When you're in this business, you know what to expect. You're prepared for it."

And working at the game means the staff doesn't watch the game. They are too busy in the 3,500-square-foot kitchen or riding up and down elevators.

"Down here in the kitchen, we can't even hear the cannons go off," Larson says. "We call our friends with cell phones for updates."

Larson, whose desserts were prepared in advance, helps other cooks grill Italian sausages while Kathy Adams covers trays of the sausages with plastic wrap and stashes them in special carts that keep the food hot.

"Even the first game (Sept. 6), we did well," says Brenda Welch, part of the kitchen staff. "It was shocking. Construction workers were here until midnight and then we moved in."

Block's employees prepare meals for the stadium, the Illini Union, campus residence halls and the new I Hotel at St. Mary's Road and First Street in Champaign.

"Two weeks ago (the weekend of Nov. 1-2), we hit our peak with about 4,500 special meals and a total of 15,000 meals for students and all," Block says.

At the stadium alone, he has gone from serving 60 people to serving 2,000 on game day.

Besides three premium seating areas, his staff feeds reporters in the eighth-floor press box – a scrambled egg breakfast, snacks and sandwiches at the Illinois-Ohio State game.

Three large suites – reserved for the UI president, the chancellor, the board of trustees and their guests – also are located on the eighth floor.

Fans who desire luxury accommodations can choose the Colonnades Club on the third floor, the 77 Club on the sixth floor or the Stadium Suites on the sixth and seventh floors. Prices and amount of food included go up by floors.

At the top, guests in the suites on the last game were served:

– Turkey- and cheese-filled croissants, fresh fruit, pastries and muffins before the game.

– Snacks of Moose Munch (purchased from Harry & David), chips and salsa and sodas during the game.

– And an Italian meal at halftime. That included Italian sausage with onions and peppers, Italian beef with provolone cheese on French rolls, a Tuscan salad made with orzo, mushrooms and peppers; an antipasto platter of grilled and marinated vegetables; and tiramisu cups.

Suite captains, dressed in double-breasted denim jackets, look after the guests. Each captain is in charge of serving, keeping counters clean and ordering extra food for two suites.

Joani Jackson, a captain for the Jimmy John's and Country Companies suites, says her clients "really have liked everything, but the chili (served at the Nov. 1 game) and barbecued baby back ribs (served at the Oct. 18 game) were especially popular."

"After the breakfast, you'd think they'd be full, but they're not," she says. "They are ready for lunch and extras."

Before the game, suite holders also may order extras such as shrimp cocktails and sushi.

"Oh, and we ran out of chicken tenders one game," says Kelly Kindle, a food service worker.

Menus take on a different theme for each game.

For example, the Sept. 13 game against Louisiana-Lafayette featured blackened Cajun chicken, seafood jambalaya, red beans and rice, creole potato salad and pecan bars.

For a night game, the staff first provides a meal, then halftime snacks.

"We've had rave reviews for premium seats' food," Hood says. "We have a lot of clientele from Chicago and wanted to exceed the United Center and Soldier Field, and the feedback indicates that we have."

Some of the most popular foods are the most basic – sliders, for example. Any fan can buy four of the small White Castle burgers for $4 on the ground floor. Suite holders get a version made in-house. To a suite guest, the food might seem free, but suite holders pay about $500 a person each game for the space and the near- constant delivery of food. They pay extra for alcoholic beverages and special desserts.

On Nov. 15, a signature drink of Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur and cappuccino cost $9, for example.

Desserts – slices of carrot and chocolate cake, cheese cake, brownies and flan – on four-tiered carts cost $5 each.

Larson added apple galettes when he heard people asking for apple pie and made ghosts out of fondant icing around Halloween.

The kitchen staff also keeps ready-made birthday cakes and candles on hand for premium ticket holders who want last-minute celebrations.

Up to 756 people can use the suites that fill the ends of the sixth floor and all of the seventh floor. Each of the 42 suites can hold a maximum of 18 people. Companies and corporations pay $45,000 to $59,000 annually to rent a suite.

Each suite has a kitchenette with a sink and serving island. A fresh flower arrangement by the UI floral staff is on the counter for each game. There is a small living room with a narrow counter and stools facing the field. Stairs lead down to two rows of glassed-in seats facing the field.

The lowest rung for premium seating is the Colonnades Club on the third level.

Up to 1,100 ticket holders pay $1,600 to $2,500 each, depending on location, for an outdoor seat. The seats are covered by a roof, but there is access to an indoor lounge.

Before the Nov. 15 game, fans at the club could buy omelets made to order, fresh fruit and croissants for $10 a plate. Pasta and stir fry at previous games cost $8 each.

"The food is great," says Doris Howard of Savoy, a Quarterback Club officer. "I've bought food from vendors at the stadium, and this is much better. Just look at the presentation," she says, pointing to the colorful food on her square, black plate. "They throw away the plates, but they tell me they are biodegradable."

Snack bars on the Colonnades level sell snacks and burgers for $3 to $6.50.

The next upgrade is Club 77, named for football great Red Grange's jersey number. It is in the middle of the sixth level.

Two hundred ticket holders pay $3,300 to $3,900 each for an indoor seat that is padded, comes with a cup holder and program and has carpeting on the floor. An adjacent lounge serves food buffet-style at no extra charge.

Snacks are available for an extra fee but are upgraded a bit from the Colonnades. For example, while Colonnades Club members three floors below pay $5 for hot dogs and a do-it-yourself condiment bar, Club 77 members pay $5 for 6-inch-long Eisenberg gourmet beef dogs from a free-standing cart. Josh Cox, a university employee, adds the condiments to order.

Colonnades Club members Scott Reichard and Habeeb Habeeb moved up to Club 77 for the Nov. 15 game as guests of John Clarke, assistant dean in the UI College of Business.

"The food is great here, better than the Colonnades," Habeeb says. "This is one of my favorite things," he explains as he eats grilled eggplant.

Both Reichard and Habeeb are members of Loyalty Circle, which raises scholarship money for the UI athletics.

"We were here (at the stadium) for a loyalty dinner last night," Reichard said. "There was steak and shrimp and doctored-up potatoes and a very nice dessert – cheesecake – with very good presentation, too."

The higher the level, the better the perks

West main stands

$180-$260 per season ticket (depending on location; faculty and staff receive discount; I Fund contributions separate). $45-$60 single-game tickets.

Food: Concession stands in West Great Hall.

Colonnades Club

$1,575-$2,500 per seat per season (depending on location and length of commitment; 2.5 percent increase each year).

Food: $8-$10 per plate buffet, plus concession stands.

Other: Extra-wide chair with armrests and cup holder, Colonnades Club Lounge, VIP lobby, elevators, closed-circuit TV.

West balcony

$180-$260 per season ticket (depending on location; faculty and staff receive discount; I Fund contributions separate). $45-$60 single-game tickets.

Food: New concession stands in upper concourse.

77 Club

$3,300-$3,900 per seat per season (depending on length of commitment; 2.5 percent increase each year).

Food: Complimentary buffet, plus upscale concessions.

Other: Indoor climate-controlled seating at midfield, padded theater-style chair with armrests and cup holder, closed-circuit TV, 77 Club elevators, VIP lobby.

Memorial Stadium Suites

$45,500-$59,000 for suite, which accommodates 18 people (price varies by location and length of commitment; 2.5 increase each year).

Food: In-suite food and beverage service.

Other: Windows open and close, climate control, kitchen, seating area for socializing, theater-style seating for game watching, closed-circuit and cable TV, exclusive elevators, VIP lobby.

Press box

Reporters, TV and radio announcers, Illinois' and visiting team's coaches all have prime seating.

Food: Buffet for media.

Other: Climate controlled.

UI suites

Reserved for the university's trustees, president, chancellor, administrators and guests.

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