How the Prudential Center Feeds 16,000 Hungry New Jersey Devils Fans
The Prudential Center, in Newark, New Jersey, is the home of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Opened in 2007, the indoor arena also hosts around more than 120 non-Devils-related events each year, including concerts, combat sports, and Seton Hall Pirates college basketball games. The state-of-the-art facility is one of only four NHL arenas with a practice rink and is home to the 8,200-square-foot Grammy Museum Experience.
Legends Hospitality – which also oversees culinary operations for Yankee Stadium, AT&T Stadium, and the American Airlines Center – helms the food and beverage services. Executive chef Jason Choate previously worked major sporting events like the MLB World Series, the Houston Rodeo, the PGA Phoenix Open, and the NFL Super Bowl. A New Jersey native, Choate joined the Legends team in September 2016 and has made it his mission for the Prudential Center to embrace its Jersey roots. This means creating offerings like the Jersey Grind Burger, a twist on the typical burger incorporating locally sourced Jersey produce and meats.
What goes into a day of work at the Prudential Center, which Choate refers to as his “16,000-seat restaurant?” The food and beverage options available includes fan favorites, vegetarian fare, gluten-free options, kosher choices, and local specialties all at once – but also the hospitality of the Jersey native, who was regularly seen circulating around the venue. As Choate and Director of Concessions Michael Toussaint had both told me, it is all about “making simple great.”
The Daily Meal: Prior to joining the New Jersey Devils, you had prepared food for the World Series, Super Bowl, the PGA Phoenix Open, and Houston rodeos. What first drew you into the sports world?
Jason Choate: I came to the sports side of food service in 2000 when I had an opportunity to open the new Seahawks Stadium in Seattle. I found a passion for stadiums and arenas in particular due to the intense nature and sheer volume of the business. Only a handful of chefs in the world can say they run a 16,000- to 68,000-seat restaurant, let alone successfully.
Is cooking for sports fans particularly different than working in a restaurant?
The variety of options we have to offer at a high quality and fast pace is very different. Feeding up to 16,000 hungry fans in a mere two- to three-hour span is a daunting task. We want every guest to come for dinner and enjoy the best floor shows in the city doing it.
More specifically, do you find that hockey fans eat differently than any other kinds of fan bases?
Hockey fans are the best fans in sports! They know their comfort food well. It can be pretty cold in here, so hot burgers, chicken, and cheesesteaks are a must and keep the cold microbrews coming. We have quite a few games right around dinner time, so our fans show up to eat.
What’s a typical game day like for you at the Prudential Center? Does it start in the morning and go past the end of the game?
My watch says I walk more than 10 miles on a game day, if that tells you anything. We start around 6 a.m. with team breakfast, and then move into a full day of cooking and setting the tables. The restaurant opens at 5 p.m. sharp and the night just unleashes from there. We feed the team dinner around 10 p.m. and head home after. Weeks with multiple games take a lot out of us.
Do you have a favorite item on the Prudential Center menu? Something that you are most proud of?
This year I am most proud of the Jersey Grind Burger locations. We completely redesigned the menus. Working with local butchers, we developed custom burger patties that are locally produced and exclusive to the Prudential Center. Once a fan gets one of these great burgers, they get to make it even better by making it their own. We offer a selection of local produce and toppings that each fan can personalize their burger with.
My personal favorite is the Bacon Grind, full of smoky bacon and rich beef cuts. It is so juicy and flavorful. Other custom grinds include a chorizo spice-infused burger, a chicken grind, and a steakhouse grind that’s chock-full of short-rib and steak cuts.
Where did the Jersey Grind concept come from?
Collaboration, teamwork and sweat, really. Our mantra this year has been to make the simple things great. Elevating something like a burger can be a challenge because it’s inherently simple. We decided that we could provide our guest the best burger experience by letting them top each custom grind burger personally. The best burger is always a personalized one – from the Jersey Grind, of course.
Is there a drink you feel pairs best with the Jersey Grind?
For me, it’s the Departed Souls Playoff Beer’d! A great local brew that pairs so well with any of the custom grinds. If that’s not your flavor, I’m sure you’ll find your own favorite out of the 70-plus beers we offer at Prudential Center.
The Newark area looks a lot different now than it did even a few years ago. What can you tell me about your local suppliers or partners?
I work and live in Newark and it is very different than it was and becomes more vibrant every day. We have created a lot of local partnerships from breweries to farmers, bakeries to fish mongers. Our vision is to contribute to the local community and to celebrate its diverse offerings. Our fans get to enjoy New Jersey flavors every event.
Finally, Chef Jason, any last words for the kids?
Dream big and work hard to make those dreams your reality. Find great mentors to help you get there, too. None of us does this alone. Some chefs even got help from their moms.