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Business Observer Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011 10 years ago

That's a Lot of Hot Dogs

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Now that the NFL lockout is over, Ovations Food Services can go back to projecting $250 million in revenues for 2011.
by: Alex Walsh Web Editor

Negotiations over the nation's debt ceiling have dominated headlines lately, but another set of negotiations settled just a few days earlier arguably captured a larger segment of the national interest.

Even today, long after a deal was struck, it frightens many to think about what might have been — had the National Football League undergone a work stoppage, there would be no gridiron games on Sunday.

That prospect was especially scary to Todd Wickner, chief operating officer of Lutz-based Ovations Food Services. Ovations provides food and beverage service at concession stands for a number of professional sports teams, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, so an NFL lockout could have been devastating for his business.

“It's great to hear that they were able to come to an agreement,” Wickner says with a slight laugh, nervously acknowledging the stakes of the league's decision.

But now the worrying is over, and Ovations can go on growing like it has been for the past 11 years — from $25 million in revenues in 2000, to $170 million in 2009, to $200 million in 2010. Wickner estimates the company will reach $250 million in business by the end of this year.

The secret to his company's success, Wickner says, is encapsulated by Ovations' mantra: “everything's fresh.” If you've ever been to a baseball game you know the difference between a hot dog served inside a wrapper from inside a box, and one that comes straight from the grill. “Our hot food is hot, and our cold food is cold,” Wickner says.

And Wickner knows fresh food. It's what brought him to the Tampa Bay area in 1992, when he opened a family restaurant with his brother, Robert, called Aunt Chelada's Cafe.

The restaurant did well enough, but in 1995 Todd Wickner chose to return to food service on a larger scale, the industry in which he began his career, first with Aramark in 1976. Wickner had worked for Aramark for 16 years, gaining valuable experience as a regional general manager, and at one point ran the show behind England's famed Wembley Stadium Complex.

Now Aramark, a $12 billion corporation with global reach, is in some ways one of Ovations’ key competitors.

But rather than butt heads with giants like Aramark, which handles everything from dorm food at colleges to cafeterias in hospitals, Wickner says Ovations stays focused on its key competencies, specifically food service for stadiums, arenas and convention centers. “We really specialize in our markets,” Wickner says.

Clients include the Jacksonville Jaguars, Portland Trailblazers and a number of minor league baseball teams, such as the Norfolk Tide.

Ovations also generates a substantial amount of business from its relationships with several casinos in the West. Wickner says a few key partners in California, Arizona, and Oklahoma generate “a nice segment” of Ovations' overall business.

But even a healthy dose of focus isn't deterring Wickner from expecting big things for Ovations. “Our plan,” Wickner says, “is to continue to experience the same type of growth that we did for the first 11 years.”

Of course, the firm will have help from its corporate parent. Ovations is a subsidiary of Comcast Spectacor, and that relationship has been in place since the firm's founding. (Wickner says Peter Luukko, Comcast's president, was a key contact in getting the two businesses partnered.)

Through its relationship with Comcast, Ovations often partners with Global Spectrum, the corporate family's facility management subsidiary, which operates a number of major U.S. attractions, including the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Wickner says roughly 40% of Ovations' business overlaps with Global Spectrum.

But that means most of Ovations' revenues -- the other 60%, specifically -- come from Ovations' own clients. And Wickner says he is always looking to add to that list, fueling the growth he projects in the coming years.

Indeed, if Ovations does what Wickner hopes, Florida's Gulf Coast could soon have another $1 billion dollar company based on its shores.

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