BY LORI ACKEN | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
An hour before Fiserv Forum welcomes an eager crowd to the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2018-2019 season opener, another team is already in top form inside the gleaming, new $524-million arena.
Milwaukee Bucks Senior Executive Chef Kenneth Hardiman and his 950-member food and beverage team are preparing to welcome thousands of fans into what is not only a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment complex, but a carefully-crafted food mecca designed to cater to fine-dining aficionados, burger-and-beer lovers and virtually every type of eater in between.
Here’s the game changer: Hardiman says that the vast majority of the ingredients his team sources to create those munchies and meals is pure Wisconsin. A stroll around the arena’s main and upper concourses is a mouthwatering homage to treasured Milwaukee area dining establishments, all outfitted with their original signage and nods to their brick-and-mortar locales. There’s a pencil sketch of Fiserv Forum at Sobelman’s Burgers. Gold Rush Chicken’s iconic stripes. Corrugated metal counters at Iron Grate BBQ. And, of course, Laughing Taco’s signature, smiling snack.
In fact, the only national food chain represented — a nod to customer demand — is Chick-Fil-A. In keeping with the brand’s tradition of closing on Sundays, the sign for its Fiserv Forum’s outlet flips to reveal “Fry Haus,” the arena’s own fancy-French-fry spot that subs in on Sundays.
Elsewhere in the building, 34 luxury suites, the exclusive BMO Club and West Bend Lofts, and the futuristic, top-floor Panorama Club — complete with an open-air deck that affords a spectacular (and previously unseen) view of the Milwaukee skyline — also boast their own impressive and individualized dining options.
So who are the fellows willing to corral the culinary needs of 17,500 sports fans and concert goers, plus the teams and talent who perform there, corporations hosting gatherings on the grounds and the 1,000-plus Bucks and Fiserv Forum employees who dine free daily?
Hardiman, who built a career in the restaurant and hospitality industry across the nation, was executive chef at Mason Street Grill when a former colleague told him about the chance to lead Fiserv Forum’s culinary efforts. Any trepidations he had were soon muted by the endless possibilities within the multipronged program, coupled with Milwaukee Bucks Vice President of Hospitality Justin Green’s assurance that Bucks Chief Peter Feigin and the team’s longtime concession partner Levy Restaurants would spare no effort or expense to bring his delicious ideas to life.
Green, a veteran of entertainment-district planning and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant chain, says Feigin’s vision for an unrivaled entertainment experience anchored in a top-notch food and beverage program that required that the team “throw out everything we’ve ever known and figure out how to do things in a really precise way.” Innovation and constant evolution became a mantra in providing an experience that makes each guest “feel like we’re catering just to you.”
“We could have a sellout basketball game and, on the same day, have ten private events that we’re also cooking for, from passed appetizers all the way up to very high-end, sit-down meals,” Green says of the impressive task. “Ken and his team have to be able to plan for that huge array of business.”
Knowing full well Wisconsinites’ pride in the state’s food and beverage heritage, Hardiman and Green made “uniquely local” priority No. 1 in selecting restaurant partners for its concourses, blending neighborhood favorites and nationally known brands like Miller Beer and Klement’s Sausage Co.
“We wanted people that held the same standards and beliefs that we have as a vision with the Bucks and Levy together,” says Green. “That blossomed into our MKEats program. A lot of people stood out, but this group of individuals is what we initially thought was the best representation of Milwaukee at the moment.”
Putting MKEats into motion, adds Hardiman, required “a lot of planning, a lot of tried-and-true testing and a lot of building up relationships. You’re building relationships with your local partners. You’re building relationships with your own team members. You’re building relationships within the partnership that we have with the Bucks, gaining that trust and understanding the momentum, and building relationship with the fan base here, as well.”
And so, Green, Hardiman, executive chef David Zakroczymski, executive sous chef Wendy Wagner and sous chefs Jordan Javier and John Fielder and select others culled list upon list of worthy local options. Then, with the tally less unwieldy, Hardiman and Green took to the streets, sometimes dining together, sometimes on their own, to assess not only the taste and quality of prospective partners’ food, but the overall feel the eateries and the devotion of their patrons.
The duo also recognized that they’d be asking those partners to surrender considerable control over both brand and product, entrusting recipes and production to Hardiman’s staff. “Our job became, ‘How do we replicate [that quality experience] for 17,500 people on a regular basis?” says Green, noting that Fiserv Forum regularily hosts major events five or more nights a week. “We had to gain their trust and help them understand that Ken is an exceptional chef and he is going to be as detailed, if not more detailed, than they are. We’re going to make sure that the quality meets and exceeds the standards that they have in their locations.”
“We have to think of everyone as though it’s their first time in the building. Every time. Even if they’ve been here before,” Green adds of instructing each employee, from the 32 individual restaurant managers to the folks manning the registers, that friendliness comes first. “They have to remember that guests are here expecting to have an experience. You’re not coming here to think about what you did at work today. You’re coming here to enjoy a basketball game, to enjoy one of the many unbelievable artists that are coming into Fiserv Forum. The food is the foundation of that to us, so how do we make that foundation of the guest experience the best?”
In short, they never rest on their laurels or limit their ideas.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for freedom to express ourselves through our creative designs depending on what the setting is,” Hardiman says. “For a concert, we have the ability to do VIP parties, and also to do something extra special for the other guests in the building — to run a feature or special in our many restaurants that plays into what that setting is.”
A full 10,000 of the arena’s 17,500 seats are in its lower bowl, a boon for attendees, but potentially challenging when they get hungry, thirsty or restless. Thus, Fiserv Forum features unrivaled acoustics, an expansive handrail antenna system and free ultra hi-speed Wi-Fi, 850 television screens and open concourses that keep patrons in the game or the show, no matter where they wander or linger inside the arena.
“The north main concourse is a great beer garden flanked by two anchor bars, one of them being the Miller bar, who is an unbelievable founding partner for Fiserv Forum,” Green explains. “Then you have all of our different mini restaurants. So you can come up here, have a drink, get food, sit here and enjoy it and not miss any of the action.”
The hospitality team’s efforts also extend beyond the arena walls to the public plaza outside its main entrance and into an adjacent entertainment block in various stages of construction that currently houses an outdoor beer garden with a 28 ft. TV screen, and will soon welcome Good City Brewing; Milwaukee’s first Punch Bowl Social, a combo bar, eatery and arcade; and a host of retailers. Both areas are designed not just to expand the Forum’s entertainment footprint, but to reenergize downtown Milwaukee as well.
“The Bucks and Peter Feigin have done an incredible job of saying, ‘we want to bring people back downtown. We want people to feel safe and comfortable and have an unbelievable experience,’” Green explains. “That is what this arena district – starting with Fiserv Forum and then this entertainment block that’s going to be built around it – is all about. Getting people to say not ‘what are we going to do tonight?’ but ‘what’s going on at the arena district tonight?’ We want to become that centerpiece and then have people venture into parts of the city that they haven’t been to in either in a long time — or ever. We want to help that growth of the city.”
And its sustainability too. Hardiman proudly notes that 99 percent of the program’s plateware and utensils are compostable, and food waste is managed using new ORCA technology that is based on the human digestive system and uses air, water and enzymes to turn scraps into an environmentally safe, easily disposable liquid. “The community and the city have given so much to us,” Hardiman says. “We want to make sure we’re giving those things back.”
A Foodie’s Tour of Fiserv Forum
Access For All
Hardiman says that affording all ticketholders access to premium areas of the arena was top of mind from the start. “When you go to our panoramic mezzanine area, that’s opened up to everyone and there’s going to be a different menu up there that speaks more to what we can do internally versus from a partner standpoint, like a jalapeno fried chicken sandwich, braised pork sandwich or Sargento cheese cheesecake bites.
Catering to adventuresome eaters, the Market features micro-restaurants and kiosks that prepare fresh takes on comfort food and international favorites. Says Hardiman: “We have FreshFin Poké in there — sushi-grade raw fish. Cedar Crest ice cream. The Mac Shack provides different styles of macaroni and cheeses. There’s a grilled cheese restaurant and a gyro kiosk called Gyro Step, a play on the ‘Euro step’ basketball move, where we have gyros, falafel and shish kabob.”
Main and Upper Concourses
A select assemblage of neighborhood favorites ring the main seating areas, offering added exposure to fans who don’t live nearby.
“We have The Laughing Taco with Lucia Carlisle and Justin Carlisle. When you have a James Beard award-winning chef in a place like that — and, of course, he’s got his other places as well — that’s incredible and says a lot to just the entire scene here in Milwaukee and Wisconsin as a whole,” says Hardiman. “It’s exciting to know that we can be part of that and help grow that.”
Gold Rush Chicken
“The owner of Gold Rush, who passed a couple of months ago, was a Bucks season ticket holder from day one,” says Green. “Ken and I know fried chicken. That’s not something that you find [done] great all over the place, and the story of this Milwaukee Bucks devotion from day one was a huge thing for us. We wanted to make sure that we showed some of that love back to that family. We’re serving Barq’s Red Creme Soda there, which they serve, because that was important to them. And it’s also the only place in the building you can get crinkle-cut fries.”
Iron Grate BBQ
“We have a smoker where we do the barbecue with Iron Grate in-house,” Hardiman explains of the wood-fueled monstrosity housed in the arena’s main kitchen. “Who knew that on the south side of Milwaukee you could get this unbelievable barbecue that Aaron Patin is making. He made his walk-in cooler himself; it’s like a butcher house in there. He’s got the pigs hanging and he’s literally doing everything himself. He built his smokers from scratch. The food is unbelievable; we had to have that as part of the experience.”
Pay a bit more for your ticket and a truly exclusive experience awaits.
West Bend Lofts
“That is a true sit-down dinner service,” Green explains of the elegant space. “You’re taken care of by servers for games and concerts. You sit at a table, order off a menu, you’re being served, and then when you’re done eating, you go and you sit in your loft. That’s 200 people a night or event that Ken serves that high-end service.”
Offering 500 patrons club seating and a variety of dining options that runs the gamut from premium meats and seafood to top-notch burgers and a sundae bar, the BMO Club boasts the lively atmosphere of the Panorama Club with more personalized luxuries.
Forget chafing dishes and “snooze you lose” service. Hardiman says the team started their suite service from scratch and focused on quality throughout the event. “Part of that is by looking at what we’re cooking on, what we’re cooking with, how we’re heating things and how we’re warming things,” he says.
The Fiserv Forum’s VIP suites feature a state-of-the art Spring USA induction system with countertop burners that remain cool to the touch until specially design pans are placed on them, allowing Hardiman and company to course the food service over the course of the event. “The first serve is salty snacks and those types of things. The second one is heavier appetizers, and the third serve is your entrée. We’re doing things like Tomahawk steaks and really unbelievable seafood. We do an heirloom tomato and eggplant board that has fresh sliced mozzarella that’s locally sourced. We have a lemon chicken board that features roasted, brined chicken breast.”
The Beer Button
If you’ve ever longed for a cold brew just as the game is heating up, Green has great news. “We’re doing something that has never been done in sports entertainment ever here in the building,” he says. “We’ve created something called the ‘Coors Light Beer Button.’ During a Bucks game, you’ll be able to open the Milwaukee Bucks app, hit the ‘beer me’ button and order beer right there, pay for it in the app and that beer will be delivered to you within five minutes. We’ll have runners all over the building that have kind of like an Uber system that we’ve created that will say ‘go to section X, seat Y, deliver the beer.’ They’ll make sure the patron is 21 and they walk away.” MKE