Joe Nader of Ford Field Talks Stadium Food Trends

By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor

Local food is a trend that’s not going away, but for chef Joe Nader, that word gets tossed around a lot. It’s not just about sourcing food from urban gardens and farms (which is important, of course) — it goes beyond that.

“What we're talking about is local brands and signature foods,” says Nader, who is the executive chef at Levy Restaurants at Ford Field in Detroit where he oversees every aspect of foodservice in the 65,000-seat stadium, including 132 luxury suites, five mini restaurants, 40-plus general concessions, The Hall of Legends Restaurant, and catering. 

“You can't come to Detroit and not have a coney dog, right? These are signature things … it doesn’t make any sense if you're coming in to a game for the Lions and you can't get a proper coney dog or you’re not gonna get Slows Bar BQ. These are things you come to expect in Detroit … that’s really what the local thing means to me, creating signature dishes or signature items or iconic brands that bring in the fans.”

Nader has been at Ford Field since 2005, when he returned to his native Detroit to take a job as executive sous chef for Levy Restaurants at Ford Field. Prior to that, he was working in California where he honed his chops in the fast-paced, upscale boutique hospitality industry. The following year he was promoted to executive chef after Super Bowl XL. 

When he’s not feeding 65,000 on game day, he’s also advocating for childhood nutrition and food access for all Detroiters. Last year he testified before the U.S. Subcommittee of Nutrition of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture. 

Below, Nader talks to Foodable about partnering with local brands, how Ford Field has been at the forefront of stadium trends, and the shift from tailgate culture.

Foodable: You’ve been at Ford Field since 2005. How has the food evolved under your leadership?

Joe Nader: At that point when I got into this business, the stadiums were evolving at a fast pace — that was kind of when things were changing a lot in the industry. We were kind of on the forefront of that because we had a relatively new stadium … we had Super Bowl that year and we had a lot of folks from all over the country come in for Super Bowl … and we had a lot of high-profile events. The biggest thing that's changed for us is localization of the menus and by that I mean we not only brought in local flavors into the stadium that are signature things of Michigan or the Detroit area, but most significantly we brought in Detroit brands (and other chefs) such as Slows, Bigalora (Wood Fired Pizza), Russell Street Deli, Zingerman's Creamery, Mercury Burger Bar ... Sugar House craft cocktails, Michigan craft beers. As the Detroit food scene has evolved quickly the last 10 years, I've tried to match that step by step. 

Foodable: Was the localization push your initiative or Levy Restaurants’?

JN: It’s a partnership with Levy and the Lions and a lot of the relationships were relationships I had in the industry, and we kind of mapped out what we want to do. In particular, we started with club level, now the club level is entirely local brands. … For instance, you saw the emergence of barbecue over the last 10 years. I could've created a barbecue concept and done it in the stadium, but to me, that would be foolish when we have such a great resource locally in Slows, when we have such an iconic brand that's really been synonymous with the Detroit food scene on a national level. So the strategy was to go partner with them and bring their brand and their food into the stadium for our guests. (Another trend) is when the Lions played the Silverdome — you had the old-school stadium with the big giant parking lot and everybody tailgated by their cars and then they came into the stadium. Now you see the move of stadiums back into urban environments, down into the city proper. You don't have those capabilities for folks to tailgate because of the way the stadium is ... there was a shift from a tailgate culture to where do we go for pre-game or post-game ... Our strategy was to bring in these flavors that people are already going to either before or after the game and offer it to them in the game, they can have that in their in-game experience. 

Foodable: What do you see as being the top trends in stadium food this year?

JN: I think vegetarian and vegan offerings are becoming more (than) just something you offer as an amenity … so I see that continuing to evolve. International flavors like ramen and bao buns and things like that. I think those are going to continue to work their way into the fabric.

Foodable: Are these available at Ford Field?

JN: Last season we introduced ramen noodles and bao buns at one of our stands … chefs have gravitated toward the ramen movement … it's delicious, it's something different. People are going to continue to look for bigger, bolder flavors. 

Foodable: What did fans really like this season?

JN: You have to look at it from a couple different approaches. There’s general concessions, more basic stuff … and we have our suites/luxury boxes and those menus all behave differently. As far as concessions go, pizza is our No. 1 seller. It surprisingly outsells the hot dog; that's a trend we've continued to see the last three or four years, and it keeps surprising me every year that [it] happens, but Detroit is kind of a pizza town … Barbecue is huge obviously. We have our stadium dog, you can't go to any sporting event and not try a hot dog. I think that fans are more and more open to stuff. When we introduced the noodle bar, I think people were into it a little bit more than I was anticipating, which is great. I'd like to expand more on the international flavors and bring some different types of cuisines to the general concessions area.

Foodable: Did you partner with a local brand to do the noodle bar?

JN: We did our own concept. A couple of folks around town that are doing those kinds of concepts weren't in a position to do a partnership so we did our own and it did really well. I think it could be better with brand recognition — that's one of the advantages of working with a local partner; you get more cache with brand recognition.

Foodable: Nationally, what do you see at stadiums? Is it more or less what you see at Ford Field?

JN: I was just paying attention to what was going on in San Francisco with the Super Bowl and saw chef Chris Cosentino was doing food. … They're bringing these local chefs into local stadiums and it’s what we've been doing for three or four years now. You see more of that happening. We're proud of the fact that we were at the forefront of that, so I think you're really going to continue to see that.