Creating a Sustainable Food Experience on Game Day with Levy Restaurants’ Jennifer Cox

September 30, 2015

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Green Sports Alliance edition of Green Is Good here in beautiful downtown Chicago, and we’re so honored to have with us, Jennifer Cox. She is the Vice President and Regional Chef of Levy Restaurants. Jennifer Cox: Yes. John Shegerian: Thank you for being with us. Jennifer Cox: Thank you for having me. John Shegerian: This is going to be great because it’s always fun to talk about food. Jennifer Cox: I know. Everybody loves to talk about food now. It’s probably the single most popular topic of conversation. Next to social media. John Shegerian: Exactly. So before we get talking about Levy Restaurants, tell us a little bit about Jennifer Cox, your journey in food and then your journey with regards to why we’re here today, but first talk about your story. Jennifer Cox: Sure. I’ve been cooking professionally for a little over 20 years. John Shegerian: Wow. Jennifer Cox: Almost 25 years. But I started out – I did the whole undergrad thing, grew up in Ohio, Midwestern girl, went to college, worked for Procter & Gamble for seven years in National Accounts, Sales and didn’t like that so much and went back to school. My parents were very disappointed. They wanted me to get my graduate degree, and instead, I went – I took a $5/hour dishwashing job and got my Associate’s Degree in Culinary here in Chicago and started cooking professionally then and have been doing it ever since. One of the benefits, or curses, of being somewhat at a management level in my life when I started cooking was that I very quickly got into elevated positions in the kitchen. So I was a really good cook, but I became a really good sous chef and worked in small restaurants and hotels. I worked for Compass Group doing development, project development, menu development. So I’ve done a little bit of everything that led me to the point where I’m partly regional chef, partly taking on some special projects for our company and doing things like this – representing the company and some of the initiatives that we’re doing – to hopefully create a more sustainable food experience for our fans and our guests in our buildings across the country. John Shegerian: Sure. Jennifer Cox: But Levy Restaurants brought me back to Chicago. I lived here once before, and I’ve returned, and I’m hoping this is it. I’m done moving. John Shegerian: Tell us a little also about Levy Restaurants and what are they doing. Jennifer Cox: So Levy – a lot of people ask me, they’re like, “Oh you have lots of restaurants.” We have about maybe 10 restaurants total. John Shegerian: OK. Jennifer Cox: Most of which are in Chicago. Some of which are in Florida. Most of our business, though, is in sports and entertainment venues. Venues in Chicago like the United Center or Wrigley Field or in L.A. We do all of the food and beverage at the Staples Center. John Shegerian: Wow. Jennifer Cox: We do the food at Barkley Center in New York. We do convention centers – the Cleveland Convention Center, for example. So we have about 100-plus – 120 almost – sports and entertainment venues across the country that we either do all of the food and beverage services or part of them. Sometimes we get part of a building and one of our competitors will get a different part of the building. John Shegerian: Right. Jennifer Cox: But generally speaking, we’re across the country. We have some businesses in Mexico and Canada as well so we’re everywhere. So we really focus our energy – a lot of it – on executing really premium, elevated food experiences in venues that you wouldn’t otherwise expect it. John Shegerian: So today you’re here at the Green Sports Alliance. How long has Levy been involved with the Green Sports Alliance? Jennifer Cox: Probably – how long have we been involved? I don’t know the exact. John Shegerian: Just recently. Jennifer Cox: Just recently, really. John Shegerian: OK. Jennifer Cox: But to be fair, we’ve always had top-of-mind serving our guests more responsibly and our fans more responsible. John Shegerian: Got it. Jennifer Cox: And I think that probably before – since we’ve been doing business for over 30 years, it might have even been before there was an alliance to be had. John Shegerian: Got it. Jennifer Cox: If that makes sense. John Shegerian: I understand. Jennifer Cox: In a less organized fashion. John Shegerian: I understand. Jennifer Cox: And I hesitate to say it because people want to think it’s all for posthumous societal reasons that we would do this, but really it makes good business sense to be socially responsibly. It makes good business sense in planning our menus, it makes good sense responsibly for the environment, but all of those things add up to make us a better organization. To be fair, we’re not a not-for-profit organization. John Shegerian: Right. Jennifer Cox: And yet it makes good sense business-wise and socially for us to be more responsible. John Shegerian: Creating great yummy sustainable food for your clients. Jennifer Cox: Creating less waste. John Shegerian: Less waste. Jennifer Cox: Creating menus that aren’t wasting ingredients in the planning process if that makes sense. Forget having anything leftover but let’s not start out with so much so that we’re using the right amount of product to begin with with the right number of ingredients and not throwing a bunch away just trying to figure it out. John Shegerian: So you’re here today talking about what issues? Jennifer Cox: So I sat today on a panel. We discussed, really, game day food and how we – the other two panelists – how the three of us combined, and how our respective businesses, can have an impact on the game day food experience – whether it’s in the planning of the menu, in procurement. How do we source product more efficiently and more sustainably? How do we utilize local farms and ranches and purveyors in a better way that really not only puts them in front of the fan in a way that makes a difference, but also the more we can increase their business, the better it is for them, the better it is for the local community, the more the fan is exposed to that experience, the more inclined they are going to be to buy locally, presumably – hopefully – the less we will waste, the less we will throw away, and when we do have waste, where does it go? How do we process it in our buildings in a way that is responsible? How do we help our buildings navigate through the process of recycling, composting where in some municipalities maybe they’re not doing it at that level? And then how do we donate what we have leftover at the very, very end to the organizations that can utilize the food the most and the best? John Shegerian: Got you. Jennifer Cox: So discussing all of that and how do we engage our partners in that conversation. Where do we see those needs most relevantly requested from our fan base? How do we respond to those requests? So the whole panel was in talking about those very relevant issues. John Shegerian: Got you. For our listeners and viewers who just joined us, we’ve got Jennifer Cox with us. She is the Vice President and Regional Chef of Levy Restaurants. To find Levy Restaurants, please go to www.LevyRestaurants.com. So wait a second, that is a lot of issues you guys were talking about today. Jennifer Cox: Oh yeah. John Shegerian: So talk a little bit about the evolution of the changing habits and tastes of your client base and then break it down. You’re a regional chef. Barkley’s – I’m sure – is a little different than Staples is different than the United Center. Explain that a little bit to our listeners. Jennifer Cox: Sure. I think that one of the things I said on the panel is fans are very vocal and fans that have very specific needs – although they may be outnumbered by the fan who comes to our building – let’s be honest, the things that we sell most of are hotdogs and chicken tenders. John Shegerian: OK. Jennifer Cox: And it’s just the truth. That’s what we sell. People go to a sporting event and they want to participate in the whole experience. They want a pretzel, they want the hotdog, they want a cold beer. They want all the things they attach to those experiences. But you have fans that perhaps can’t participate in that because they’re either vegetarian or they’re vegan – let’s say – or they just don’t want to participate in that food experience. They want something different. John Shegerian: Right. Jennifer Cox: They may be small in number, but they are very vocal and they will make it very well-known that they would like their needs met, too, so we work very hard to try to position food offerings in a building where those fans can find them and participate as well. There is nothing better than a young kid who can’t have – let’s say they have to have a gluten-free lifestyle and we have our gluten-free cart and they can go up and actually get a hotdog that they know they can eat safely. John Shegerian: Wow. Jennifer Cox: Then they can participate with the rest of their family in the experience. That is really important to us. And where it starts is it’s kind of a – no pun intended using the “chicken versus the egg – which came first?” John Shegerian: Right. Jennifer Cox: But I think that we listen to what our fans say, then – as regional chefs – we try to develop menus that speak to that fan base. We also have taken our menus and made them less home office and corporate-y. In other words, Levy, we do have some menu items that are staples – no pun intended on the Staples Arena – that are hard and fast. You’ll find them on every menu. But we also have a good portion, if not 30 percent of our menus, are developed and created locally. John Shegerian: OK. Jennifer Cox: So that speaks to that local element that people are asking for. Then it goes to working with our buildings on the waste piece of it. So it’s sort of like the circle of life in a building. John Shegerian: Right. It’s an ecosystem. Jennifer Cox: It is an ecosystem. The biggest challenge is that because of the sheer volume of food that we serve it makes it a little bit tough because you can only buy – I tell the funny story of a little restaurant that my friend ran in Rhode Island, where she went to the farmer’s market one day and she bought radishes to put on her farm-to-table restaurant and found out later she bought all the radishes in the entire state. It was six bunches of radishes. Those were all the radishes grown in the entire state. John Shegerian: Holy Toledo. Jennifer Cox: So if you expand that out- John Shegerian: Wow. Jennifer Cox: You get an environment where, yes, you’d love to support the local farm, but when you’re talking about hundreds and thousands of pounds of food, you have to be a little bit careful about depleting the supply. That’s not sustainable either. John Shegerian: Right. Jennifer Cox: So it’s that fine balance between the supply and demand. John Shegerian: Three questions. First about organics, the rise of organics. How much has that affected your buying in terms of the need to implement and use organic products in your preparation and then also message that a lot of that is being organic? Jennifer Cox: We try where we can. I would say that we focus on organics but less organic and more local because sometimes you’ll find that a lot of your local farmers they may be actually selling you organic produce, but they haven’t spent the money to be certified. John Shegerian: Got you. Jennifer Cox: So we really spend a lot of time in the locations trying to utilize those locally grown items, which may or may not be organic. And you’re right. Sometimes you also have to do the cost equation. John Shegerian: Right. Jennifer Cox: Will the fan spend the money that is required in order to offer that item? And that’s a balancing act. John Shegerian: Talk about the local part, though. How do you then – if you’re using some great local people- Jennifer Cox: How do you menu it? John Shegerian: How do you menu it and message it to make sure that – non-intrusively – the folks at Barkley’s or Staples or United Center appreciate the fact that you went out of your way to source locally and support the community? Jennifer Cox: I think in some cases – I think there are two pieces. In our general concessions areas, I think our local involvement is most evident in our stands, where we’re using local producers and local vendors and local restaurants. Let’s say it’s a small local restaurant that then has a concessions stand in the building. In that way, that is very automatically recognizable. Where it’s a little tougher is the local farm because a fan may not be as tuned in to what the local farm is, and we may do something like that in our more premium levels, in our clubs and in our a la carte restaurants, where they can see it on a printed piece of paper, where they can make that connection. They understand it because they’re experiencing it in the local restaurant themselves. John Shegerian: Right. Jennifer Cox: “Oh look, just like Joe’s” – whatever kind of place. John Shegerian: Right. Jennifer Cox: They’re doing the same thing. They will note that the food was sourced locally from the following farms – or whatever. John Shegerian: Got you. Jennifer Cox: So it’s a little bit different in each area of the building, I think. John Shegerian: Wow. And last but not least. The rise of composting. Jennifer Cox: Yeah. John Shegerian: Is that a phenomena that is just really fascinating to see how fast it has grown? Jennifer Cox: It is. It has really grown. And again, that’s something that really the building itself has to be our partner on because sometimes how you get rid of waste is sometimes an operational building piece that we may or may not be as directly involved in. John Shegerian: Right. Jennifer Cox: So it’s really important for us to push that message. I can tell you that in our case we do the food at the US Open every year. Seven-hundred-thousand people at the US Open Tennis Tournament. John Shegerian: Sure. Jennifer Cox: And we do compost there. I want to say it was 18,000 pounds. I’m probably messing the number up to be honest with you. But it’s just a tremendous improvement over what we were doing. John Shegerian: Wow. Jennifer Cox: But we have our partners involved in that, and it’s an important thing for us to make sure that we are disposing of our waste responsibly. So that is definitely an area that is a dual effort – that is the building and the food and beverage partner working together to make that happen. John Shegerian: Before we have to say goodbye for today, any final thoughts for our viewers and our listeners? Jennifer Cox: Where are you eating when you’re in Chicago? John Shegerian: That’s what I was going to ask you. I was going to ask you for that advice, where am I eating when I’m in Chicago. Jennifer Cox: Really? John Shegerian: Yeah. Jennifer Cox: Oh, there are many, many, many fun places. John Shegerian: Good. Jennifer Cox: I think the nice thing about – which makes our job as a final point – our job is made easier by the local restaurants that are doing such great work in all of the cities across the country, supporting their farmers, supporting their local vendors. John Shegerian: I mean, this is a food town. Jennifer Cox: Oh yeah. But it makes it better for us because it brings that awareness and the more awareness that the local restaurants bring the more fan demand will happen in the bigger venues and buildings. They’ll ask for more. It creates a customer demand. John Shegerian: That’s a great point. Well, thank you for being with us today. Jennifer Cox: You’re welcome. John Shegerian: This has been Jennifer Cox. She is the Vice President and Regional Chef of Levy Restaurants. To find Levy Restaurants and to find Jennifer, please go to www.LevyRestaurants.com. This is the Green Sports Alliance edition of Green Is Good. You can find the Green Sports Alliance and learn more about all the great things they’re doing to green sports at www.GreenSportsAlliance.org. Jennifer Cox, you’re making the world a better place by feeding us all more healthy and better food. Thank you so much. Jennifer Cox: Thank you. John Shegerian: You are truly living proof that Green Is Good.