She’s a Savannah native. She’s a lifelong sorority girl. She spends her free time with her pug mix Lucy. She grew up in her family’s restaurant but never thought of ending up in the foodservice industry. But now, Jen Wu is the Luxury Suites Manager for Delaware North Sportservice, partner of the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
By Jared Frank, Editorial Director, ALSD
The in-house pastry chef at Bank of America Stadium is pushing out a lot of bakery items this season to the venue’s brand new suites. Along with a winning team (undefeated as of our print deadline), her new menu items – such as a strawberry shortcake trifle and Limoncello meringue cupcakes – as well as her cookies (lots of cookies) are inspiring those with a sweet tooth for the Carolina Panthers.
Yes, the dough is rising these days for both the Panthers and their foodservice partner Delaware North Sportservice. But success in this business is always more involved than what the customer sees. Without a dash of strong leadership, the butter and the sugar don’t come together, and the cookies never get baked or delivered. After all, there is no cookie fairy. Or is there?
Earlier this fall, I walked around the 300 and 400 levels of Bank of America Stadium with Jen Wu, the Luxury Suites Manager for Delaware North Sportservice at the uptown Charlotte stadium. I hope she didn’t notice me wiping the drool from my chin as we passed the Krispy Kreme Market or the Beer and Bacon concession area. I may have been momentarily intoxicated by visions of freshly smoked meats and local craft beers, but I swear I saw her sprinkle fairy dust throughout our tour of the venue’s premium seating highlights.
It’s funny the way life unfolds. Oftentimes, the same things that annoy us in our formative years are the molds for what we will become. For Jen Wu, foodservice operations were bred into her at a young age, initiated by her own volition. At age 11, she volunteered to start answering the phone at her family’s Chinese restaurant in Savannah. But it turns out, taking to-go orders isn’t as fun as talking to your girlfriends.
“I grew up with the attitude that I was getting as far away from food as possible,” Jen says with a chuckle. “I didn’t want anything more to do with foodservice.”
She made good on her sentiment towards busing tables and taking those darn to-go orders when she moved to Charlotte after college to work as an assistant director at nearby Queens University, a four-hour drive and a lifetime of shifts away from the family restaurant in Georgia.
That’s about the time one of Jen’s friends decided that she wanted to be as suite attendant for the Carolina Panthers.
So how did you get back into foodservice?
I came to a job fair with a friend of mine who wanted to be a suite attendant. While I was waiting in line, Karen Smoots, the director of the F&B company which at the time was in-house under the Panthers, randomly pulled me out of line to ask me what I was interviewing for.
We went into another room, and she started telling me about Suite 87 (a premium club at Bank of America Stadium), which was brand new at the time. Then she asked me what I thought about it, and then she asked me if I wanted the job!
Did you have a previous relationship with Karen?
I had never met her before.
How did she pick you out?
She just randomly pulled me out of line. She always had a knack for identifying people who were the right fit. She just knew where people would do a good job. And she also knew where they wouldn’t do a good job.
I had worked in Suite 87 for two years when I had another sit down with Karen and our human resources director about this full-time suites liaison job. After we talked for awhile, Karen again asked me, ‘Well honey, what do you think?’
I actually turned it down because I was getting ready to start my doctorate. I had a very short amount of time to make a decision with school starting. And being an on-campus professional at Queens at the time, I was living in an on-campus apartment. So I had to decide if it was worth it to postpone school and find a new place to live.
I talked to a friend of mine, and he said, ‘Who from the NFL ever calls you to offer you a job, let alone one that you didn’t even apply for? Are you crazy?’
So I called the human resources director back to see if the job was still available. They had already offered it to someone else, but it ended up working out, and I took the job and postponed enrollment. I figured if things didn’t work out, I would just go back to school in January. That was 13 years ago.
What was your doctorate program going to be?
Higher education administration. Very different from what I’m doing now.
When she first took the job, Jen started as an administrator, taking and entering orders, printing labels, creating production reports, etc. Now a part of Delaware North Sportservice, she’s in charge of hiring, training, retaining, and supervising a gameday staff of 300.
How has this job changed for you over 13 years?
In this job, you can’t really let anything drop. You just keep adding to it. On the foodservice side, there’s no cookie fairy. There are so many moving parts and pieces on the food side of it, more than I would’ve ever imagined. And you can never really understand until you’re behind the curtain. There’s so much that people don’t know. And you what, they don’t need to know. From the guest’s perspective, there is a cookie fairy.
But when you see it come together on gameday and you have guests go out of their way to tell you how much they’re enjoying the food or that their suite attendant is doing such a great job, all of those stresses evaporate, and it is pure fun.
How do you identify the right roles for your staff? How do you hire, train, and retain that talent?
It comes down to getting to know people quickly and looking for how they respond to questions. I learned so much by watching Karen. She could meet somebody and know within two or three minutes if she was going to hire that person. That’s something I’ve gotten better at over the years.
Our training is tiered and compartmentalized on the back end. In all training, whether it’s new associates or returners coming back for the next season, they’re all mixed together in their training sessions. For me, you can’t just know your job. You need to understand what all team members do.
When I talk about it in training, I talk about the need to understand what goes on on both sides of the door. The runners, the suite attendant runners, the suite attendants – they’re not doing the same steps, but they’re all working towards the same goal of providing a great experience for our guests.
Since you became part of Delaware North, how are things different?
Policy and procedure wise, it is different being a part of a global hospitality provider. The paperwork is different. Accounting policies are different. There are things that make the job easier. And being a part of a network of people doing similar jobs in multiple sports venues makes being able to share best practices easier.
I remember when we were not part of Delaware North. I would reach out to other venues to talk about menu items. That was more of a challenge when there was no connection. Now with Delaware North, I can reach out to any suites manager and talk through things. I really enjoy that piece, and it certainly influences how we do things. It’s nice to not be on an island.
Traveling to other venues has been a significant asset for Jen, who cites her month-long residency in Seattle when Delaware North began its contract with the Seahawks, her visits to Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore each of the last five Opening Days, and the opportunity to work at MetLife Stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII as key learning experiences. Her service at MetLife Stadium turned out to be pivotal in making key foodservice decisions during the 2015 suite renovations at Bank of America Stadium.
Renovations at Bank of America Stadium began ahead of the 2014 season when multiple enhancements, designed by Charlotte-based Wagner Murray Architects, were made throughout the general population areas of the facility. Highlights included new escalators, ribbon boards, video boards, and a distributed sound system.
The second phase of renovations, unveiled prior to the kickoff of the 2015 NFL season, involved a complete overhaul of the stadium’s entire inventory of 153 suites. These upgrades were the first time that the suites had been touched in the 20 years that the building has been open.
The suite upgrades start with their windows, now fully retractable and capable of opening to the seating bowl and field of play. Previously, the windows opened, but they weren’t seamless, so some patrons sat behind partially obstructed views. Radiant heating above the seating area has been added to warm the exposed space during colder games later in the season. And the seating configuration has altered, having added a third row of barstools and inserting a center aisle.
Five televisions and two refrigerators are now available, as are increased electrical and USB outlets. All new fixtures and equipment – such as the carpet and wider, granite countertops – have also been installed. And lounge furniture has been replaced by flexible high-top tables on casters.
The color palette is team focused, with the Panthers shade of blue popping out of the chairs and carpet. Subtle touches tie everything together, including the panther whiskers engraved into the restroom’s tile floors.
The renovation initiative was funded through a public-private partnership, but all expenses associated with the suite upgrades were paid for by the Panthers.
In addition to the individual suite units, two new club spaces – The 32 Club and The 51 Club – were carved out of the 400 level at Bank of America Stadium. Both clubs offer suite-like amenities and interior designs but are sold fractionally using a membership model.
The 32 Club is named for the 32 NFL teams, the club’s 32-yardline location, and its capacity of 32 guests. The 51 Club is named in honor of the jersey number worn by former Panthers linebacker Sam Mills and by team owner Jerry Richardson when he played at Wofford College.
What are some of the foodservice improvements associated with the suites renovation?
One thing that we were really excited about is that the trash is no longer right by the food. The trash receptacles have moved to by the door, away from foodservice, which is a great thing for the guests.
The beverage wells are huge. They are self-draining. We have one to store beverage and keep it cold, in addition to two refrigerators. Previously, we only had one refrigerator in each suite. The second well is used as a service well for ice that we’re scooping and serving in cups.
Our heating service is what we’re most thrilled with in the renovation as far as foodservice goes. We are done with chafers. We now have pots, pans, platters, casserole dishes, various things that we are using to make sure that the hot food is presented nicely on these three warming platforms, or hot plates.
What was the thought process behind using these hot plates instead of induction heating?
I’ll give you a great example. A woman has a group of young swimmers that she’s bringing to the game on Sunday night. We were talking about food offerings, and she said that the kids don’t want any food because it was too late, and they have to be up for swim practice the next morning. So now if there’s a suite that orders more food than what fits on three hot plates, we can take the unused ones from their suite and use them in another. So it gives us the ability to move things around. Their portability is huge.
If we had gone with the built-in induction, the plan was to go with only two, and there are a lot of suites that would use seven or eight chafers when we were on a chafer system. So being able to customize from suite to suite was important for us.
How is your suite experience unique here at Bank of America Stadium?
We’re a little bit unique here in that every suite has a suite attendant, and that attendant serves as a bartender. They literally open all the beers, uncork the wine, and pour the drinks. It has to do with how the licenses are set up here and the Richardson’s commitment to responsible alcohol service.
I don’t know of another venue that does it that way. It’s almost like a butler-type service.
What are some of the popular menu choices so far this season?
We sell a lot of BBQ. We smoke all of our meats in-house. The BBQ we offer is JJR (Mr. Richardson’s initials) pulled pork BBQ. We also have a southern three bean bake, and we sell a lot of that. So we sell a lot of regional foods. Macaroni and cheese is another one. We have a pulled pork mac and cheese that has the pulled pork baked into the macaroni. These are things that aren’t grab and go. You’re going to need to put them on a plate, and use a knife and fork to eat them.
We have two stadium fare packages. They have lots of local flair with them as well. One has a brisket, and the other has fried chicken. For a lot of fans who are coming in from out of town and want to try some of our more regional offerings, those package menus are a really good option for them.
What keeps you busy outside of work?
My dog takes up all of my free time. She’s a pug mix, and her name is Lucy. (Thanks to Facebook, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the lovable Lucy and her pit bull yawns and T-rex arms).
I try to volunteer locally whenever I can. For a while, I volunteered quite a bit with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Now it’s more about when the volunteer opportunities are available and less about any one specific group, being able to be of service wherever is needed at the time that we don’t have a crazy schedule here.
I am also a lifetime sorority girl. When I first graduated from under grad [at Armstrong State University], I became a graduate counselor for my sorority, Phi Mu. I lived in the sorority house while I went to the University of Georgia to get my master’s degree. When I got out of school, I started advising the chapter at Queens where I worked. And then I started as an area finance director, went through the memberships department, went through the operations department, and served two terms on national council.
Since then, I’ve worked on some special projects and have been on the ritual committee. And this past weekend, I was just appointed a new chapter operations expert, so I’ll be working with our resource leaders for all of our new chapters. We just colonized in Hawaii. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to be asked to go there for a visit.
She may not be in Hawaii, but Jen Wu is certainly in a place of perspective, a few years removed from the family restaurant.
“I didn’t realize at the time how good I really had it [at the restaurant] and how well those experiences prepared me to have a lot of responsibility and to multitask.”
Now she can hire, train, and supervise her staff at the same time, all while waving her wand and making the cookies appear. It’s not easy. It only looks easy to her guests on gameday. #
Would you like to network with Jen?
ALSD members can find his contact information in the 2015 Fall Issue of SEAT Magazine.