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City considers the future of civic center concessions

Donna Drews never set out to be a concessionaire.

Truth be told, says the director of Rochester's Mayo Civic Center, she would have preferred that the concessions operation at the city-owned civic center had remained under the operation of a private company.

"It worked very well," Drews said, "and we probably would still be operating on that premise."

But a state funding requirement changed that in 2009, putting concessions under direct public control and leaving Drews and the concessions company, J&S of Rochester, to work out the bumps of a different working relationship.

"It threw everybody out of their comfort zone," Drews said.


The civic center became responsible for all of the operating costs of the concessions stands, including salaries, equipment and food, and began paying J&S a contracted fee of $60,000 per year.  The company became eligible to receive annual performance-related bonuses up to another $60,000. J&S received the maximum bonus in 2009 and appeared likely to receive it again in 2010.

Partly as a result of that, expenses exceeded the 2010 budget by at least $65,000, according to Drews.

"We can assume some of the responsibility ourselves," she said, "because we issued the contract."

Joe Powers, who owns the concession company along with Canadian Honker restaurant and a few other Rochester businesses, cites other factors for the concessions operation's financial slide, chiefly less business from wedding and anniversary receptions and from concerts.

"We were really counting on the expansion" to create a disruption with construction work, Powers said, "and didn't book out the civic center. We lost out on a lot of weddings."

Civic center statistics show a year-to-year decline in those kinds of events, five fewer wedding and anniversary receptions (from 29 to 24) and 16 fewer concerts (from 75 to 59) in 2010 than 2009. Banquet activity has also fallen off by 15 percent to 20 percent, Powers said.

Overall civic center attendance was fairly steady: about 314,000 in 2008, 325,000 in 2009 and 301,000 this year.

A dreary economy has also had an effect on sales, Powers said.


"I feel that when the economy comes back, and everything is back the way it was before, (concession sales) are going to be bigger than it was before," he said.

Powers nearly avoided this situation. In 2008, with the operational changes on the horizon, he said, he considered not renewing the concessions business, which is separate from his restaurant's catering business at the civic center and elsewhere. Powers said he stuck it out for the sake of J&S's two full-time employees and the dozens of part-timers called upon to serve at large events.

"We're going to hang in there," he said.

Powers said he is "not really worried" that the city will take over the concessions operation.

"Honestly, are they going to add jobs to the local (city) payroll doing something they don't know anything about?" he asked. "We have 11 years experience with our people. When you have 5,000 people coming out of a concert, you better know what you're doing."

Often, though, the other side of experience can be an unwillingness to change. Drews described encountering some of that inflexibility with J&S as the civic center sought to update the concessions operation.

"It's hard to light a fire sometimes," she said. 

Civic center officials have studied other concessions operations and are trying to update the own menu and facilities to match the best of those, Drews said. Changing the menu for multi-day events, adding healthy options, such as soups and salads, even altering the menu for different types of concert crowds have been among the ideas, she said.


"What you sell at Manheim Steamroller is not necessarily what you're going to sell at Alice Cooper," she said.

Drews says she wants 2011 to be the year the concessions operation bounces back.

"I'm a naturally competitive person," she said. "I'm looking at how we can raise revenues.

"It is easy to be complacent. But it's also boring."

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