TAMPA — From fresh uniforms and a new logo to new coach Lovie Smith and exciting free agent signings, Bucs fans' hopes are soaring for this season. At a media event Wednesday, even more new goodies were unveiled at Raymond James Stadium. As part of a collaboration between the Tampa Sports Authority and concessioneer Aramark, new menu items debuted, many of them inspired by the unique tastes of Tampa.
This food critic's verdict: Football fans will enjoy some pleasant upgrades this season, but nothing revolutionary, and certainly slim pickings for the vegetarian or healthy-minded diner.
Following a trend in stadiums, ballparks and even airports around the country, the focus is on showcasing regional foods. This means a pressed-to-order Cuban sandwich ($11) on local bread, a new "bocadillo" shaved ham sandwich ($11) and new sides like sweet potato and yucca fries (both $6.50).
Buccaneers chief operating officer Brian Ford described the shiny new concession kiosks as operating like self-sufficient little restaurants, a shift aimed at "improving the overall guest experience in terms of menu selections and speed of service." (He revealed another welcome change this year at Ray Jay: a "speed lane" check-in for ticket holders with no bags.)
Kevin Riley, Aramark executive chef at Raymond James since early 2013, said the new changes reflected a more "chef-driven concept," with an emphasis on house-made sauces, condiments and roasted meats. This means items like house-pickled red kraut with mustard seed on the new Red Sail Dog ($8), gussied up even further with au courant sriracha mustard, and a new BLT ($8) that is upgraded with an emphatically hip spicy bacon mayo.
Riley was most excited to introduce the Bay Burger ($10), its patty a mix of sirloin, chuck and brisket. This marks the first time Raymond James will offer a fresh, not frozen, hamburger, lent additional sophistication by house-made pickles.
It didn't look like much, but sometimes looks are deceiving.
The event, open to some season-ticket holders (who get a 15 percent discount on all food), drew Largo residents Paul Crawford, 71, and wife Pam Crawford, 67. They said that in previous years concessions were "typical of stadiums" but that the new changes are "over and beyond."
Together they applauded the new Cuban (for which each new kiosk had to be outfitted with sandwich presses) and the new fried chicken sandwich ($11) with smoked roasted pepper aioli and shaved red onion. (I agree, a solid sandwich.) But it was later in the event when Pam Crawford hunted me down to praise the new burger as "seriously gourmet."
Still, when the Crawfords were asked what they would eat at Raymond James if they could press a button, they both said they'd like to see more healthy food stands, "maybe even Chinese."
For chef Riley's part, when asked about healthy and vegetarian options, the laws of the free market prevail.
"We've got 65,000 fans to feed. We've got to offer them what they want."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.