The Game Plan

Scoring with killer tailgate options

Higher education knows a thing or two about the art of tailgating. But they aren’t the only ones wise about getting the party started. With a little creativity, caterers, bar and grills, and just about any foodservice operation can score. Here’s a game plan:

KNOW THE OFFENSE

Karen Lacy, director of catering and co-owner (with husband Chef Glyn Lacy) of Skeeter Barnes in Lincoln, Neb., wins big during tailgate season at the University of Nebraska with staples such as smoked chicken and bacon-wrapped shrimp.

“In Nebraska, people really like their meat,” says Lacy, who stays on point with affordable alternative cuts like prime tender (petite tender) from the shoulder. To spice up meaty St. Louis pork ribs, she applies popular hot-wing methodology (breading, frying, saucing), creating her menu’s Flying Pig Wings. “People order them by the dozen,” says Lacy. “They really do fly out of here.”

MIX IT UP

Near Michigan State University in East Lansing, Steve Montayne, owner of the Spartan Hall of Fame Café, says a growing number of catering customers are “interested in stepping up and differentiating their tailgate.”

Montayne has seen success with bourbon chicken—a boneless breast seasoned, grilled and basted with bourbon-sugar sauce—and his Hall of Fame chopped salad with gorgonzola, strawberries, smoked bacon and toasted pecans.

At Ohio State University in Columbus, game day fare is also evolving. “We are doing a lot more that’s culturally diverse, fun and non-traditional,” says Zia Ahmed, senior director of dining services. Easy-to-eat  sandwiches and finger foods are still mainstays, as well as sausages and burgers, but their menu also includes frenched lamb chops, fish tacos and coriander-crusted beef tenderloin.

Yet sometimes, it’s about comfort food. Husband-wife chef team Tracy and Peter Assue of the Livanos Restaurant Group’s City Limits, an upscale diner concept in White Plains, N.Y., and Stamford, Conn., say their tailgate approach elevates everyday favorites. “Our meatloaf, for example, is hand ground from several cuts of meat and prepared more like a meat terrine,” says Tracy, a pastry chef.

MORNING KICKOFF

When games begin early, try featuring brunch, says Joe Mehring, a catering manager at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Favorites include Bloody Marys, hash browns, egg bakes and sausages. Regional spins are popular among those he feeds, such as the Wisconsin cheesy egg  bake served with grilled—and locally produced—Klements brats.

In Nebraska, says Lucy, people like pulled pork breakfast burritos, with either Bloody Marys or tomato-juice spiked “red beer.”

STRATEGIC PLAY

Olenjack’s Grille in Arlington, Texas, shuttles diners to nearby Cowboy Stadium. Chef-owner Brian Olenjack capitalizes on the increased diner traffic by testing new menu options. Football fans have tried pulled-pork sliders with house-pickled red onions, smoked duck tacos with sour cherry crème fraîche, and even poached lobster shooters when the New England Patriots were in town.

“It’s a good time to try out fun stuff we want to do,” says Ryan Gallagher, Olenjack’s sous chef. “The sliders worked so well, we now do those for private events, too.”

Writer Monica Kass Rogers recently sent her second child off to college.