More Than Fair Food

Ever wonder how the hundreds of emergency utility workers who braved the 2007 ice storm – remember, the one that froze the entire state under a three-inch slab of ice, immobilizing the greater Tulsa area for more than a week – found time to eat?
Thanks to EXPOSERVE Food & Beverage Management Services, with support from Expo Square’s management team and community volunteers, some 4,000 of those men and women managed to catch a bite for breakfast, lunch and dinner as they worked through the blackout. Add it up, and that’s 75,000 meals served by EXPOSERVE over the course of more than a week.
Those meals weren’t just sandwiches and snack-sized bags of chips. Instead, workers had plates of hot, freshly prepared food, much of it made from scratch, for breakfast and dinner with box lunches. The lunches were made possible by QuikTrip, Expo Square’s naming rights sponsor, who brought in sandwiches by the truckload, with EXPOSERVE crews working around the clock coordinating and assembling box lunches.
It’s all in line with the vision for food and beverage services at Tulsa’s Expo Square – one of branded concepts and streamlined processes and service – spearheaded by Siegmund Brown, founder of EXPOSERVE, the restaurant, catering, concession and vending source at the fairgrounds. EXPOSERVE, headquartered on the fairgrounds at 3902 E. 15th St., serves more than a million annually at Expo Square. The contractor employs 20 full-time, about 120 regular part-time and about 1,500 on call.
With its 46 total locations at the fairgrounds (at peak demand – say, during the Tulsa State Fair) of nine branded concepts, two restaurants and numerous kiosk operations, EXPOSERVE serves up noshes from cotton candy, lemonade and corn dogs to all-out extravagances like cherries jubilee and flaming bananas foster, all coming at customers with the theater of Iron Chef and the feel-good quality of the family’s favorite neighborhood grill.
“The look on people’s faces when a flame jumps out when a cook is making their dessert – that’s exciting for people,” Brown said.
Brown founded the Tulsa-based food and beverage service contractors in 2004 following 20 years in the food and beverage industries in the U.S. and British Columbia. The son of a hotelier, Brown graduated from the School of Hospitality Management at Florida International University and later earned an MBA from the University of Tulsa. He came to Tulsa from California in 1997 with Connecticut-based Fine Host, EXPOSERVE’s food and beverage predecessor at the fairgrounds. When the contract Expo Square had with Fine Host expired, Brown went into start-up mode.
Brown also heads up EXPOSERVE’s premium sister brand, PARTYSERVE, specializing in food and liquor catering at large events, from weddings to corporate events.
“We target anything that’s large and complicated,” Brown said.
“Since 2004, we’ve basically redesigned this entire food program. We realized the importance of having branded concepts. We cook a lot from scratch, as much as possible and is practical. All meat is smoked in-house, all sauces are from scratch – even the coleslaw is made fresh right here,” he said.
The partnership between Tulsa’s fairgrounds and EXPOSERVE began to reap what it had sowed with its the food and beverage services makeover almost immediately, seeing a 15 percent increase in revenue above any jump in event attendance each year since 2004.
The redesign of the major concession stands at the fairgrounds has contributed just as much to the growing bottom line as branding efforts, Brown said, both pulls yielding in a doubled number of meals served annually at Expo Square since this time five years ago.
Serving now as a study in best practices for the industry, the success of the branding and redesigns have attracted the attention of facilities from next door in Arkansas to the Indianapolis State Fair Commission looking to punch up their food and beverage programs.
Back of the House
Here’s a fun fact to pull out at the next cocktail party: Tulsa Expo Square has been known to handle more than 100,000 attendees at simultaneously operating events. Ever been to a sold-out BOK Center event? Imagine a mass of that many warm bodies, then multiply it times five and a quarter, hungry and roaming the fairgrounds’ 240-plus acres for food and drink service with a smile.
How to get a job of that magnitude done and done well? A brand new, 5,000-SF, catering-grade kitchen helps. It was part of the $5 million, 22,000-SF expansion that also included offices, a warehouse and a training center built onto the historic 15th Street armory last fall, finished just in time to be christened by the 2008 Tulsa State Fair.
Now that he’s installed in an office still bright with that new paint smell, Brown is by no means finished with the armory. He plans to turn the space into a 25,000-SF grand ballroom, complete with chandeliers and premium meeting spaces, with the historic look of the building left intact. Brown looks to raise $6 million to build out the space, which would accommodate 650.
“We’d actively market it, get it full, bring in groups,” Brown said. “It’d benefit Expo Square because they’d get the majority of the proceeds on the effort. Right now it’s an under-utilized asset.”
Another fairgrounds jewel just gathering dust was the space in which the new Fair Meadows Sports Grill opened early last year. The restaurant, featuring 17 big screen TVs that attracted 1,000 patrons for the Belmont and Kentucky Derby each, hosts about 5,000 per month. Renovations to the space, such as the installation of a basketball court made from one of the original floors in the old Pavilion, are on-going.
Ultimately, Brown’s rebranding and redesign campaign aims to capitalize on a captive audience.
“A lot of people come to the fairgrounds, and they’re here for a three-to-five-day show. They need to eat. They can eat at the concession stands, or they can come here and have a plated, served meal. We’re getting a lot of demand from the existing users of the fairgrounds – that’s really our focus.”
Much of the revamping is due to the Vision 2025 and 4-to-Fix initiatives, Brown said.

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