By Kim Janssen
Love tailgating but hate the hunt for parking, the setup, the cleanup, all that … work?
Former McDonald’s Chief Marketing Officer Neil Golden has the solution for your chichi ways: Tailgater Concierge.
For about $55 to $90 per head, Golden’s new business will deliver a grill, cooler, groceries, a canopy, chairs and nonalcoholic beverages to a prime tailgating spot outside the college stadium of your choice, nationwide. Don’t want to get your soft hands dirty on the grill? Tailgater Concierge provides a chef too.
The idea of catered tailgating might seem to fly in the face of tailgating’s do-it-yourself ethos: The high prices will rule out all but the wealthiest students and alumni, and some die-hard locals and spatula-wielding fans may even see it as an affront.
But Golden thinks he’s found a niche just waiting to be filled, successful grads returning to their alma mater from out of town for the weekend.
“As a lifelong fan of college football, I’ve seen firsthand how much work fans put into the tradition of tailgating and realize that many just want to enjoy their time with friends and family, not deal with the responsibility of owning, hauling, setting up, taking down, and storing their own equipment,” he said.
“There are fans who have taken tailgating to a remarkable level, God bless ’em,” he said, but added that most fans who enjoy tailgating are “not quite as vested” as the hardcore fans who spend thousands of dollars to bring tricked-out RVs and giant drum smokers to games.
The startup marks a change of pace for Golden, who until November 2013 controlled McDonald’s $1.4 billion marketing budget.
Since he left the burger giant during a management shake-up prompted by McDonald’s struggle to adapt to changing consumer tastes, he’s acted as a marketing adviser for Bain Capital and has taught part time at Northwestern University, where he first caught the college football bug more than 30 years ago.
Though catered tailgating businesses exist all over the country, Golden’s attempt to create a “consistent, national” brand is new and will allow him to rely on insights from his 24 years at McDonald’s, he said.
Golden resists comparisons to the growing trend of glamorous camping, or “glamping,” in which urban sophisticates pay top dollar to experience the great outdoors in high style, but he is betting that two groups of college football fans will be willing to shell out premium prices: recently graduated superfans of college teams looking to reunite with their college pals, and well-heeled older alumni keen to have everything taken care of by a hospitality industry pro and a team of current students.
“They think that it represents a good value,” he said, adding that simply finding a good tailgating spot at many schools is expensive and requires a season ticket.
He has deals for prime tailgating spots with 18 schools across the U.S., including Arizona State University, Mississippi State University, the University of Illinois, Northwestern and UCLA, where he has hired and trained students. At bigger schools, he has the capacity to handle up to 75 tailgates at once, he said.
Customers select a tailgating equipment package online, where they can add extras like a cornhole game or rain ponchos, and at UCLA only, a satellite TV to stay up to date with rival schools’ games, then discuss their food requirements with Golden’s team.
Tailgater Concierge can supply anything from basic burgers and dogs to chateaubriand from Whole Foods, but the menu and the size of the party affect the price. Small parties of four run about $90 per person, but larger groups can bring the price down. Golden doesn’t have a license to sell alcohol, so customers have to arrange that themselves.
He said he got the idea from a pal who attended USC and who needles him to this day about the Trojans’ victory over the Wildcats in the 1996 Rose Bowl.
It’s yet to be seen how seasoned tailgaters will respond.
But Joe Cahn, a tailgating fanatic who says he has attended more than 850 tailgates all over the country since he sold his New Orleans cooking school in 1996 and bought a motor home, said he expects Tailgater Concierge to do well. While “there are unwritten rules and some tailgaters look down” on catered tailgate parties, others treat it as if “you’re having a party at your own house and you bring caterers in,” said Cahn, who styles himself the “Commissioner of Tailgating” on his tailgating website.
“Part of what makes tailgating so great is that it’s one of the only places in America where you’ll see a guy in a Rolls-Royce pull up next to a guy in a pickup,” Cahn said. “It’s more about the community and the social aspect than the food _ a tailgate party is the working man’s luxury box.”
Cahn compared the flashier end of the tailgating scene to “the bar mitzvah trade in New York, some people are like ‘We’ll bring in the Rolling Stones!'” He said he thought he’d seen it all when a high-rolling tailgater at a UCLA game brought a butler, who set up a table with a white tablecloth, fine china, flowers and a spread of shrimp and foie gras “accompanied by a string quartet that started playing the fight song.”
Other people “just grab a disposable grill, some dogs, chips and dip and sit on the curb, and they’re happy and that’s all they need,” he said.
Cahn’s only concern about Tailgater Concierge was that clients who are paying up to $90 each might be reluctant to share, he said. And “a chef who is charging by the head might start counting people.”
Still, Cahn said, he has only once been asked to leave someone else’s catered tailgate party, “and that was by a bunch of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., it would have to be Washington, wouldn’t it?”