TAMPA — If there's one menu item a stadium in Tampa needs to get right, it's the Cuban sandwich.
So when you bite into that perfectly fresh combination of crispy-soft bread, black forest ham, juicy roasted pork and melty swiss at a Buccaneers game this season, thank Raymond James Stadium executive chef Kevin Riley.
With a few tweaks — house-made mustard, bread baked locally at Ybor City institution La Segunda Bakery and waiting until it's served to press it — Riley has elevated a stadium Cuban to a Cuban Cuban.
OK, so maybe the salami is missing, but this thing is good, and it's just a tiny taste of how the Buccaneers are upping their food game.
The team unveiled Wednesday the fruits of a year's work of planning $7 million in renovations to create a better dining experience in the stadium's main concourse. The concessions on the east and west sides of the concourse were rebuilt from the ground up to create a faster-moving, fresher-tasting and more Tampa-centric feel, Buccaneers chief operating officer Brian Ford said during the preview.
When the metal covers were rolled back, the look was more like a food court in an upscale mall than a stadium concourse, with vibrant colors and signs putting a clearer emphasis on the flavors served at each of seven remodeled counters on the west concourse. The remodeled east concourse mirrors it exactly.
It looks bright and clean and appetizing, with fun design touches such as nautical rope and faux-distressed wood adorning the four new Swashuckler Bars. Other changes won't be as easy to spot.
The space behind the counters has been designed for better efficiency and a new point of sale system makes it simpler to ring up purchases and make payments. The new workflow means those taking orders will never have to turn around and grab items with their back to the customer, Ford said.
The idea is to eliminate the little pauses that add up to long waits when you multiply them by 50,000 football fans.
“The main thing is getting people back to their seats quickly so they can enjoy winning Buccaneer football,” Ford said. “People don't want to stand in line. ... We got a lot of feedback and those were the main things we were hearing through our surveys.”
The new menu brings back old favorites with new flair, such as the Cuban sandwich and juicier, thicker cheeseburgers made with a blend of premium beef and topped with a house made sauce and relish. It will be served alongside all-new items, such as ultra-delicate and crispy yucca fries — the talk of the preview.
Little culinary details, courtesy of Chef Riley, whose resume includes the five-diamond Aujour'hui restaurant at the Four Seasons Boston and the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Overall, there are actually fewer menu choices. The emphasis now is on higher-quality items, different from counter to counter, which also means faster service, Riley said.
The concessions have new names but some themes remain. There's still a pizza place (Pizza Plank), and a sandwich counter (Desoto Deli), which now serves a mean hot pastrami and Spanish-style ham and Manchego cheese bocadillo, and The Galley, where you can get a considerably larger and softer pretzel than before.
Upgraded hot dog options include the Red Sail Dog from Red Sail Spice, featuring Sriracha mustard with pickled cabbage and scallion curls, and the Deli Dog topped with pastrami, spicy mustard and a swiss cheese sauce. Of course, the basic hot dog is still available but the bun is higher quality. More of the work is being done at the stadium than ever before, too, including smoking the bacon in-house for the new BLT and spicing up the mojo mayo and hot ketchup.
“We've really spent the last year working on this, and I think we ended up with something that really represents Tampa now,” Riley said. “In reality we're keeping it simpler, and making sure that when we come up with something downstairs, the quality will still be there when we have to produce for 50 or 60 thousand people.”