TAKE IT TO THE HOUSE: The Carolina Hurricanes’ in-house food provider is VAB Catering. (Don Muret / Staff)
It’s the simple things in life that are most enjoyable, which certainly holds true for sports concessions. Forget all the goofy toppings on hot dogs and crazy fusion items trending these days with vendors trying to one-up each other across the arena and stadium landscape.
The tasty prime rib sandwich served at PNC Arena is one example of how simplicity and presentation goes a long way toward culinary bliss at the home of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, North Carolina.
VAB Catering, the Hurricanes’ in-house food provider, has been offering the beefy behemoth for more than a decade for hockey games, plus North Carolina State men’s basketball and concerts.
Longevity speaks loudly, considering the consistent turnover among specialty items at sports facilities.
The sandwich is special, all right, but it’s now considered a staple among NHL and ACC hoops fans and concertgoers lining up to purchase slabs of rare roast beef plopped on a fresh hoagie roll, served with potato chips.
Horseradish mustard (a must in VenuesNow’s opinion after eating the sandwich) and jalapeno peppers are optional.
For the 2023-24 sports season, the prime rib sandwich costs $22, an increase of $1 over last year. Some may feel that’s a bit steep, until they see the server slice chunks from a baron of beef sitting inside an old-fashioned cart with glass walls by Section 119.
The gratification is deafening.
The cart is branded as The Carvery. The sandwich is also served at two belly-up locations on the club level along the east and west sides, said Steve Gorham, VAB Catering’s vice president of food and beverage.
The beef, provided by US Foods, is slow cooked for six to eight hours before every event, Gorham said.
An average of 260 prime rib sandwiches are sold at every Hurricanes game, he said.
“There’s high demand for it,” Gorham said. “I don’t see it going away anytime soon. It’s a great sandwich.”
Apart from beef, VAB Catering prides itself on its barbecue, which in North Carolina, is serious business.
The vendor has its own brand, the North Carolina BBQ Company, specializing in pulled pork sandwiches. Pork shoulders are cooked in two massive smokers on the service level, dubbed “Big Mama” and “Sho ‘Nuff.”
“We had one smoker and it was going so well, we got a second one,” Gorham said. “We can fit a ton of meat in there, but based on how much we were selling and how well it was received, we needed it to meet the demand.”
This season, VAB Catering has expanded the arena’s overall BBQ menu to include brisket and smoked turkey sandwiches after signing a deal with The BBQ Lab, a local restaurant.
Gorham doesn’t believe the additional items provided by a third party will hurt sales of pulled pork.
“We have so many games where we’re close to being sold out, if not sold out of pulled pork, and we want to make sure there are enough options to go around,” he said.
On its own, VAB Catering flies under the radar in the big leagues, where few teams self-operate food service due to the commitment, investment and labor costs involved in running concessions and premium dining.
Gorham has been with the Canes for three years after spending 18 years in Charlotte, running concessions in-house for multiple city-owned venues, including the Charlotte Convention Center and Bojangles Coliseum.
For two years, Gorham worked at Great Wolf Lodge, an indoor resort in Concord, North Carolina, before landing at PNC Arena.
“From my experience, it’s much better than being part of an outside firm that’s a tenant in the building,” he said. “We get to make decisions and discuss ideas with our general manager and team president. We don’t have to go through a lot to get things done, which gives us a lot more flexibility to work with local partners.”