All About Love
Rick Abramson loves the concessions business and
Delaware North Sportservice, and both have loved him back
Rick Abramson walked by a concession stand one day at old Chicago Stadium and noticed some hot dogs looked out of place. It was the late 1970s. Abramson, Delaware North Sportservice’s on-site general manager, suspected a few game day employees were smuggling their own inventory to sell and pocketing the money themselves.
“I let go of everybody working that stand and suspended them pending further investigation,” Abramson said.
Abramson was called into Bill Wirtz’s office to discuss the issue. The Wirtz family owned the arena and the NHL Chicago Blackhawks, co-tenants with the NBA Chicago Bulls. Bill Wirtz informed Abramson of a rumor floating around the building that all the concession workers were ready to walk out in protest of his actions.
“I explained to Mr. Wirtz that there were some irregularities at one stand and those workers might be in business for themselves,” Abramson said. “He told me from his perspective that I should stand up for what’s right and he would support me.”
“I felt really good about that,” he said. “Once the workers found out I was supported by ownership, everybody went back to their stands. Some other workers told me they would take over that stand if the (perpetrators) left.”
It’s that support and trust that served Abramson well over the course of his more than 50-year career with Delaware North Cos. Abramson, now retired and serving as an adviser for the company, is among the three 2020 members of the VenuesNow Hall of Honor.
Abramson’s colleagues describe a folksy manner that hides a sharp intellect and Midwestern sensibility. The Milwaukee native can be a wisecracker but also a person who easily makes friends. He’s a foodie and gets up early in the morning to see what’s cooking in the chef’s kitchen.
Food is in his genes. If those bootleggers at Chicago Stadium knew Abramson’s background, they may have thought twice about pulling the caper. In Milwaukee, a city synonymous with sausage and beer, his father, Vernon, worked 34 years at the Usinger’s sausage factory in town.
Rick Abramson got his start in the business as a Sportservice hot dog vendor at old Milwaukee County Stadium in the late 1960s, after the Milwaukee Braves left for Atlanta in 1966 and before the Seattle Pilots relocated to Milwaukee and became the Brewers in 1970.
The stadium stayed active with a few Green Bay Packers games every season, plus a combined 20 Chicago White Sox regular-season games in 1968 and 1969. Abramson worked all those events, including the Sox games, which set the stage for Milwaukee to get an MLB team after local car dealer Bud Selig bought the Pilots out of bankruptcy.
Abramson also worked stadium concerts and shows downtown at the MECCA (now UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena) and Milwaukee Auditorium. He was on the job for Jimi Hendrix, whose “Cry of Love” tour played the auditorium in May 1970, four months before his death.
“I’m an inner-city kid,” Abramson said. “My mother ran a grocery store and all the kids worked there. Those were turbulent times, through the Vietnam War and racial injustice. A lot of our neighborhood got burned down, so that’s when I went to the ballpark to work.”
As a vendor, the more hot dogs, popcorn, soda and beer you sell, the more money you make. It’s a hustle game, and Abramson excelled at it. The top vendors got to pick whichever product they wanted to sell at the next event. Hot dogs were best for football games; soft drinks sold well for summer baseball, Abramson said.
Abramson expanded his duties to selling novelties in the outfield bleachers and eventually became Sportservice’s assistant GM at County Stadium. He made the decision to accept a full-time job with benefits and dropped out of college after his junior year.
Over time, Abramson worked his way up the corporate ladder at Delaware North, filling key positions across virtually every division of the company, from sports venues to national parks, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Delta Queen riverboat and Australia Venue Services.
Abramson served as president of Sportservice (2004-13) and DNC parks and resorts (2013-15).
At Sportservice, revenue tripled under his leadership with new business at Lambeau Field, MetLife Stadium and Target Field, among other venues. Later in his career, he assumed roles covering a wide range of company business, as chief operating officer and chief customer officer, his most recent position before retirement.
He survived a big health scare along the way.
About five years ago, Abramson overcame Stage 4 tongue cancer after being given a 5% chance of recovery. He beat the disease and stays careful as he splits time between his two homes in New York and Florida.
Abramson is a passionate baseball fan whose idol is Hank Aaron, but during the pandemic he could not attend the World Series in October because of his medical history. He missed Sportservice posting combined food and retail per caps nearing triple digits, rivaling Super Bowl numbers. Those sales figures came despite restricted attendance.
“It broke my heart not to go to the World Series,” he said.
The same held true for 2020 Opening Day in Milwaukee.
It was the first time Abramson had missed it since 1970, when he was a vendor during the Brewers’ inaugural season. To help make up for his absence, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio and Rick Schlesinger, president of business operations, made sure to display a cardboard cutout of Abramson behind the home dugout at Miller Park.
The Abramson family has longstanding ties with the Brewers. Rick’s uncle, Warren Abramson, served as Bud Selig’s personal bartender and was the first employee Selig hired after buying the team. In addition, Rick’s mother, Joan Abramson, worked Brewers’ games for about 20 years, selling grilled bratwurst for Sportservice.
“One of the first jobs my mother had at the ballpark was using bleach and a toothbrush to take the (Seattle) Pilots logo off souvenir balls and stamp the Brewers’ logo on them,” Rick said. “We got all the merchandise from Seattle where Sportservice ran food and retail at old Sicks Stadium. They were only there for one year but had enough stuff for three years.”
Abramson’s early stops extended from horse racing tracks in Detroit and Chicago to the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane, Wash., and the old Curtis Hixon Hall, a convention center/arena complex in Tampa, plus Chicago Stadium. In the mid- to late 1980s, Abramson returned to Milwaukee as a regional vice president before moving to Buffalo in 1990, where Delaware North has its headquarters and its owners, the Jacobs family, live.
Traveling the country for work was a big deal for Abramson. Growing up, his family didn’t have a whole lot of money and didn’t go out much. But they always had good food on the table, including the sausage his father made at work.
“The first time I was on a plane was to fly home from Detroit for Thanksgiving,” Abramson said. “When I moved to Florida, I drove a mustard-yellow Ford Gran Torino with no air conditioning. It was hot.”
Decades later, he lived halfway across the world in Australia, where he oversaw food operations at several venues. His family, wife Sylvia and daughters Molly and Mary, spent three years there in the mid-1990s, and the girls attended private school.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “There’s a lot more suites and high-end service, plated food. I was ready to stay there and the company was going to buy me a house, but both our parents were getting old, so we moved back.”
Over the course of his career, Abramson mentored multiple food service executives, starting with Jerry Jacobs Jr., co-CEO of Delaware North and the son of company Chairman Jeremy Jacobs. Jerry Jr. was among the interns who learned the business from Abramson.
The two worked together one summer at the old Melody Top Theatre, an outdoor theatrical venue in Milwaukee.
Sportservice ran the concessions. For the production of “Annie,” Abramson came up with the smart idea to mix green dye into wine spritzers and brand the drink as “Daddy Warbucks,” named after the character known as Annie’s father.
People loved them and Sportservice sold out of the concoctions, Jacobs said.
“Even then, it was obvious Rick was a master concessionaire,” he said. “He was always trying to think of new ways to make money, a new angle. Everybody’s walking around drinking Daddy Warbucks. Rick says, ‘Don’t put too much wine in there. Lots of ice.’”
Charlie Millerwise, now director of development and hospitality for the Green Bay Packers, remains indebted to Abramson for helping him out when his father was ill. It came about two years after Millerwise joined Sportservice in 2006. He was working out west at Scottsdale Stadium, an Arizona spring training facility, and Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres.
Living so far away from home, Millerwise, a Detroit-area native, wanted to be closer to his family during that difficult time. Abramson inserted Millerwise as operations manager at Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play. The move made it easier for Millerwise to take care of his family’s estate after his father died in 2008.
“Rick did that thing for me with my dad that I never realized until later how important it was to me,” he said. “I would go to the mat for him any day of the week.”
Millerwise learned the ropes by going through the “Rick Abramson Hazing Program,” as he jokingly called the GM training agenda in which young executives worked every job tied to running foodservice at KeyBank Center, home of the NHL Buffalo Sabres.
It all started as warehouse porter, to experience how product gets from the loading dock to concession stands; followed by warehouse supervisor and manager; and eventually concessions worker to supervisor to manager.
“It’s a great program, all designed by Rick, to understand how to run these massive operations,” Millerwise said. “There are so many dots to connect to make the building run on game days. You have to really go through one to understand how to do it.”
Abramson understands the importance of all aspects of the concessions biz, which speaks to the integrity he showed when Sportservice gave Miller Park’s retail operation to the Brewers two years ago, Schlesinger said.
Over the years, the two parties had several “friendly, spirited discussions” over merchandise policy, he said. The team always looked at retail as more than just a financial play. It’s part of the brand, tied to an emotional fan connection.
As a result, the Brewers would push Sportservice to do different things and take greater risk to generate more revenue at the team store and other merchandise outlets at the ballpark. But an impasse remained over what worked best.
“To Rick’s credit, we came to a resolution where we took retail in-house,” Schlesinger said. “Delaware North didn’t have to do it. We were contractually obligated with them with a few years remaining on the deal. They didn’t demand anything in return.”
He said, “It’s a lucrative part of our business, but Rick said their relationship with the Brewers transcends any one piece of it. He probably took some grief internally by overruling the financial folks at DNC. It was an interesting insight into how Rick does business. It’s not about trying to get the last nickel. Long term, it makes the relationship better. That was a meaningful thing.”
For Abramson, a native Wisconsinite, winning the Lambeau Field food contract in 2012 was especially meaningful. Nothing warms his heart more, he said, considering Sportservice had to compete for the Packers’ business, unlike the Brewers, where the company was in place before the team came to town.
Millerwise, handpicked by Abramson to run the food at Lambeau, remembers walking across the field with DNC and Packers executives after the news conference announcing Sportservice as the new concessionaire.
“Rick is standing behind me,” Millerwise said. “He grabs my arm and says, ‘If you screw this up, you’re done.’ It was only in the way that Rick could say it that you knew it was loving. Being a Milwaukee guy, that was a big one for him and he was the first person I called when I left DNC (in 2017) to go work for the Packers.”
Abramson was a big reason why the Packers went with Sportservice, according to team President Mark Murphy.
“He’s one of the more memorable people I’ve met,” Murphy said. “You go through your career and meet all types of people, but he just has a positive way about him. For us, he’s the face of Delaware North.”
It’s been that way for the better part of 50 years.
“We were talking with our HR team about the next steps to take with Rick after his retirement,” Jacobs said. “He’s moved around our business and done a lot of things for us. What does it mean? Someone said, ‘It’s really about love, isn’t it?’ That’s true. Rick is loved by our family, and that’s the best way to say it.”