YES CHEF: Jeff Leidy, Sodexo Live! senior executive chef. (Courtesy vendor)

New vendor, new deals at Indian Wells

Hospitality partnerships with local eateries require food for thought.

Concessionaire Sodexo Live!, similar to other food providers, has a history of forging relationships with national brands and local restaurateurs for major events. The partnerships extend to its first year running the food at the  BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in southern California.

The largest combined ATP Tour Masters 1000 and WTA 1000 tennis event takes place March 3-17. In 2023, the Open drew 425,000 fans.

Sodexo Live! replaced Levy at the tennis complex, which had its own deals with local brands in the Greater Palm Springs region. The new vendor’s senior executive chef Jeff Leidy had the task of finding new partners and putting together a culinary lineup designed to ace the plate.

“Initially, we are looking at the menu offering and what’s available campus wide,” Leidy said of the partner selection process. “I take the trends and where the industry is moving and then look for those partners that balance that out.”

Food takes center court at the BNP Paribas. The Indian Wells Tennis Garden in California’s Coachella Valley covers 88 acres, with 29 tennis courts including the 16,100-seat Stadium 1, the 8,000-seat Stadium 2, 23 lighted courts, eight acres of outdoor exposition space and 54 acres of outdoor parking.

In 2014, when Stadium 2 debuted it included the renowned Nobu restaurant. During renovations in 2017, 20 additional dining options were added.

For Sodexo Live!, there’s a lot of ground to cover and mouths to feed.

“I’m a chef and I want to have food that the clients and guests would enjoy and find partners that are passionate about what they are doing and believe in their brand,” said Leidy, who has been with Sodexo Live! 17 years.

After looking at the food landscape of the venue, Leidy surveys the surrounding community for restaurants that would be a potential fit. He also entertains recommendations from the venue operators.

“I’d say 50% is somebody on the team we are working with saying, ‘I just went out and had this amazing hamburger. They’ve done festival style and large venues before and the guests will love it,’” Leidy said.

However, sometimes the restaurant or partner isn’t a good fit.

“It takes a willingness to do what they need to do for their brand and work with us,” Leidy said. “We’ve had some that we’ve initially met with that weren’t a good fit or didn’t exhibit passion for what they were doing. That’s not the kind of vendor or partner that we would want to align with.”

The process starts up to six months in advance and includes meetings and food tastings. Leidy is also looking at the overall footprint, so that he doesn’t have two similar cuisines in close proximity.

For example, Leidy has two hamburger concepts at the Open. One is more of a diner-style burger and the other choice is a heavy, rich, blended gourmet burger.

“When we are looking at these vendors, we balance the entire food offerings,” said Leidy who calls the Open a “Culinary Disneyland.”

Some of the dining options at BNP Paribas Open include Southern California’s Porta Via, with a takeover of the restaurant space overlooking the court in Stadium 1.

New additions to the food village include Japanese-inspired hot dogs from Sumo Dog of Jeffrey Lunak and the Morimoto Restaurant Group; San Diego-based, award-winning Mexican artisan kitchen Puesto; local Palm Desert delicatessen J’s Deli; fast-casual burger popup Le Burger by Camphor from Los Angeles, serving Michelin-star burgers and frites; and Post & Beam, serving California comfort food from LA-based chef John Cleveland.

Seattle-based chain Moto Pizza is also new with their signature Filipino flavor and powered by a pizza robot. After introducing the Lionel’s Fountain burger concept in 2023, Los Angeles-based chef Christian Page will open Love Love Lionel’s and Love Love Chicken for fans in Stadium 2.

The Open has a slate of full-service restaurants, as well as a number of returning local favorites to round out the list of new food options from Sodexo Live!’s kitchen including Nine City Tortilla Co., Flat Pie Co. and Take Out Asian Kitchen operating out of a new Stadium 2 outpost.

The relationship is beneficial for partners with the right stuff. According to Leidy, some event sites will make $500,000 to $1 million in sales in two weeks.

When approaching new partners, “some of them are super excited about it, welcome the challenge to get their brand to that many people,” Leidy said. “And then there are others who are, honestly, kind of scared. They are intimidated by the number. Intimidated by the volume. Some of them just decline because they can’t scale their brand to that level.”

It scales quickly. Some operators go from ordering 20 cases of a product a week to a much bigger order encompassing five pallets of the same product for an event.

The eateries can increase their brand awareness and audience in a compressed amount of time, but Sodexo Live! also benefits from the relationships. Early on, they are looking at the event demographic and in some cases national partnerships may not work as well as local, familiar brands. It’s also helpful to tap into partner social networks, some of which have tens of thousands of followers.

“We are looking at the marketing aspects,” Leidy said. “Does that brand get a lot of hits on Instagram? What is their following? We can get our name out, Sodexo Live! We can get their name out, plus the property’s marketing. So, to us, it is a win with so many people on social media already knowing these brands.”

Sustainability and how the restaurant is sourcing products is also taken into consideration. In advance and during the event, Sodexo Live! is there to help scale their operation and offer help when needed.

“It is about finding those people you can work with that are able to pivot,” Leidy said. “They still want to put their product out there, but it’s a partnership and we have to work well together.  We have to help each other.”