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Following the Food Game in Laker Land : The Forum: Champagne dreams and logistic nightmares.

May 23, 1991|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An hour before a recent Laker playoff game, only a smattering of the 17,505 anticipated fans were in their seats at the Great Western Forum. Los Angeles was again earning its game-day reputation: arrive late and leave early--no matter how important the contest.

To the 330 people who sell hot dogs, beer and peanuts at the arena, the laggards pose a logistic nightmare. A professional basketball game, including timeouts and halftime, lasts only a couple of hours. It isn't easy to serve a sell-out-sized mob in such a short space of time.

The architects who designed the building in the late 1960s didn't make things easier. The space they provided for concession stands is small, and dispensing food and beverages at all is a serious chore. Space is so tight that a former paint shed in the bowels of the Forum has been turned into a service counter for the waitresses.

What makes things even harder is that, unlike a baseball stadium, the Forum is host to more than 200 events a year. In addition to the Laker and Kings games, there are professional boxing, ice shows, tennis matches and concerts. Each has its own peculiarities.

Kings fans spend more money overall and certainly drink more beer. At a recent hockey playoff, the Forum sold 8,000 large beers compared to only about 5,000 at a recent Laker playoff. (In fairness to the hockey crowd, their games last much longer.)

Laker games are packed with lawyers, doctors and other professionals who create a much more sedate atmosphere than the hockey or boxing crowds. Laker fans are so concerned about health that the concession stands added chicken sandwiches and salads. Even superfan Jack Nicholson, despite his boisterous image, usually drinks coffee. (He drinks it in a closet during halftime to avoid the crush of people.)

Professional boxing attracts a different sort. These Damon Runyon types tend to wear hats, drink more and eat less than other sports fans.

But no matter which sport is on the agenda, there is one constant at the Forum: The single most popular food is the hot dog.

"People absolutely want hot dogs," says one Forum executive, noting that, on average, the place sells about 5,000 a night.

But not everybody eats hot dogs. Upstairs, at the Forum Club (which claims the title of "America's ultimate sports bar"), sports fans consume steaks, prime rib and lobster in white-tablecloth surroundings. The Forum Club is a members-only affair, and the burly, blazer-clad doormen are famous for having turned away even Mickey Rooney one night.

The bar, decorated with the required sports photos on wood paneling, runs five deep for major events. "On a big game night, we'll serve 300 people in two different seatings: 5:30 and 6:30," says Harold Zoubul, regional general manager of Ogden's Entertainment Services, which has run the Forum's food and drink service since July, 1982. There aren't a lot of restaurants that could serve that many people that quickly.

But the most logistically demanding endeavor at the Forum is the personal service in the VIP sections known as the Senate. These seats number more than 4,000, each of which costs $8,000 a year and bestows upon the owner admission to all events at the arena.

The Forum innovated the idea of personalized seat service in 1980, but in its earliest incarnation the chore was carried out in a haphazard way by ushers and, as they were called at the time, usherettes. These days, 120 waitresses and waiters hustle up and down the stairs offering seat-side service to ticket holders. There is a specialized Senate menu--deli plates, hot dogs, snack foods and beverages including cocktails. For $12.25, Senate members can get a barbecued chicken breast platter and a glass of Chardonnay delivered to their seat. Usually the service is speedy, but latecomers are lucky to get their food before halftime.

Senate seat patrons are vocal and often call the Forum to comment on the food selection and service.

One thing that did not impress the Senate: the introduction of sushi to the VIP menu in 1988.

"Sushi lasted two years," says Jack Peirson, the Ogden assistant general manager who oversees the Senate seats and takes many of the calls. "By the second year it was our least popular item."

The food preferences of the general public tend to be mirrored at sporting venues. At the Forum, for instance, alcohol consumption has dropped considerably in the last decade. The Forum plans to introduce espresso and cappuccino stands by next fall to compensate for the decline in alcohol sales--and is also considering putting non-alcoholic beer on tap.

But pleasing the public can be difficult because what people say they prefer is frequently different from what they actually buy.

"As Dodger Stadium learned, the fans may say in some survey that they want pizza, hamburgers or some other wild things," says Zoubul. "But when they actually order, it's the old standbys: hot dogs, soda, beer and peanuts."

Zoubul and Peirson have a difficult time understanding how Marriott could have eliminated the famous grilled Dodger Dogs from that stadium's menu. "The Dodger Dog had a mystique about it; there is nothing like a grilled hot dog. I wish we could do that here," says Zoubul. "In fact, at one time we were going to market a Laker dog, but things just never worked out. Now it's just a hot dog."

For the record, Forum hot dogs are steamed and offered in several sizes including a Kosher all-beef version. They're dependable, if not exciting.

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