Harry Lomas has cooked for Queen and country during his illustrious career. He spent 34 years in the British Army – with operational responsibility for feeding British troops around the world – has arranged state and ceremonial hospitality for the Royal Household and before leading a 90-strong team as executive chef at five-star hotel The Grove in Hertfordshire and was part of the senior catering management team at the London 2012 Olympics.
Now, catering for events ranging from the FA Cup Final and England football internationals to NFL London fixtures and sold-out concerts, Lomas feeds everyone from high rollers in private boxes and the eminent One Twenty club to Club Wembley’s gastropub style Lioness and Three Lions venues and the national stadium’s general admission.
Following the launch of Club Wembley’s Number Nine club, Lomas tells The Morning Advertiser how he creates a winning food offer for sports fans.
Create an all-day offer
“The time of the kick-off very much play an active part in what the menu’s going to be. A 2pm or 3pm kick-off means guests are coming in at around noon so it’ll be a lunchtime offering. Any earlier and there may be a bias towards a breakfast, brunch-type feeding. But then you also need something that works for an 8pm kick-off on a winter’s night as well.”
Different fan price points
“At the general admission level they want something hearty, hand-held and value for money whereas someone in the corporate boxes and hosting people will look for a different dynamic, spread over a longer period where they can sit down, enjoy food and the view.”
Hand-held and grazing options
“The general admission want something they can walk around with. From fish and chips to burgers to pizzas to wraps, burritos – different combinations. Curried rice in a wrap, something like that – just different twists on different food. Kebabs work very well.
“One change I’ve seen is that people like to graze more than sit down and dine – they prefer the informality of moving around and picking what you’d like. Simple things work like chimichurri steak – a nice little rib-eye steak chopped up with a bit of chimichurri over the top with naan bread or something to go with it, or mac and cheese with roast cherry tomatoes.”
Beer and food pairing
“We’re in the process of trying to match some of our drink with food. It’s easy to pair wines with food but people at stadiums tend to be beer drinkers. Budweiser looks after our beer and we’ve created a chicken burger around it. I’ve also created our Wembley burger – our prime burger – which works with our beers from Camden Town Brewery.
“It depends on who you’re talking to, at what time you’re eating and drinking, and how much you’ve had to eat and drink already but, for me, lagers work quite well with fish, chicken or some pork. With beers, we like beef bourguignon, beef and ale pies – for street food, we did beef and vegetable cobbler.”
Nod to cultures and nations
“Of course, the menu also depends on which teams are playing – if it’s an England match, I try to nod to the opposing team. For example, we’ve got the Lionesses playing Germany – that’s an easy one – we’re working with German food, some spätzle, some currywurst and pretzels, on top of our normal offering.
“For Montenegro, we’ve got some kebabs, shish kebabs, some little feta parcels, chickpea puffs and what have you. I try to do that on each of the matches which adds that little bit of difference.”
Do your research
“I know nothing about football so I’m quite happy to ask questions. I’ll call my counterpart at Manchester United, Manchester City, Southampton, depending on who’s coming in and ask what their fans like to eat. As soon as I know a team is coming in I’ll phone them that day – that can be three months out.
“Pretty much, the northerners like pies – I’m a northerner myself – while, down south, they tend to like kebab-type meals like shredded chicken and beef. Geordies are happy to have a pie in a roll.
“As mentioned, we’re working towards Montenegro now – am I going to phone Montenegro’s head chef? The chances are ‘no’ but I’ve certainly done lots of Googling to find out what they eat.”
“One of the enjoyable things about working at the national stadium is that it’s not just about football. We try to find out what people want, so for the NFL, for example, we’ve got very much an American menu, lots of hot dogs, burgers with ranch dressing and that sort of thing. They like things very spicy with jalapeños on, and chilli dogs, so we very much work towards an American cuisine.”
Legwork pays off
“Time spent on research is seldom wasted because it works for you later on. If you know that they eat pies, then get pies on – don’t get burritos on because they won’t eat them and you’ll have a lot left. If they get what they want and we’ve sold what we need to sell, everybody’s happy. Very rarely do we have a lot of food waste.”
“I make an effort on match days to go around and ‘table touch’ – I go and talk to the customers – 90% of the time they’re delighted with everything but, of course, you can’t please all the people all the time but it’s how I manage the guests. I love people and I love food.
“I’m quite happy to go around and, if I’ve not made somebody’s day, I’ll ask what can I do to make it different. Can I get you a glass of this or do something special? It might have been that they’re not happy with where they’ve parked or that their ticket didn’t work but now they’re here it’s my job – I’ve got my bit to do before they get out and watch the game.”
“By touching tables, I very much get involved in the feedback direct. There’s someone in the One Twenty club who requested vegetarian hotpot for a winter game last year – we did it for her and she was over the moon. I chatted to her a couple of games ago and she asked if we were having it back for winter games so we’re going to put it on for the Montenegro game. She was involved in that, telling me what she wanted – it was nearly her recipe – and she’s seen that come to fruition out there now.”
Be flexible on preferences
“It’s not so much that we’ve got more vegetarians and vegans, but more what I call ‘preferences’. Just because I eat salad today doesn’t mean that I’m a vegan, it’s just that I fancy a salad. By putting a choice on for our guests I try to make sure there’s always a similar alternative that can be vegan or vegetarian.
“I’d like to think that I can feed anyone any diet they want – that is a challenge. Ultimately, it’s an experience and it’s your job to sell things and if you haven’t got that, the chances are you aren’t going to get customers coming back. There’ll be diets out there I’ve not even heard of.
“Our biggest challenge is when we have Jain guests. They eat only pulses – so nothing plucked from a tree or pulled from the ground or that has hooves, feet or eyes – we do some chickpea, falafel type things. It’s slightly difficult.”