While the National Sports Center (NSC) and Minnesota United (MNUFC) announced a new partnership last week, the two organizations have been working together much longer than that. While the team practiced at the NSC before it joined Major League Soccer in 2016, its transition into the MLS created more unique roles for NSC staff members. Now, NSC staff work more closely with MNUFC by providing nutritious meals for players after practices.
“When it started it was like, ‘What are we doing?’” said Sherry LeMire, director of hospitality at the National Sports Center. “But it has really become a partnership.”
The NSC Dining Hall, located in the campus’ dorm building, just a short walk from the MNUFC training ground and complex, is run by four main staff members: chef Brad Beal, assistant manager Scotty Cook, hospitality coordinator Keri Krumm and assistant director Jade Werner. Cook and Beal are primarily responsible for preparing the food, arriving between 8 and 9 a.m., depending on practice time, to start getting the meals ready.
“We do the prep the day of so it’s more fresh,” Cook said.
The staff must have a vast repertoire to achieve the variance in food required to ideally serve the team. The daily specials, which Beal is responsible for and are popular among the players, are more elaborate, while Cook’s a la carte menu — including choices such as burritos, sandwiches and chicken breast — serves as a fallback option.
The variance also comes from MNUFC’s dynamic schedule. Heavier training days lead to menus with more carbohydrates and vice versa with lighter practices. The day before a game means an expedited meal, but especially in the case of road games; due to travel needs, the staff often prepares to-go boxes to get the players out the door. The team’s nutritionist stops by to drop off a monthly schedule so NSC staff can prepare accordingly.
“We are learning with Minnesota United how to feed the players,” LeMire said. “We have an opportunity to create a place where we can find ways to improve and be creative.”
The service has drawn positive reviews from players.
“It’s been incredible,” rookie defender Chase Gasper said. “That’s one of the best surprises about coming here is how great the food is every single day.”
Beal said he is constantly coming up with new ideas but has found a consistently successful option: bowls somewhat similar to those served at Chipotle.
“We had a mix of different nationalities [on the team] previously. Now we’re going all in on Hispanic food,” Beal said. “Roasted and browned plantains are a favorite as they’re internationally very common.”
“It’s really about finding their favorites, weighing the specific needs of individuals within the team schedule,” Beal said.
Although players do tend to appreciate everything on the menu, some dishes stand out to each of them.
“Their street tacos are my favorite…That’s always my favorite day,” Gasper said, grinning. “I like everything they make, I’m not asking for anything in particular. Except if they want to increase the frequency of their street tacos, I’m OK with that.”
NSC staff work hard to ensure that they have an impact on the players outside the cafeteria, too.
“I like to take meals home, too,” defender Brent Kallman said. “They’ll prepare something for me to bring home and have for dinner that night, so I get another healthy meal in…They know my to-go order almost to a tee now.”
That familiarity breeds a more productive and friendly relationship between players and staff.
“I can basically just tell them ‘the Brent Special’ and they say ‘yep,’ they know what I want,” Kallman said. “I’ve gotten to know them, we’ve gotten to know them, and there’s a lot of familiarity. We spend a lot of time in there really.”
The players have significant input on what appears on the menu, and the cafeteria has become a popular post-practice hangout spot for many of them. They play cards for a long time after practice ends, whooping and hollering virtually every time they win a hand.
“It’s nice after you battle it out with your teammates every day at practice and work hard, that’s the place to hang out, relax, eat some food and let it digest before you go home and just spend time with the team,” Gasper said.
NSC staff members have built cool relationships with MNUFC players as a result of their mutual admiration.
“They’re super fun to work with and easy to please,” Beal said. “They’re all great gentlemen. It’s really satisfying to be a part of this.”
“We know each other, they’re nice and patient when busy,” Cook said. “I remember I once ran into them down the road and they came up right away to hug and fist bump me. There was no ignoring.”
Beal said his work has given him a sense of accomplishment.
“When I watch them on TV and see them perform, see them win, I feel a part of it because of what we do.”
The hospitality team is working to further improve the dining hall experience for the players. LeMire said they have recently added glass tops on the wood tables and are looking to upgrade the area with new equipment, such as a salad bar, curtains and the team’s logo on the wall.
“It’ll personalize it more to them, and when they’re not using the area, it’ll let the public know it’s the players’ cafeteria,” she said. “It’s a big project.”