Early on March 12, Chris Zielinski, culinary director of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), was gearing up for a hockey game later that night, busy doing what he does every day, going through the myriad daily rituals of
preparing thousands of meals for sports fans attending the Scotiabank Arena. On that particular day, the Maple Leafs were scheduled to play the Nashville Predators. As usual, the Scotiabank Arena’s restaurants, as they typically are, were fully booked and Zielinksi’s team of 22 chefs were cooking up a storm to satiate Toronto’s hockey fans at various different touchpoints in the arena — 88 concessions, 125 corporate suites and the company’s four restaurants, as well as 81 concessions and 44 suites at BMO
But as the seasoned chef recalls, “There was something hanging in the air after the NBA had cancelled their season” the day earlier, impacting the other sports tenant of the Scotiabank Arena — the NBA champion Toronto Raptors. “But we couldn’t not cook should we be open.”
By noon that day, the team at the arena got word that the World Health Organization (WHO), had declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the decision to cancel that night’s game was made, quickly and without fanfare. “I had already discussed with my staff what that drill might look like because we had some inkling we might get that news,” says the culinary director. “We broke open an emergency plan where we shifted everybody we had here into rescue mode and donated 27,000 lbs of food on that day.”
The next day, the NHL followed the NBA’s lead and cancelled the hockey season and suddenly the question for many at the Toronto landmark was not only how long might this crisis last, but when would games resume and, more immediately, what could be done with the huge volume of food on hand.
The same situation was unfolding across the city at restaurants and shelters, explains Zielinski. “All of a sudden there’s all this partially cooked food but nobody to cook it, nobody to serve it. That’s where the idea sprung out of,” says Zielinski. “Once I heard that, I said, we have something here that most of the city doesn’t have and that is space. We have the space to actually social distance in the kitchen and out in the arena,” explains Zielinksi.
Without skipping a beat, MLSE created a large-scale meal program to produce and deliver between 10,000 to 12,000 meals a day to community agencies to support the city’s most vulnerable, as well as to thank Toronto’s frontline health workers and their families for their efforts.
The idea received buy-in from MLSE’s top brass. Michael Friisdahl, president & CEO, was not only supportive but he also moved quickly to bring in key sponsors, such as Scotiabank, Tangerine Bank, Bell Canada and Rogers Communications, to help facilitate the huge undertaking. “They brought a lot of money to the table and it was up to us as to where to spend it,” says Zielinski. “We had a week’s worth of very in-depth conversations,” recalls Zielinski, adding that “you could find a way to cook the food, but you have to do it in a way to get food here and get it out of here to the locations,” he says, pointing out that MLSE doesn’t own a truck “so we had to figure out how to deliver the food.” The problem was quickly solved when industry suppliers such as Sysco and Bondi Produce stepped up to the logistics challenge, as did courier company, FedEx.
“Every day we’d wake up to a laundry list of what we can’t do and we had everyone out there just going and chasing the answers.” From a supplier perspective, companies such as Maple Lodge, McCain’s and Maple Leaf donated as much product as they could, supplemented by additional food as needed, funded by the sponsorships.
Being community minded is not a foreign concept for MLSE — it’s actually part of its DNA. The company’s efforts to support the community are well known through its relationships with various social agencies throughout Toronto, including Second Harvest and La Tablée des Chefs, whose programs have allowed the arena to increase the number of pounds of rescued food in one year from 20,000 lbs to 50,000. “A lot of our staff were already super engaged with Second Harvest. A lot of them hate seeing food thrown out, like I do. We instantly had cheerleaders all over the building.”
In short order, Scotiabank Arena was transformed into Toronto’s largest meal-production facility, with access to six restaurant kitchens through the building, as well as the kitchen at BMO, which is also operated by MLSE. As Scotiabank Arena had to lay off all its part-time staff, a team of 75 full-time F&B managers, were “the ones who’ve been carrying the load on this,” says Zielinski, adding the initiative gave the employees a purpose during a difficult time. It was “very refreshing when they come in as it provided a sense of normalcy.”
In the kitchen, “the biggest challenge,” says Zielinski “was to go through [and], decide how many people can stand in each kitchen, because we have to use multiple kitchens, and then set up a porter system to eliminate the need for chefs to go to the fridge to get their stuff. You call a porter and they’ll bring it to you…to minimize any crossover of crews. Our group of 22 chefs very much worked in conjunction — together and apart at the same time,” quips the chef.
As organized as the initiative was, various limitations surfaced. For example, MLSE didn’t have enough ovens for this daily volume, so it reached out to Higgins Party Rentals to source additional ovens. Not surprisingly, producing such a high volume of food daily meant the culinary team exhausted its supply of various prep items, including rolling racks, carts and sheet pans. “So I call up George Brown College and say, ‘John can you lend us some carts?’ and he said no problem. Then I called the Rogers Centre and said, ‘can you lend us some carts and some trays?’ And then the Metro Toronto Convention Centre also stepped up. But we had to get someone to go get all that, so Bondi Produce said we’re not busy, send us there.”
Despite the challenges that popped up along the way, Zielinski says the buy-in from the industry and the city was amazing. “A lot of people wanted to help,” he says, pointing out the fact “this was truly a Team Toronto effort.”
Cooking up huge volumes of meals required a huge production area, which shifted to the floor of the arena, where employees and volunteers worked alongside each other (respecting physical-distancing parameters) to package up the meals, with about 250 dishes assembled hourly. “We set up tables, roughly 12 feet apart from each other; eight people just put food in containers…then moved further down the line where staff put lids on containers and then labels and stickers,” while another packing team at the end of the line put labels on the boxes directing volunteers as to where they would need to be delivered. “It’s a very fluid system and it’s working fantastic,” boasts Zielinski.
Of course, to ensure food-safety regulations were followed, access to refrigeration was key. “We had to think about how many refrigerators we have, how much space and then you can’t put a bunch of warm food in a refrigerator because, obviously, that changes the temperature of the food so we had to rent one freezer tractor trailer and one fridge tractor trailer to make sure we’ve got enough places to cool things quickly and to keep them cold. There’s a cold chain that goes on with food as it moves from one location to another. It’s never out of the fridge for very long. We tend to work on one aspect of the meal for two hours, put it in the fridge and then we move on to something else. We are never disrupting the cold chain through all of this,” says the chef.
When all was said and done, Second Harvest has been one of the larger beneficiaries of this initiative, as it deals with more than 300 locations where the food ends up. “We have hubs, so we know that we are going to send 700 to this hub…Scott Mission may be a hub. From there, smaller agencies can come and pick up the meals they need. There’s a ton of coordination involved. We have a great system and the agencies are good about keeping on top of it.”
In terms of meals, the team produced single-serve meals, such as roast chicken legs with Cajun spice and mixed greens with feta cheese, zucchini, peas and carrots,” as well as a veg alternative. “That changes every day, but we always made sure that meals are on the healthier side of things,” says Zielinski. Additionally, MLSE also reached out to hospitals to examine how it could also provide food to frontline staff. “We wanted to make sure we could roll up at the time when there’s multiple shift changes and then literally just hand them a dinner for two that literally could be popped into the oven, with no work involved,” explains Zielinski. Schedules were set up with 12 hospitals a week, on a three-week schedule, hitting each hospital every 10 days. “It’s been extremely well received. It’s been heartwarming to see.”
Being able to feed the needy has been gratifying and heartwarming at the same time. But it didn’t come without its challenges — first and foremost, there was no playbook for this kind of endeavour. As Zielinski says, “No one has ever had to do this.” There’s been crises that have spurred similar initiatives.
For example, after something like a hurricane, explains Zielinski, “but we really don’t have those here. With all the social-distancing measures, it really changed the way we had to think of every single part of this,” says Zielilnski, explaining “we had to keep all the bathroom doors open so nobody would touch handles. A staff meal now has to be individually plated — we couldn’t have a buffet for everyone. We talk a lot about all the big stuff, but then you peel back the layers of the onion and you see, oh yeah, how are we going to do this? Planning the space, through the routine of PPE, washing hands, wearing gloves; keeping everything clean; cleaning the kitchen, the decontamination of everything at end of night…a lot of things that we would never do in a regular day, we had to add to it.” But, as the culinary director told his staff, “This is good training for what’s coming next because, when we open our restaurants, we have to consider all of these things. It’s not going to change quickly. Customers are going to expect this.”
As for the future, at time of interview, Zielinski was uncertain when the NHL would resume and whether fans would be allowed to watch games, but recently the NHL announced playoffs would start in September. Whether the scenario will include no fans, minimal number of fans or a full building remains to be seen, but one thing Zielinski does know is that, moving forward, “there will be tons of great creativity coming out of this.” He points to a host of possible new options Scotiabank Arena will have to consider: from safety shields to switching all the taps to sensors, customers ordering from tablets, to pre-packaged concession food. “This will create extra costs,” says Zielinski, but he adds, “there’s no choice. And, on the restaurant side, we still have to maintain some sort of non-clinical sense.”
As for continuing to feed the needy, when MLSE launched this initiative, the initial deadline was tentatively set for June 15th, but it looks as though that date might be extended, least until the social agencies can resume their efforts. “For me, we’ve gone through all this work and developed this great system; we’ve got a lot of people helping us with donations, if the need is there, we’ll continue doing it for some time to come. The other part is to help people to transition to an older model because the whole apple cart is all upside down.”
Still, he’s thankful for the lessons this experience has taught him. “We have a lot of caring people at this company; we get the devotion of the entire city. The number of people who want to give back, who want to be part of something great, blew me away. You don’t know it until it happens.”
Additionally, he says this crisis has taught him “you can’t take a lot of things you normally do for granted.” He’s looking forward to seeing what the post-COVID-19 period will look like. “Whenever there’s’ been challenges in the world — whether it’s a war or conflict of any sort — some of the best creative minds and leaders come out of that. We’re going to see a period of great learning and creativity that’s going to be incredible. Our business will be smarter and infinitely better because of the challenges we’ve been through.” FH