DINING DELIVERED

Houston startup making stadium food a whole new ballgame

A new app, sEATz, is the UberEats of stadium food. You order right from your phone in your seat. Photo by Getty Images.

This article originally appeared on InnovationMap.

Marshall Law's wife, Melissa, surprised him and his two sons with tickets to see the Astros play at home in the 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but a rush to get to the game and a packed stadium lead to him waiting in a long concessions line in the second inning.

Law watched on a TV screen next to the food counter as the fourth pitch from Yu Darvish to Yuli Gurriel hit two rows past the Laws' seats, bouncing back toward where they were supposed to be sitting. Law couldn't shake the feeling of missing out on the homer. Why couldn't someone have brought them the food, he thought. He'd have paid $50 — maybe more — to not miss that moment.

"Everything gets delivered these days. Any kind of food to your groceries, all right to you. Why isn't someone doing this?" Law says he was thought as he walked out of the game.

From the parking lot, he called his friend, Aaron Knape, and an idea was born.

"I never want a dad to miss a moment as I did ever again," Law said.

Play in motion
Law and Knape set out on finding, designing, and implementing an app and process, now known as sEATz, that would keep fans from ever having to miss a moment of a game again.

Knape got his master's degree from Rice University and stayed in touch with his fellow alumni over the years. It was actually at Rice where Knape realized Houston might just be the perfect place for something like sEATz to get off the ground. Houston, he says, is in the midst of an entrepreneur revolution.

At the forefront of that revolution is Lawson Gow, founder, and CEO of The Cannon, a startup and tech hub for companies to grow and get support. Gow — son of David Gow, owner of InnovationMap's parent company Gow Media — says the Cannon houses almost 85 companies in a 20,000 square foot space where they attempt to meet all their companies needs. Cannon Ventures, one of those support systems, is an investment network which focuses on assisting startups.

"We ran into to Lawson at an event, and he loved the idea," Knape said.

Sports technology is a focus of one of The Cannon, and Gow says he feels like sEATz is "off to the races" as a startup, with hosting early events at Rice football and the Sugar Land Skeeters games.

Getting on base
Having met Tanner Gardner of Rice's athletics department, Knape approached him with the idea. When Gardner saw the opportunity to add concession stand deliveries to the Owls fan's experience with sEATz, he took it, though he said he was "cautiously optimistic."

"I told them I thought they had a solution to a problem that exists and the challenge for you is convincing the concessionaires that this is something worth their while."

He mentioned to sEATz he believed stadium concessions wasn't a type of business to easily to take innovation and change their style especially if they believed their model worked. Law said there were reservations from concessions at first but the vendors eventually saw the benefit. sEATz orders regularly exceeded the typical total of purchase by a customer.

Rice Stadium is the first of what Knape and Law hope will be many venues to offer sEATz compatibility. The two sEATz leaders aren't reinventing the wheel, but their wheel is finally ready for the road. For years, stadiums lagged behind the digital demands of fans. Many lacked the capability for in-venue phone usage just a couple of years ago. Most venues now support and even encourage the use of apps and phones to improve the fan experience.

"I think it's worked very well," Gardner added. "Often the best sign a new product or a new service is working at our events is the lack of complaints about it. People are always quick to provide you with constructive criticism on things that are not going well."

But Gardner hasn't heard much other than praise so far.

"I didn't hear one negative thing about sEATz during the season and I also heard positive things."

Gametime decisions
The positive feedback comes in part from the user-friendly interface of the app. From your seat, you open the app and select the venue you are in and then type in your section, row, and seat number. The next screen is the stadium's finest fare at your fingertips. While perusing the stadium's offerings — with pictures — you make your selections and head to your cart. There you check out with whatever credit or debit card you've added to your profile. Then, sit back and enjoy the game.

On the sEATz's end of things, their work has just started. One team member assigns the order to a runner. The runner can see the entire order on their phone through a web portal. They head to each vendor who has a particular item, sometimes involving stops at multiple locations. The runners have their own line. The vendors, depending on preference, either keep track of what sEATz picks up and settles at the end of the day or checks them out right there with a sEATz credit card. After all the items in the order are picked up the sEATz runner presses "picked up" in their web portal. Then they head off to the patron's seat to deliver the order. Then, after delivery, the runner presses "delivered" on their end and is ready to be assigned another order.

The sEATz runners currently carry their own trays which are repurposed drink crates. Law says that runners will eventually carry specially designed and branded sEATz trays. Runners have the option to call or text the person who has ordered through the sEATz app to clarify their location or if they aren't in their seat. Runners are assigned to different regions of the stadium, so they aren't running all around.

There's an educational component to the delivery process too.

"We get to teach the runners about the game while doing this too," Law said.

He says that when they are in Constellation Field for Sugar Land Skeeters games, runners try not to deliver in the middle of an at-bat or while the ball is in play. Law wants other fans to notice runners and be jealous by their speedy delivery — not angry for interrupting.

The sEATz runners are currently all Westbury High School football players. Law reached out to a friend to see if his athletes would be interested in making a few extra dollars on the weekends.

"You get into the game and you get to make a few bucks doing it, these kids have been great for us," Law said.

He mentioned initially there was concern over who would be the workforce for sEATz, but now both sides of the equation are happy. Users can tip the runner like most delivery services, and some runners have made over $100 in tips in one day. Eventually, sEATz wants to institute a runner grading system to assist in rewarding runners who consistently perform well.

The game plan
The immediate future is making sure all parties associated with sEATz are successful, according to Knape. He said they have to service the fan but also make sure the concession stand is successful as well. They never want to hinder the operating procedure of a vendor. They also want to continue to tweak the app's design to make it even easier to use for fans. Right now food and non-alcoholic beverages are available on the app. In the future, sEATz plans to deliver alcohol and even apparel from the team stores.

Then, of course, there is the process of scaling up for larger events...

Continue reading on InnovationMap.

@itsmaxedison Twitter

Last Friday, Gifford Louis "Max" Edison passed away. He was a long time staple of the Houston sports media scene. I've met Max a few times. Mainly in the pressbox at Texans games. He was always friendly. Max was a true pro's pro. He dressed to impress and had stories for days. I never got to know him the way some others have. Perhaps the most fitting tribute I've seen was written by Jerome Solomon. Jerome was one of the many guys that Max mentored.

After learning of his passing, and a conversation the week prior with someone who's helped me immensely, it made me think of those have helped and/or mentored me along the way. Paying it forward is something that takes selfless action, a humble spirit, and being in a position to help and inspire others to achieve. This business is like swimming in the deep waters. It's full of sharks. Great White alpha predator sharks. If you want to survive and thrive, you'll need a few Killer Whales to help you swim past those Great Whites. Here's a few of the people that have helped me along the way:

David Nuño

David Nuño

@DavidNunoABC13 Twitter

I used to listen to 1560 The Game a lot. I showed up to a live remote and talked to a few of the hosts. The one who genuinely took an interest in me and what I could potentially do was David Nuño. A few months later, I was shooting and editing a video after every Texans home game with him. He showed me how to hustle and get sound pre and post game. I remember him having goals and working always towards them. But he took time to help me get my foot in the door and I'll always be grateful for that.

Raheel Ramzanali

Raheel Ramzanali

@The_Raheel Twitter

When Nuño entrusted me to upload video content to the 1560 website, I sucked at it. The person who helped me get better and somewhat quicker was Raheel Ramzanali. Most people who are older than someone in a work environment have a hard time taking instruction or direction from someone younger than them. I threw that ridiculous idea out the window because Raheel was ( and still is) damn good at the whole digital/social media thing. He and Nuño are the reason I started my social media accounts. They are squarely to blame for anything I've posted since 2009.

Craig Shelton

Craig Shelton

@OGRebelino Twitter

I was doing some good stuff for 1560 with Nuño, Raheel, and the gang at 1560. But life happened, and I had to step away from things (another story for another day). I started listening to and following what Craig was doing on another radio station, as well as his blog site Houston Media Watch (HMW). I can't remember how we linked up, but I started blogging for HMW. Next thing you know, he invited me on his weekend show at another station. After doing that show for a while (where I learned to work a board), he asked me to be apart of his Tuesday night show named Hustletown on ESPN 97.5. While we always put on an entertaining show, the car rides and conversations to and from shows and events were filled with knowledge. Professional wrestlers often cite car rides with older wrestlers as their best learning tools in the business. I can attest to this after the many car rides and conversations with Craig.

Fred Faour

Fred Faour

While I was doing Hustletown, Fred heard the work Craig and I were putting in. He was one of the people that believed in the content Craig Shelton was producing on that show. After having us fill in on The Blitz with him, Fred asked about other opportunities, such as writing for this site. I jumped at the chance of working with him knowing he could help me hone my skills and here I am now. This developed into more fill in gigs on 97.5, as well as SB Nation.

These are just a few of the key people who've helped me along the way. Others, like Kim Davis ( the epitome of grace and class in this business), have offered their help and advice on my journey to get me where I am now. This journey isn't finished and there will be a ton more people to add to this growing list. I would be here all day trying name every single person who's helped me along the way. I've even tried to start doing the same thing these awesome people have done for me to others. One of the interns at 97.5 is like a nephew to me. It brings me great joy to see him working hard and trying to succeed in this business. A good friend of mine named Calvin has always wanted to start his own podcast. After two years of convincing him to do so, he finally started last week. I look forward to helping him on his journey as well. My point in writing this was not to suck up to the ones I've named here. It's to inspire those who are in positions to help others. Not just in this field, but in life in general. One thing I got from reading Jerome's article was that Max did this for countless others. Not only in this business, but in life itself. Let's continue to pay it forward to those we can help along the way on this crazy journey through life. You never know who you could be helping or inspiring to achieve greatness.

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