Success Story: Arena Operator Rebounds with Ghost Kitchen

When the basketball season went into lockdown, a chicken operation took flight.
Cream City Cluckery chicken tenders on a white plate with three dipping sauces

When the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks entered a pandemic bubble without fans, their arena’s foodservice providers could have cried foul. Instead they called on fowl, creating a chicken tender ghost kitchen that’s about to emerge as a brick and mortar operation.

The path from bustling arena to Cream City Cluckery ghost kitchen is a textbook business case of pivoting during the pandemic.

The lockdown came suddenly for the Milwaukee Bucks foodservice management group, which partners with 35 food outlets inside Fiserv Forum. One day, there were 18,500 potential customers at a game or event, the next day it was zero.

That day was March 11, 2020, and pandemic uncertainty prevailed over the future of the multimillion-dollar arena food business. 

“We didn’t know how big it would be — the first six weeks, we were tidying up, keeping products safe, and then we were donating and giving food to our employees,” says Clifford Hull, Executive Chef at Fiserv Forum.

The Bucks wanted to clear as many people from the building as possible for health safety reasons. The foodservice team reached a crossroads. By the start of June, Milwaukee Bucks’ Vice President of Hospitality Justin Green suggested starting a ghost kitchen.

The goal: Save the jobs of salaried team members.
The questions: What kind of food concept, and how would it operate?

Finding a way for a ghost kitchen to fit in

They didn’t want to be in direct competition with nearby businesses that also run the taco stand and Italian food outlets inside the arena. The answer to what was geographically missing from the area came from a would-be customer following his GPS map.

“Somebody stopped me outside the arena and asked, ‘Isn’t there a Chick Fil-A somewhere around here?’ I said. ‘Yeah, it’s in the arena, but we’re shut down,’“ Hull recalls. “There was nobody offering a fried chicken option within a mile and a half.”

A month after that chance encounter, July 8, Cream City Cluckery opened. And it was a slam dunk from the start, achieving $4,000 to $5,000 daily in delivery and takeout sales in those first days.

Teamwork gets things off the ground

Behind the overnight success was a lot of planning, hard work and hiccups. The experienced salaried management team started with a budget of $1,000 and an idea. Executing the ghost kitchen was a team effort.

Fiserv Forum Senior Executive Chef Kenneth Hardiman created the recipes. He started with his favorite formula for coating chicken tenders, and then he added chicken sandwiches, biscuits, butter cakes, mac-n-cheese, tater tots and sauces.

Naming the business was Green’s suggestion — a nod to one of the city’s nicknames. Cream City comes from the iconic light-yellow bricks used to construct many of the city’s buildings in the 1800s. “It was important to feel Milwaukee-centric, and everybody loved Cream City Cluckery,” Hull says.

Finding a kitchen led the chicken business to cross the road … twice. The ghost kitchen originally struck an arrangement to work out of the Mecca Sports Bar and Grill, which operates next to the arena. In three days, conflicting production and space needs sent Cream City Cluckery across the street to the Fiserv Forum where the Milwaukee Bucks play. Since then, they found a way to move back into the Mecca facility.

Making the move toward growth

“We’ve moved the operation at this point three times, and the next step is that we’re looking at a brick and mortar place beyond the Mecca Sports Bar,” Hull says.

In addition to continuing a ghost kitchen next to the arena, plans include moving into a building 15 minutes north of the arena that will become Cream City Cluckery’s flagship brick and mortar operation. They also have received several requests with interest to franchise, and a food truck will soon be outfitted for a mobile offering.

The simple, versatile menu has created a solid fan base. In just eight months of operation, tracking data shows some customers have been back more than 20 times.

That loyalty is the result of tasty food, as well as a desire to fit into the community. Throughout the pandemic, 10% of dessert sales went to the Milwaukee Bucks Foundation, the basketball team’s philanthropic organization. 

“We’ve raised a few thousand dollars so far — it’s not much, but it adds up,” Hull says. 

In the meantime, the ghost kitchen kept a team of workers employed during a difficult period. A core team of six or seven managers started by providing lunch and dinner service Tuesday through Saturday. Business was so strong — inventory required more than 400 pounds of chicken — that arena supervisors were approached to help. The experience they’ve gained has made them leaders in the Cluckery business as original team members transitioned back to their arena roles.

“It’s shocking to me that without any of us having any experience opening any type of fast food restaurant, not knowing what we were getting into, here we are almost a year later,” Hull says. “It feels like something that’s going to endure. I hope we get to see it around for years to come.”

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