Pinnacle Bank Arena bills itself as Nebraska’s arena, a show place for concerts and Husker men's and women’s basketball that brings in people from across the state, not just Lincoln.
For Jan Maaske, executive chef at the arena, any self-respecting venue that calls itself that has to offer a pair of local delicacies -- well, maybe not delicacies but foods that are inextricably tied to the state: the Reuben sandwich and chili and cinnamon rolls.
So when it came time to revamp the arena’s concession offerings for the 2016-17 Nebraska basketball season, Maaske added a Reuben panini and “Savor ... Lincoln Chili” at the North End Deli concession stand.
The Reuben, by most accounts invented in Omaha in the 1920s, likely was crafted during a poker game from available supplies and made its way to the menu at the Blackstone Hotel. Fittingly, Maaske said, the corned beef and bread for the sandwich will be locally sourced.
As for the chili and cinnamon rolls, which have been ubiquitous in Nebraska for decades, Maaske said, the combination baffles her.
“I don’t understand it,” she said. “I can have chili and I can have a cinnamon roll, but not together. But it’s a thing here and we’re not going to just let the restaurant have it to themselves.”
Those are just two of a dozen new offerings at arena concession stands this season, a change-up in the menus that includes the addition of a Bulgogi BBQ sandwich (thinly sliced beef in the Korean sauce), chicken wings (bone-in and boneless, some with a serious garlic Parmesan sauce) and dill-pickle French fries.
New menu items added each year are arrived at by trial-and-error, starting with sampling by the arena chefs and staff, then expanding to a wider range of people -- “our tastes may not be the same as yours,” Maaske said in an interview during a media sampling event this week.
The Reuben, by the way, is her favorite among the new offerings. (I was partial to the Bulgogi BBQ and the garlic Parmesan wings.)
Arena staff will see how the new items sell when they hit the arena’s 13 concession stands this weekend.
“It’s a matter of trying to outguess the public in a way,” Maaske said when asked how she knows how much to prepare. “We know in the first few games, they’re going to try the new things. But we also know that chicken strips, burgers and popcorn -- the standards -- are always going to sell.”
They’re going to sell much more at basketball games than they do at concerts, where two concession stands are closed because they are behind the backstage curtain and most sales are for alcoholic beverages, not food.
“They’re not coming for dinner,” Maaske said of concert crowds. “They’re coming to hear a concert and have a good time. It’s more an adult beverage crowd. Country shows, we call the ‘boots and beer’ crowd.”
Most concessions are sold during the 30 minutes immediately before an event, not ideal for quick service. But that’s how it is here.
“Lincoln is known for having late-arriving crowds,” said Maaske. “They come in 20 minutes before tipoff or a concert. They all get to the stands at once and don’t understand why there’s a line at that point.”
As Maaske and the Savor staff prepare for the season-opening weekend, which will start with Alan Jackson’s Friday concert followed by a women’s exhibition basketball game Sunday and men’s exhibition contest Tuesday, she’s already thinking of what might be offered next year.
And she said she’s open to requests -- even if she’s not received a single one since she started at the arena in August 2013.
“We’ve never gotten a call, but we’re open to that,” Maaske said. “If there’s something out there in the community that people would like to see us try, call us. We’ll make it happen."