After undergoing the second largest renovation in NBA history, the former Philips Arena will have many new features for basketball fans to enjoy, not the least of which are brand new food options under the guidance of the stadium’s executive chef, Joe Schafer. The Atlanta Hawks’ opening game is Wednesday, October 24, in their new $192.5 million home at State Farm Arena.
Schafer is responsible for the premium food options as well as the “fan friendly” menu items offered at kiosks and restaurants throughout the arena. This includes six popular Atlanta restaurants with names fans will immediately recognize: Eater Atlanta’s 2017 restaurant of the year, B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue, soul and Southern food restaurant Old Lady Gang, Antico, Zac Brown’s Social Club, J.R. Crickets, and Rita’s Italian Ice.
Having worked at chef Ford Fry’s King + Duke and chef Anne Quatrano’s Bacchanalia, Schafer is familiar with the high expectations that come with fine dining. But, he’s pushing himself to see the food at State Farm Arena as basketball fans will now see the games there — from a 360-degree viewpoint.
Schafer hopes to bring some of his love of fine dining and the experience of it all to basketball fans.
“In this environment, it’s similar [to fine dining,] but you have such a diverse crowd. Some people come in here and they want a hot dog. Some people want the most expensive thing you have. You’ve gotta check your ego a little bit,” he explains of satisfying the varying tastes of diners at the arena. “You put your heart and soul into it, and make it nice, but you’re cooking for them. It’s not really about the plate anymore; it’s about the mass appeal of this group of people.”
Another challenge Schafer faces is providing good food options at friendly prices. He feels he’s accomplished this and hopes the fans will agree. But, Schafer insists there’s nothing “low-brow” about the food he and his team are serving at more affordable price points, which include everything from snack items like pretzels to pizza, burgers, and hot dogs.
“A heavy percentage of what we call “fan fare,” those core items, are at a fan-friendly price. The only exception would be our chicken tenders, because we do [them] fresh,” Schafer says. “Anything like a specialty pizza would be a little bit above that [price.] A slice of cheese or pepperoni, I think, is five bucks.”
Schafer is personally excited about the Belgian fry stand on the restaurant concourse and the grilled cheese stand that includes sandwiches ranging from short rib with gruyere cheese to a traditional version served with tomato soup. He’s also hyped about his own chicken and beignets: a basket of house-made chicken nuggets and little fried doughnuts, tossed in sugar and cayenne honey.
His excitement about the new food offerings also extends to the restaurants who have partnered in the revamped arena.
“B’s Cracklin’ and J.R. Crickets, I love those places. I eat there all the time, so I was already on board,” Schafer says of the new restaurants opening at State Farm. “Bryan [Furman] from B’s is so pumped about being here. He’s gunned up about getting in here and running it. And, he still wants to do whole hog over hardwood, because that’s his thing.”
The chef admits, however, allowing these restaurants to do “their thing” (like smoking a whole hog over hardwood,) will be challenging, but he wants to do the food “the right way” — as much as possible.
His hope is to turn State Farm Arena into a place which is not only recognized as a top sports venue in the country, but a serious, culinary destination in Atlanta. And, more specifically, for downtown.