Threatened by Premier League Fan Zones, Burger Vans Hold Their Ground

Threatened by Premier League Fan Zones, Burger Vans Hold Their Ground

Surveying his territory, Tony Aujla is pleased. His business, after all, is all about location, and he has a prime one. Like a general surveying a battlefield, he points to his right: a short walk that way is Aston train station. Over to the left is Villa Park, with its grand, brick-lined facade, home of the city’s Premier League soccer team, Aston Villa.

On game days, hundreds of fans disembark trains at the former every few minutes and scurry — or, in some cases, amble — in the general direction of the latter. That is what makes Mr. Aujla’s patch so perfect. All of them have to walk past this precise spot. Should any of them require sustenance to complete their (not especially arduous) trek, he is there, spatula in hand, to sell them a burger. Possibly with cheese.

Mr. Aujla has been a fixture outside Villa Park, in one place or another, for more than four decades, but Tony’s Burger Bar has been here, on this enviable and specific real estate, for three years — one of a handful of vans, all of them occupying much the same space, all of them offering roughly the same menu, all of them wreathed in the steam from their fryers.

Recently, though, they have had to contend with the arrival of a rival on a slightly larger scale: an official fan area intended to lure customers, and some of the money in their pockets, away from the vans and straight to the club itself.

In March 2022, Aston Villa repurposed Lions Square, a trapezoid of land in the shadow of Villa Park, into a “fan zone” — a sort of officially sanctioned tailgate — complete with a stage for live music, interviews with beloved former players, a couple of bars and a smattering of food trucks.

It is not the first Premier League team to explore the idea, long a staple of major international soccer tournaments. Crystal Palace, Liverpool, Manchester City and a number of others have experimented with variations on the theme, and more intend to follow suit: Newcastle has announced plans to establish one outside its home stadium, St. James’s Park.

Identifying the primary motivation behind them does not take any great detective work. There are, according to Phil Alexander, a former chief executive of Crystal Palace, various ancillary benefits to fan zones. “Operationally, it’s helpful if some fans arrive earlier and leave later,” he said.

Clubs are keen to “enhance the experience” of attending a game, too, Mr. Alexander said. “Traditionally, it’s always been a late fill,” he said. “People would arrive five minutes before kickoff and leave straight after the final whistle. Improving the in-stadium offering, which for a long time left a lot to be desired, turns it into a whole-day activity.”

Mostly, though, the purpose is the obvious one: Fan zones are another revenue stream to be tapped.

The amount of money to be made from catering — either through clubs’ providing their own or outsourcing to a third party — is relatively small compared with the fortunes provided to the Premier League’s clubs through broadcasting contracts, but it is a margin nonetheless. “You can’t discount it just because it is hard work,” Mr. Alexander said.

Clubs, though, do not exist in isolation. Like most traditional British stadiums, Villa Park does not sit on the fringes of a city, surrounded by acres of empty space. Instead, it resides at the heart of the community it has occupied for more than a century, both an organic part of the neighborhood and an engine of the local economy.

Mr. Aujla knows the rhythm of game days instinctively. About 90 minutes before kickoff, it is relatively quiet. Fans are still boarding trains, or parking their cars, or thronging the pubs. Trade will pick up as the game approaches. Peak time will come in an hour or so. “Come back then,” he said. “We’ll all have queues.”

There is competition among the food trucks, of course, but it does not bleed into rivalry. There has always been more than enough trade to go around, Mr. Aujla said. “You see a lot of the same faces,” he said. “People tend to have a favorite and stick with that one.”

His van, and those nearby, are just a couple of the dozens of pubs, bars, restaurants and takeaway shops that dot the terraced streets around Villa Park, a shoal of remoras all reliant on the great whale at their center for their existence. Fan zones, on some level, threaten that tacit arrangement. The whale, in effect, has decided it wants to keep more.

Mr. Aujla admitted he was worried when Aston Villa first announced its plans; his fears were allayed slightly when he strolled up to see what the fan zone had to offer. There were burgers and hot dogs, his stalwarts, as well as more gentrified, vaguely hipster offerings. (Clubs are conscious of changes in consumer tastes, according to Mr. Alexander.)

The key difference, though, was price.

“They’re charging 7 pounds for a burger,” around $10, he said. “We do a triple for that price.”

Others were more confident from the start. “I thought it was good news,” said Roshawn Hunter, standing behind the counter at Grandma Aida’s, the Caribbean cafe that he and his mother, Carole Hamilton, set up in 2019. “The more people we have around the stadium, and the longer they stay, the better for everyone.”

The club, conscious of the need to be neighborly, invited him and a number of other local traders to a meeting last summer to outline its plans and address any concerns. In the long term, team officials said, there might even be the possibility of Grandma Aida’s taking a stall inside the fan zone.

That, Mr. Hunter said, would be ideal, but he is in no desperate rush. His optimism has been vindicated. While Grandma Aida’s works with the usual suite of delivery apps to feed its Birmingham clientele, the bulk of its income comes on match days.

Its sliver of a storefront, on the other side of the stadium from Mr. Aujla’s stall, is well located to attract fans of Villa’s rivals. Traveling supporters are widely regarded as a more lucrative market than regulars, largely on the grounds that they are more likely to be hungry after a long journey into opposition territory.

An hour before kickoff of a game in December, Grandma Aida’s was as bustling as it gets. “We’ve not noticed any sort of drop-off at all,” Mr. Hunter said. A doting son — or keenly aware that he might be overheard — he attributed that to the wonder of his mother’s cooking. “It’s her passion,” he said.

His customers offered corroborating evidence. “We can’t get Caribbean food this good where we live,” said Richard Harris, a regular seated before a tray of curried mutton. His father had gone for the jerk chicken, Grandma Aida’s most popular dish.

“We came in one day a few years ago and liked it,” the younger Mr. Harris said. “We’ve got to know the owner, and it’s nice to support a local business. So now we come in every time we come to a game.”

That, of course, is just as important as cost and taste to the continued survival of the eateries and pubs that circle most soccer stadiums in Britain.

Aston Villa, like most of its Premier League peers, is exploring a broad selection of options as it seeks to expand what it offers its visitors — its customers — in an attempt to monopolize what, and how, they spend. The architects Populous, for example, designed concourses at Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium in London with the express purpose of “increasing the range and quality of food” available to fans, according to a representative for the firm.

The received wisdom, as Mr. Alexander put it, is that there is “more than enough business for everyone.”

But what and where fans eat at stadiums is not merely about nourishment. It is not particularly about nutrition. It can, at times, be about impulse. In many cases, though, it is about routine and ritual, ceremony and familiarity: the same walk, the same pub, the same pregame meal.

“Coming here is part of going to the match for us now,” Mr. Harris said inside Grandma Aida’s. “It’s kind of become a family tradition.”

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