MINNEAPOLIS — The first aromas of the 2021 Vikings regular-season wafted through U.S. Bank Stadium's Medtronic Club on Thursday.
Delicious samples prepared by local vendors and food and beverage partner Aramark followed.
So did the stories of inspiring entrepreneurs, like Be Graceful's Robert Grace, Curds & Cakes' Darin and Tonja Kjaer and T-Rex Cookie's Tina Rexing, who have enriched the food and beverage program since U.S. Bank Stadium opened in 2016 — and enjoyed benefits for their businesses.
Others like Nashville Coop's Mohamed Omer, Parlour Bar's Mike DeCamp and the teams from Love You Cookie (we spoke with COO Octavia Treadway) and Original Hockey Mom Brownies (we talked with Patti, the lead baker) are readying for their first regular-season game.
"Aramark is thrilled to announce the details of its re-imagined food and beverage program at U.S. Bank Stadium," Aramark General Manager Jenifer Freeman said. "The new and curated stadium menu offers more local favorites than ever and is sure to deliver a fresh and elevated game-day dining experience to Vikings fans this season."
Although kickoff for the Vikings-Seahawks Week 3 contest is set for 3:25 p.m., the food vendors above and others will be in the building hours earlier. They expressed excitement and anticipation for the return of fans to Vikings football.
So did Vikings Chief Operating Officer Andrew Miller.
"Sunday's game will mark the first time Vikings fans have attended a regular-season game at U.S. Bank Stadium in nearly two years," Miller said. "A crucial piece of creating a memorable return and a first-class fan experience revolves around the food and beverage program. We are proud to unveil new Vikings partners and the many outstanding local restaurants that we will be featuring at our games."
Here's a recap of some of what was sampled for media members along with some backstories of the culinary creators (I wished I had more capacity, or had at least prepped for so many enticing items by going on a long run before the event). Items are listed in the order I tried them.
View the food offerings that will be available at U.S. Bank Stadium during the Vikings 2021 season.
Full disclosure, I enjoy food — from cooking to dining — but am no expert.
Stadium location: FMP Club
I'm originally from Middle Tennessee, so it's been interesting to see "Nashville Hot" make its way from coast-to-coast at sit-downs and drive-through restaurants. I didn't try it until 2012 or 2013 when I was still living in Nashville. That day, I opted for what was half of the hottest offered. It scalded the insides of my mouth like I had just downed a pot of boiling water.
I'm not a spice wimp but I've generally shied away since. When I saw Nashville Coop is new to the stadium in the FMP Club, I opted to start my sampling with the business that launched in St. Paul in 2020. Omer and his wife, Nasra, offer three spice levels: Minnesota Nice, Coop and Cluckin'.
The first two were presented for sampling, and I opted for Coop after Kamal Mohamed and Arif Mohamed explained their confidence that flavor, which includes Ethiopian spices roasted in-house by Coop, would be first on the palate and followed by a hint heat.
They were accurate. The seasoning was fantastic and flavorful. The heat was nicely balanced by the tenderness of the chicken and Coop sauce.
Minneapolis and St. Paul
Stadium location: Polaris Club (inside) and Delta Vikings Village (outside the stadium—no game ticket required)
I've heard plenty of great things about Parlour Bar but have never been. The double cheeseburger, with American and Swiss cheese and two patties that was offered Thursday is quite the carnivore lure. The cheese was nice and gooey, and the burger patties were cooked just the way I enjoy them.
DeCamp is looking forward to his first season at U.S. Bank Stadium as a way to help grow the brand of the noted cocktail lounge. What he loves the most is that in addition to the Polaris Club, he also has placement outside the stadium in the Delta Vikings Village, which is open to fans with or without tickets to the game.
Edina, Minneapolis, St. Paul
Stadium location: Sections 122 on the Main Concourse and 328 on the Upper Concourse
I first met Grace a few years back at a similar sampling event. His turkey sandwich that day was the best I'd ever had and built trust that when I saw he was offering a vegan Impossible Sloppy Joe, I gave it a whirl.
Grace said the Impossible product is a good place to start, but Be Graceful then takes it another notch with special overnight seasoning highlighted by onions, garlic and sauce.
In addition to that, Be Graceful already introduced a Portobello French Dip that was highly popular at preseason games, and will be offering a falafel pita and a turkey sandwich.
Curds & Cakes
Stadium location: Sections 114, 129, 143 and 310 (also sold in the First and Fry location at 336)
It's a big weekend for Curds & Cakes, a mainstay at multiple sporting venues around town. They're going to personally drive a refrigerated truck to Ellsworth, Wisconsin, to pick up fresh cheese and expect to go through 2,000 pounds of cheese. A place can do that when using an ice cream scoop from the cheese before dipping in a signature batter. Darin Kjaer wanted to create the bigger curds to reduce the risk of burns from the hot oil.
Curds & Cakes has been part of the stadium menu from the beginning, as well as the two seasons that the Vikings played at the University of Minnesota. They have expanded to four stands this year and will staff with 58 employees. Tonja Kjaer is able to recruit groups like wrestling and volleyball teams and Lions Club members who work the games as fundraisers to keep up with the demand.
Love You Cookie
Available at Twin Cities retailers (including Hy-Vee)
Stadium location: Section 347
Treadway greeted me with a smile and the short but interesting history of Love You Cookie, which launched in 2020.
Sarah Brima, a speech pathologist by trade, started baking cookies in her personal kitchen, and word got out about the likes of the Chocolate Chip Cashew cookie that was sampled and delicious.
Brima also makes double chocolate peanut butter and confetti cake cookies in mounds. Her husband, Sahr is an attorney who is now CEO of Love You Cookie. The Brimas and Treadway attend church together, and Treadway has come on board as Love You Cookie's COO.
"It's a nice balance, saving souls and selling cookies," Treadway smiled.
Available at Twin Cities retailers (including Hy-Vee)
Stadium location: Section 336, Clubs and Suites
After leaving a corporate job to return to her previous roots as a competitive baker, Rexing has never looked back.
Rexing, who has little T-Rex keychains and accentuated her display with small toy dinosaurs, has appeared on "Shark Tank" and traveled to Singapore to help kick-start another cookie enterprise. Her Sea Salt Caramel Chocolate Chip was ranked No. 1 in America in 2017.
I opted for the Caramel Cookies & Cream and would recommend.
The only concern Rexing expressed was making sure she has enough staff.
Reminder, please be kind to vendors and try to be patient, especially at the first regular-season game in so long. Second reminder: U.S. Bank Stadium is going cashless this year, so please plan accordingly.
Original Hockey Mom Brownies
Stadium location: Section 111 and 360
When I walked up to the counter, Patti invited me to try a sample of a S'mores brownie and she'd let me in on a little secret.
As the brownie melted away, Patti told me it was gluten free. I'll tell you it was delicious and is one of two gluten-free flavors (the other is chocolate) being offered. Original Hockey Mom Brownies selected the following seven of their 60 traditional flavors to offer in their first season at U.S. Bank Stadium: Salted Caramel, Salted Caramel Brookie Dough, Apple Crisp, Cookies and Cream, S'mores, Chocolate Mint and Chocolate.
The name for this business is also its origin story.
When Patti's son Andrew, who markets the brownies was playing bantam hockey, Patti made star-shaped brownies for his all-star team to take on a bus from Andover to Chanhassen.
The brownies didn't freeze, which is quite appreciated during hockey season.
What began as a way to support the team out of a kitchen has blossomed into a manufacturing location on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.
Patti, wearing a custom Vikings No. 13 with Hockey Mom on the nameplate, said it's remains important to connect with each customer. It truly is a family business for a group that refers to their customers as members of their team. Andrew was sporting a Vikings No. 23 with "Dream Chaser" on the nameplate. His sister works in an administrative role, and Patti's husband makes sure the machines at their bakery keep going.