Rave reviews: Overhaul of the Titans cafeteria has players eating healthier, feeling better
By John Glennon
As one of just a few Titans in the team’s facility during the lean weeks of late spring, center Ben Jones earned a sneak-peek at the organization’s whopper of an offseason project.
A few steps into his initial new-cafeteria foray, Jones found himself feeling like a first-grader on his first lunch hour, thrilled with every available option.
“I was so excited about it that I didn’t know where to start,” Jones said. “I had to take a full lap around the place just to see where everything was, and it really takes a couple of times through to kind of figure it all out. It’s an incredible change from last year.”
Let’s be honest here: To the best of anyone’s knowledge, no team has ever claimed a championship solely on the basis of great grub.
No player has ever hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, then immediately attributed the title to sweeter smoothies, curbing carbs or piling on more protein.
But if each improvement in the Titans organization over the past few years — like the renovation of the locker room, the refurbishing of the indoor practice facility and the massive weight room upgrade — represents another step in creating culture change and making the players feel better about themselves, then it’s fair to say controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk has struck again.
Her how-I-spent-my-offseason list included footing the seven-figure tab for a massive overhaul of the team’s cafeteria. It began by gutting and resurrecting of the facility, which was enlarged by 2,200-square feet.
More important to the ravenous monsters who’ll be dining there two or three times per day, though, are the upgrades in food preparation, quality and options.
- Huge, newly built ovens, refrigerators and walk-in freezers allow all the team’s food to be prepared on-site. Under the old system, caterers prepared food at an outside facility, then transported it to the Titans before serving it. That process limited food options since meals might not actually be served until two or three hours after they were cooked.
- Newly hired chefs and cooks are now on-site, poring over thousands of recipes that have been scientifically tested for nutritional information. That info is on display for players, and the chefs will also specially prepare dishes for players seeking something different.
- In a nod to former Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan, whose wife Charity supplied vegan meals for a number of players in recent years, the team now has more vegan and vegetarian options available.
- There are all kinds of “action stations” (which can be quickly changed to serve a variety of meals) for foods like omelets, salads or pasta, as well as a wealth of grab-and-go options for players hustling toward a meeting or lifting session.
Days into training camp, the reviews are impressive.
“Oh, it’s night and day from last year, for sure,” Titans tight end Delanie Walker said. “I’ve got to thank our owner because she does wonders on getting things done and making sure we have the right resources to be a successful team. That cafeteria is state of the art. It’s ridiculous.”
Added Titans coach Mike Vrabel: “I would say (the difference) is whatever is more than night and day. The players love it. They’ve spent a lot of time in there. So it’s been great.”
You don’t want to eat cardboard
Upon taking over in 2016, Titans general manager Jon Robinson examined every operation of the franchise with a critical eye.
One of the first things that caught his attention — and not in a good way — was the food the Titans were eating. He still remembers lifting the lid on one entree early that season and finding heavily buttered toast sandwiches containing fried bologna, egg and cheese.
“I ate a lot of those growing up out in the country,” said Robinson, a native of Union City, Tenn., “but I’m not sure it’s the fuel we wanted to feed our players.”
Change on the food front has been incremental over the past three seasons since only so many aspects of the Titans’ facility can be overhauled each offseason. But Robinson, Vrabel and Adams Strunk decided the cafeteria was next on the high-priority list in 2019.
The Titans entrusted FLIK Hospitality — which was already working with seven other NFL teams — to provide the chefs, cooks and workers in the new cafeteria.
Priority No. 1, obviously, was to improve the nutrition that fueled the Titans for a season lasting four months or longer. But Robinson didn’t want to turn meals into completely drab, health-boosting affairs either.
“We were just looking for healthy options for all our players and stuff that still tastes good,” Robinson said. “You don’t want to eat cardboard. That’s not appetizing.”
Another priority for the new cafeteria: creating an increased sense of camaraderie among players.
The Titans have ringed the cafeteria with flat-screen televisions for entertainment, and they’ve also limited overall access to just players, coaches and high-ranking executives. More time spent in one another’s company, the theory goes, will lead to better bonding and chemistry among players.
“There’s like 50 televisions in there, and it’s all closer to the meeting rooms,” Walker said. “So a lot of people do hang out there longer now. It makes it more relaxing.”
Big Ben’s new diet
So what’s for dinner these days?
A recent Titans menu included two soups (one a vegetarian tomato); a full salad bar with plenty of optional additions; a sandwich station; and a hot dish featuring bacon-wrapped chicken over mac and cheese. Other hot entrees available included baked lemon cod, grilled chicken, baked ziti, asparagus and a baked potato.
The increased options seem to have refined the palate of players like the 6-foot-3, 308-pound Jones, who has acknowledged that — on previous dares — he actually swallowed cockroaches and sipped his own urine.
“The other day we had kind of a barbecued salmon, and you could put it over polenta like grits,” Jones said. “They also had some small tacos with handmade tortillas. They’re hand-pressing everything, so it’s been unreal.”
Here’s how a few other players and coaches responded when asked what they liked about the new set-up:
- “I had a cantaloupe and banana smoothie this morning,” Vrabel said after a recent practice. “It’s been great. I don’t think we give (players) a whole lot of bad choices here.”
- “They’ve got a wrap bar, a sandwich bar, a pasta bar,” Walker said. “Then you can go over and get cereal, go to a salad bar, a yogurt bar, a fruit bar, an ice cream bar. They went all out on us.”
- “They have overnight oats in the morning,” right tackle Jack Conklin said. “They’ve got all sorts of toppings for it. That’s my favorite thing. The hot oatmeal is a little hard to eat and you’ve got to eat so much, so making it cold helps me a lot.”
- “I don’t know what it’s called, but I tried something new — like some kind of pure protein, a very healthy vegan type,” linebacker Jayon Brown said. “It tasted just like meat, though.”
The bottom line for the Titans and their fans, of course, is whether or not a massive menu difference will have any tangible impact on the playing field. It’s all so much window dressing if that’s not the case.
“If you’re able to put the right things into you, that’s just one step of taking care of your body day-to-day,” Jones said. “If you’re eating the right things, it does help you on the field.”
The offseason transformation might also provide the Titans a mental boost, another in-your-face example of an organization committed to changing for the better.
“When players come back every year, if they walk into the same locker room and the same building, they’re going to say, ‘Hey, what’s changed? It all looks the same,’” Robinson said. “But going back to 2016 and the new locker room, they kind of took notice and said, ‘Wow.’
“We keep talking about taking the next step and going from good to great. Our previous cafeteria was certainly functional. But we want to be great, and I would say we now have a great cafeteria.”
This article first appeared in The Athletic on July 31, 2019.
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