New Orleans Saints fans arrive at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome hungry for victory.

When they come with a hankering for stadium food too, there’s a good chance they’re putting some money in the hands of community organizations at the same time.

At food concession booths around the Dome, men and women in matching black uniforms, aprons and visors bustle among the counters, calling out and responding to orders as the smell of smoked sausage and fried shrimp lures in customers dressed in their black-and-gold finest.

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A couple of fans in the upper seats eat pink cotton candy while sitting in a sea of pink souvenir towels as the wait for the New Orleans Saints game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The pink theme was for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

To fans, it may all look like business as usual, but all is not as it appears. Many of these workers aren’t actually paid employees.

On any given gameday, as many as 50 percent of the food service personnel across the Dome are volunteers working on behalf of local community groups.

As they dish out crawfish nachos, waffle fries and barbecue-topped baked potatoes, they’re also raising money for the New Orleans causes they believe in most.

Fundraising with fans 

Volunteers at Superdome concession stands are part of a larger program — long-running but generally unsung — that plays out at the other local venues, too. It’s organized by Centerplate, the operator of the food service division for the Superdome, the Smoothie King Center, Champions Square and more than 250 other sports and entertainment facilities across North America.

Groups that volunteer raise money for causes including education, music, arts and sports programs for the under-served youth.

One such group is composed of parents raising funds for the Chalmette High School band and dance programs. They began working with Centerplate at Essence Fest in 2016. Now they volunteer for more than 60 events a year, including concerts and Saints, Pelicans and Babycakes games.

“We started volunteering because the band was going to perform in Disney World and not all the parents could afford to send their kids,” said Sherri Abba, a band parent and volunteer leader for the group.

“You only get so far with bake sales and car washes,” she said. “Now, we’re able to raise money for trips, instrument repairs and even to help with uniforms.”

How it works

“Partnering like this with volunteer groups is a pretty common practice throughout the industry,” said Paul Pettas, Centerplate’s communications director. “But collaborating with enthusiastic local nonprofits is an important and rewarding part of what we do.”

Centerplate began working with the Superdome in 2000, and the other venues followed in subsequent years.

“And some of the same nonprofits who volunteer with us today have been with us for more than a decade,” Pettas said.

Centerplate supplies everything from food products and supplies to uniforms, as well as a three-hour mandatory training. Once that training is complete, nonprofits can choose from more than 200 events for volunteer opportunities each year.

Volunteer groups take over their own booths in the venue. Assisted by paid Centerplate staff, they earn a commission of between 10 and 14 percent from what that station sells. The result can be thousands of dollars per event per group.

“We’ve actually had a group earn $200,000 in a year,” Pettas said.

‘Tis the season

Some groups that take part say the opportunity for year-round fundraising to augment one-off events and annual campaigns is a big part of the appeal.

“It’s such reliable and essential funding for us,” said Zwila Martinez, a co-founder for Social Bridges, a New Orleans-area nonprofit that provides after-school programming to under-served communities.

“And not just for us, but for the families we serve who truly need it,” Martinez said. “That’s why we got up and volunteered at more than 80 events this year.”

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socialbridges

Volunteers work a food stand at the Smoothie King Center on behalf of local nonprofit Social Bridges. Nonprofit partners with Centerplate raise money on a percentage of the sales from these volunteer-run stands. 

Because the volunteer outings follow a predictable schedule, some groups have developed their own regulars and supporters who seek them out in the concourse when it’s time for a snack.

For instance, the Chalmette High School band and dance parents routinely bring between 25 and 35 volunteers to every Saints home game, working the same booths in sections 135 and 152 at the Dome.

“The best part is seeing our regular customers over and over again,” said Abba. ”We know them by name and, now, they know what we’re raising money for.”

After a three-week road trip, the Saints are coming back to the Dome for two more regular-season games, Dec. 23 and Dec. 30. One more win will give the team home-field advantage in the playoffs. For the volunteers behind the concession counter, that means more opportunities to raise funds from the fans.

Groups interested in volunteering can start the process by contacting Centerplate nonprofit coordinator Ty Siddiqui at Ty.Siddiqui@centerplate.com.

Follow Matt Haines at matthaineswrites.com.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.