Taking Care of the Tide

Hotel Capstone is the longtime, game-weekend home for the Alabama football team.

Carrying the hospitality ball for the home team are, from left, Sales Manager Ashley Russell, Food and Beverage Director Gerry Dimma and Guest Services Director Matt Hood. Photo by Art Meripol

Seven or eight times a year, usually for a span of less than 24 hectic hours, Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa becomes the center of the universe for the Alabama Crimson Tide football team and its passionate fans.

Since opening in 1987, Hotel Capstone has housed and fed the team before Alabama home games held in Tuscaloosa (the Tide also played some home games in Birmingham each year through 2003).

This makes the hotel ground zero for many Alabama fans on game weekends, and they scoop up the 90 or so rooms that are available after more than 60 rooms are reserved for the players, coaches and support staff. Other fans simply like to hang out at the hotel, getting into game spirit(s) at the lounge and gathering in the lobby to talk with the occasional passing player.

So from about 5 p.m. on Friday when the team first arrives until a few hours before the Saturday kickoff, Hotel Capstone officials have to pull off a delicate juggling act. They are responsible for serving as many as five meals for the team while the Tide is at the hotel, and providing meeting space as well as quiet rooms where the players can get plenty of rest. At the same time, the hotel’s restaurant, bar and lobby are transformed into a Crimson-colored celebration, filled with fans who are there to have a good time and aren’t worried about rest or quiet.

“There’s definitely a lot going on, ” says Hotel Capstone General Manager Barry Carden, who has been with the hotel since 2006. “Not only is taking care of the team very important to us, but we also have all these other rooms filled with guests, and we have to make everybody happy. It makes for some long hours, but it’s a lot of fun, because there’s so much positive energy.”

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It has become common practice in college football for teams to stay at a hotel the night before home games, just like they do for road contests. This enables the coaches to keep the players together and focused and prevents them from venturing into the party atmosphere found on most college campuses the night before a game. Auburn University takes this one step further and leaves town entirely, housing the team at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa.

The situation at Hotel Capstone is a little different than most because of the longevity of the relationship between the team and the hotel. In fact, Hotel Capstone’s management partner — Birmingham-based Jackson Hospitality Services — has been housing and feeding the Alabama football team at one of its properties prior to every home game in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham dating to 1976, when Paul “Bear” Bryant was the head coach.

“It’s a big responsibility, ” says Ashley Russell, sales and catering manager, who has been with Hotel Capstone since 2009. “We want to make sure that everything for the team is exactly the way they want it to be every time. If anything (bad) happens on the football field, it’s not going to be because of their food or sleep at the hotel.”

Feeding the team is one of the biggest challenges the Hotel Capstone staff faces. Working with team nutritionist Amy Bragg, hotel officials begin planning the meals three months before the season opener. During that time the menus are finalized, food orders are placed with suppliers and kitchen equipment is inspected and replaced as needed. Bragg and hotel officials carefully go through every detail, down to which flavor of Gatorade seems to be most popular among the players each season.

“We want the guys to be happy so they’re out there playing their best football, ” Hotel Capstone Food and Beverage Director Gerry Dimma says. “Nothing is too small.”

The amount of advance work needed is partly because of the massive amount of food that has to be prepared each game weekend. There is always a team dinner Friday night as well as a late-night snack, followed by breakfast on Saturday and an official pre-game meal. If kickoff is not until late afternoon or evening, there will be another small meal served in the middle of the day.

These meals have to be plentiful enough to feed 125 to 130 people. And these are not ordinary people. Most football players weigh more than 200 pounds — with several linemen topping 300 pounds — and they are constantly burning through and consuming calories. As a result, the hotel actually prepares enough food for closer to 180 people. “We look at it as if it’s about a person-and-a-half each that we’re feeding, ” Dimma says.

According to hotel officials, a typical football weekend requires approximately 56 hours of kitchen prep time, 1, 860 pounds of food (more than 14 pounds per player) and nearly 2, 000 dishes. “It’s insane how much the players can eat, ” Russell says. “We go through a lot of every type of food you can imagine.”

At the same time, hotel staff members have to deal with the constant packed house at Legends Bistro & Lounge, as fans also fuel up for game weekend. “Feeding the team is actually much calmer than the action that’s going on with all the guests in the restaurant, ” Dimma says with a smile.

For the most part, the players and the fans don’t interact much while the team is at the hotel. Russell says the team stays on its own floor, and most of the back part of the hotel — which includes the eating and meeting spaces — is off limits to the public. The hotel sections off part of the lobby where fans can chat with some team members, and Russell says several players usually stop by following their final meeting on Friday night.

“We have to make sure the team doesn’t get overrun by the fans, ” Russell says. “The reason they’re here is because they want to stay focused. We respect their privacy, and what they need to do to get ready for the game.”

The primary interaction between other guests and the players takes place a few hours before kickoff on Saturday, as the hotel ropes off an aisle leading through the lobby to the team buses waiting just outside the front entrance. Fans line either side of the ropes to cheer on their beloved Crimson Tide, exchanging high fives, handshakes and hugs with players and coaches as they head to the stadium.

“Sometimes I’ll be sitting in my office and suddenly I’ll start to hear the roar, ” Russell says. “That’s when you know it’s time. It’s just amazing. It’s so much fun to see everybody from little kids to folks who have been coming here for years cheering for the team.”

And then, just like that, it’s over, as the Tide rolls away from the hotel in the team buses. At which point Hotel Capstone returns to being like most other hotels. Until the next home game, that is.

“Those weekends are a time when we have to be at the top of our game, ” says Matt Hood, Hotel Capstone’s director of guest services. “The Alabama football team and coaches expect nothing but the best, so there are high expectations. But it’s also a really fun time to be at this hotel.”

Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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