Canadian Business

The Disignated Eater

The Disignated Eater

Big court cases often create unlikely heroes: just ask Marcia Clark or Kato Kaelin. And so it was in the case of SkyDome Corp., which runs Toronto’s SkyDome stadium (home to baseball’s BlueJays, football’s Argonauts and basketball’s Raptors), versus Bitove Corp., the private Toronto-based conglomerate that ran the catering operations for the SkyDome’s pricey SkyBoxes. The unlikely star of this case? A mid-mannered food consultant named Douglas Fisher.

 

In July, 1996, SkyDome tried to evict Bitove from the stadium’s food facilities, claiming that the caterer, owned by the wealthy Bitove family, was gouging SkyBox clientele. The Bitoves sued, SkyDome countersued and the fight was on. SkyDome hired Fisher, a food-service and franchise consultant, as an expert witness. Fisher, who runs his own firm — Toronto-based FHG International Inc. — and who has written a couple of books on restaurant and food-service management in North America, was largely unknown outside of his own small industry before the trial.

But that was soon to change. Because SkyBox prices had become a long-running joke in Toronto — a basket of chicken fingers then cost $75, a “two four” of imported beer more than $100 — the case quickly attracted press attention and Fisher became the champion of the food management consultancy set, the unsung hero who was taking on a faceless corporation. In September, he won the Foodservice Consultants Society International’s award for excellence in management advisory services, and his publicity firm — Toronto-based iDirect — made the most of it in a press release quoting the FCSI judgment: “Fisher put it all on the line for his client. He risked his reputation, his company and his ability to get future work… This is, in our opinion, the essence of what management consulting is all about.”

In person. Fisher is somewhat more subdued than his press release. A quiet, slightly plump man, Fisher has trouble deciding on a restaurant for a lunchtime interview, explaining that he is on a no-fat diet. (After negotiations, a decision is reached to have sushi.) The attention Fisher has received from the case is well-deserved, he says, considering how much press his client got. “We provided all the ammunition for these guys, but the publicity went to SkyDome, the Bitoves and the lawyers,” he complains. “‘Douglas Fisher’ was rarely mentioned.”

Fisher spent more than two years on the case against Bitove. First, he toured the SkyDome facilities, ate in all of the stadium’s restaurants and spent five nights eating SkyBox dinners. Then, for comparison, he did the same at six major US stadiums. Bitove, he concluded in his report, partly justified high prices by comparing SkyBox services with those of Toronto’s “first-class” restaurants. SkyBox ticketholders had to pay for both waitstaff and their own “hostess” to load beer into the refrigerator and serve — at an additional charge of between $65 and $75 per event. They also had to pay for plastic utensils — for example, $5.75 for 25 plates and $5.95 for 50 forks. As well, Fisher, who painstakingly recreated blueprints of the Bitove facilities from his tours, estimated that Bitove’s building costs were lower than the $30 million the company had claimed them to be. “If you have a monopoly, you can sell a candy bar for $3,000,” Fisher says. “But Bitove’s contract stated that (the company) was not allowed to take advantage of its exclusive rights.”

Fisher’s final report, brimming with comparisons and statistics (it even contains a colorful allusion to an ancient Greek stadium), put Bitove’s profit margin on its SkyBox operations at 41.5% which is well above the industry average of 9.8%. When his numbers hit the press, even Torontonians who had never been to SkyDome were up in arms.

Bitove didn’t publicly challenge Fisher’s report when it was released. In February 1997, the company agreed to let SkyDome Corp. buy out its operation for an undisclosed price. But Bitove’s president and chief operating officer, Tom Bitove, still disputes Fisher’s findings and the resulting publicity: “SkyDome said that we defaulted on the lease just because it had an ‘expert’s report’ saying prices were too high,” he says. “We were going to hire our own expert, but then we closed the deal.”

Order has since been restored to the stadium. Since Bitove left and SkyDome took over the facility’s food operations, the price of a case of 24 imported beer has dropped to slightly more than $70. While there are still some SkyBox users suing both SkyDome Corp. and Bitove to get their beer and weiner money back, Fisher says he bears no animosity toward the Bitoves. “I have no problem, personally or professional, with Tom Bitove or his family. They run a well-respected firm,” he says. “My publicists pushed the case, but it’s nothing personal.”

He should probably be thanking them. After his 15 minutes of fame, Fisher’s consulting firm, FHG International, has opened an office in Florida and is receiving requests to help North American food companies expand into China, Japan and South America.

But what exactly was the career-threatening “risk” that his press release talks about?

“The risk was in saying: ‘Here are my findings,'” Fisher explains. “It might have been easier to say, ‘Bitove’s prices are only about 10% (too high) — don’t worry about it.” If the report did not hold, my career would be over.”

Reprinted Nov. 28, 1997