Most Super Bowl parties are a relaxed affairs, couch-bound gatherings of friends fueled by cheap beer and queso. There will probably be chips. Someone might make sliders. And if you’re really lucky, maybe someone will make margaritas.
Or you could go down to Santa Clara this weekend, just a block away from Levi’s Stadium, where there’s another type of party happening. You’ll sit on luxurious couches eating all you can amounts of food that Guy Fieri has cooked you. You’ll rub shoulders with dozens of active NFL players and celebrities. Maybe you’ll even chat with Erin Andrews, who’ll be emceeing the event. The price tag for this afternoon of decadence? $700.
That party--the Players Super Bowl Tailgate--is the work of Bullseye Event Group, a team that prides themselves on throwing the biggest and best tailgates. They’ve built their business on perfecting the art and science of throwing the most extravagant pre-game parties, flawlessly executed fêtes packed with athletes, celebrities and endless amounts of booze and gourmet food.
Bullseye was founded by the husband and wife team of Lisa and Kyle Kinnett, who had several years of experience in the event planning and sports worlds. They gradually worked their way up to bigger and bigger events, and became the official events and travel partner for the Indianapolis Colts. A few years ago, they saw an opening in the market for a new kind of Super Bowl experience. Plenty of companies offered packages for the big game, pairings of tickets and three nights at a local hotel. But the Kinnetts figured out something that would set them apart: blow-out, no expense spared tailgates preceding the game. But to do so, they had to figure out what transforms a party from being just ok into the best tailgate you’ve ever been to in your entire life--one worthy of their hefty price tags.
They settled on a simple formula. Take all the parts of your relaxed local tailgate, and magnify it. Acquire the biggest TVs and the softest leather couches. Carpet the entirety of the giant space you’ve rented. Offer all-you-can-eat food from a celebrity chef. Get someone well known to moderate it. Then pack the party with active football players to make fans feel like they’re part of the NFL world.
That last part is a key component of the Kinnetts’ quest to create the perfect tailgate. Every year, they invite around 25 active NFL players (“This is not an event where you go and see some retired NFL player from the yesteryears,” their website declares) and allow them to bring a handful of their friends.
“Jamal [Charles, Kansas City Chiefs running back] will come and he’ll bring four of his friends with him. Well, when you put one player in an atmosphere of 1,500 people, he gets mugged, right? He’s signing autographs, taking pictures,” said Kyle Kinnett.
“But when you’ve got 35-50 [NFL players] and those guys are bringing their friends, it’s a melting pot. There’s so many players, so many celebrities, that people aren’t getting mugged. They’re having fun. They’re part of the crowd.”
It’s a good formula. Ever since their first Super Bowl tailgate in 2012 (celebrity chef: Paula Deen) the parties have been successes, often selling out of their thousands of tickets. This year’s event will hold 1,500 people and promises to be the most extravagant yet, with multiple celebrity chefs, emcee Erin Andrews, and attendees receiving a police escort to the game. Kinnett said the crowd ranges from CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to football-obsessed locals. And their kids: “We got people calling all the time saying, ‘I’ve got a 12-year-old son, can I bring my son?’ And I say to them we should charge more for the kids because the kids have more fun than the adults.”
Initially, Kinnett though their success came from the excitement of partying with football players. Then after seeing the response to Paula Deen at their first tailgate, he started to realize that the food was more important than he thought, and that food world celebrities were becoming just as much of a draw as the players.
“In the past, the draw was the 25-30 NFL athletes. That’s kind of transitioned to the athletes [being] an afterthought. What I’ve found is you can have the best party in the world, but if you have bad food, you’ve got a bad party,” Kinnett said. “The first year we had Achie Manning as our guest speaker, and Eli Manning was playing in the Super Bowl. People didn’t care about that. They cared about the food. So I’ve made it all about the food. That's what’s most important.”
He jettisoned the mediocre catering company he was working with, and started looking for the best chef in the areas where the Super Bowl was being held. When it was in New Orleans, he had John Besh. When it was in New York, he got Marcus Samuelsson.
This year, he found the perfect match, a nationally recognized chef with Bay Area roots whose cuisine seems like it’s designed in a laboratory to be the perfect tailgate food: the one and only Guy Fieri. Fieri will be serving an array of football classics that have been taken on the express train to Flavortown: Kahlua pork served with slaw and sauce on Hawaiian rolls with crunchy crumbled chicharrones, doughnut bread pudding with brown butter bacon bourbon glaze and a “Mac Daddy” mac and cheese bar. Fieri will be joined by chefs G. Garvin, Aaron May and Beau MacMillan, who are all frequent guests on the Food Network and Cooking Channel.
This is MacMillan’s second time at the party. The Arizona chef cooked for the last year’s tailgate and makes the experience sound pretty amazing: “As three o'clock rolled around and this thing came to an end, I drank three beers and they’d never tasted so good. Then I walked into the Super Bowl with Guy, a police escort, and watched the Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks. It couldn’t have been a better ending.”
This year, he’ll be in charge of the raw bar (“Oh man, give me that oyster knife, baby, I’m ready to shuck.”) and is excited for the challenge that comes with feeding 1,500 hungry guests.
“People have to understand what tailgating is. It’s the pinnacle of fanmanship. So when you get chefs together that love food and football, and then the people involved in football, from the players to Erin Andrews, you can’t get better than that,” MacMillan said.
“People, as much as they love football, they love to eat. We’re at a lucky time in our world when chefs can have credibility and really be out there at the forefront. This is our Super Bowl of food.”