NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If you close your eyes while standing outside of the Tennessee Titans' facility at St. Thomas Sports Park, you might think you're at a restaurant. The tempting aroma of grilled food emanates from the cafeteria, which is tasked with feeding around 180 people a day.
But providing meals to players and staff during the coronavirus pandemic, when everyone must maintain a safe distance, required big changes, including in how meals are served, where players eat and even how they interact.
Gone are the gourmet, buffet-style meals that were previously served throughout the day.
Now meals are pre-packaged, available as early as 5:45 a.m.
"Pretty much like grab-and-go," safety Kevin Byard said of the revamped cafeteria.
Players are encouraged to eat either in the locker room -- where lockers are separated by foot-long dividers -- or in the reconfigured dining area. But all meals are provided in disposable containers (no more plates and metal utensils) in case players want to take them home or to the team hotel.
The Titans relied on a team of general manager Jon Robinson, director of football operations Brent Akers, team operations and facilities manager Chris Matusek and cafeteria manager Chris Parnell to devise a plan to convert the Titans' facility into a safe workplace that met the NFL and NFLPA's joint guidelines. They considered having players and staff use an app to pre-order meals, but Robinson said it wasn't as efficient as their to-go plan. That was one of several changes made.
Plexiglass is in, congregating is out
The dining area used to be a gathering spot for players. It gave them a place to go when they finished with meetings to talk about life outside of football. Coaches used to flow through there from time to time as well.
"It's a great team bonding area, a big congregating spot for the players during their downtime," Robinson said.
Now plexiglass is seemingly everywhere. The Titans worked with a local company that installed plexiglass dividers throughout the building, including on tables in the cafeteria.
And the previously open area where the chefs would cook? That's now sealed with plexiglass, too. Robinson said there are small holes in the plexiglass where players and staff can communicate with chefs if they have instructions or want a special dish.
Guard Rodger Saffold likes being able to talk to the chefs to meet his dietary plan, knowing what he needs to steer clear of.
Added Saffold, "My nutrition is constantly changing. I know that I'm taken care of. As long as I'm constantly focusing on staying away from the dessert trays, I think I should be all right."
The dining area's capacity is now limited to 40 because of social distancing requirements. The coaches eat in their offices -- which also allows time to watch some extra film. Chairs, tables and refrigerated cases are sanitized with an antibacterial solution multiple times a day.
Robinson said they removed a lot of the chairs from the dining area and put signs everywhere to encourage social distancing. There are arrows on the floor to direct foot traffic, all one way.
"We have to enter in one way and guys go out the other [door in the back]," linebacker Rashaan Evans said.
What's on the menu?
The food itself hasn't changed. The Titans purchased four large refrigerated display cases for drinks and cold food such as sandwiches, salads, boiled eggs and yogurt. Monitors display the hot food options such as bacon and eggs or hash browns on a different side.
The lunch menu has "a ton of options" according to Robinson, such as shrimp salad, steak, grilled chicken, fish, pasta and vegetables.
Having options is especially important for a player like Jeffery Simmons, who was 320 pounds last season but now checks in around 310 after getting leaner during the offseason. Simmons changed some of his dietary habits. The variety of foods that are available in the cafeteria helps him stay disciplined.
"When you're trying to lose weight -- or lose fat, I should say -- you want to try to monitor what you eat," Simmons said. "We have a great staff in the cafeteria to help us. Even if they have wings in there, it doesn't mean I have to go get wings. I can get a salad and stuff like that."
Robinson's favorite option is a chicken caesar wrap but added that "you can never go wrong with a good ol' BLT."
There are also accommodations for players with allergies, such as gluten-free options. The Titans have a nutritionist who they looped into some of their Zoom calls to discuss dietary restrictions or food allergies.
Both Robinson's daughter Bailey and his wife Jaimie have gluten allergies, so he is well aware of how crucial it is to provide suitable meals for those with dietary restrictions.
"Anything that our players need, if they want something specific, all they have to do is tell us and we will make the appropriate adjustments," Robinson said.
Judging from the players, the adjustments that Robinson and the Titans staff made passed the test.
"It's different. But I just look at the good stuff that we have and just say I'm blessed," Byard said. "It's not like they're feeding us trash food. The food's still great."