Good food at Rays games no longer limited to luxury suites
Baseball fans are used to hearing ballpark food vendors scream, "POPCORN! PEANUTS!" Sommelier David Kendall barks out a new phrase: "PINOT NOIR!" From behind his wood-paneled wine bar in the first-base food court at Tropicana Field, Kendall pours six varieties of wine to fans for between $8 and $11 per 6-ounce glass. For those who love citrusy wine, there's the Box O' Birds Sauvignon Blanc. For lovers of smooth but hearty red varieties, he pours Pico Maccario's Barbera d'Asti Lavignone. It's not the usual ballpark beer. But that's the point.Centerplate, the food vendor at Tropicana Field and dozens of other sports, entertainment and convention center venues around the world, is attempting to change what spectators expect from the food they get at public facilities. Food tastes in the United States have matured to the point that fans expect more than hot dogs and nachos with artificial cheese when they go to the games. As ticket prices have gone up, so have fan expectations for what foods they should have. Vendors such as Centerplate, Levy Restaurants and Aramark have shifted to satisfy more sophisticated palates. At U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, where the White Sox play, this year's food offerings include Chinese steamed buns and Southern-style smoked barbecue. When the new Yankee Stadium opened last year in the Bronx, it featured NYY Steak, a premium restaurant modeled on the Council Oak Steaks and Seafood restaurant at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa. Food quality elevated with the advent of luxury suites in the '80s and '90s as new facilities were built for sports franchises, but vendors are now finding that offering premium food to the mezzanine crowd has benefits as well. "For too many years, food was looked at only as a revenue source," says John Sergi, chief design officer for Centerplate. "Clients now look at it as a way to talk to their fans and a way to get closer to them." Sergi joined Centerplate earlier this year after serving as an independent food consultant. Clients have included Citi Field, the new home of the New York Mets, as well as the Los Angeles Dodgers and the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Before a recent Tampa Bay Rays game against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field, a wine tasting in the Batter's Eye restaurant overlooking centerfield attracted close to 100 people who sampled 1-ounce pours of the wines offered at the ballpark. Introducing wine into a sports setting is one way to send the message that food quality has changed, Sergi says. Another way is to bring in award-winning chefs to create food that gives fans an option beyond the usual stadium fare. He hired Seattle chef Ethan Stowell to develop new food concepts for the Mariners. He's also working with Modern Apizza in New Haven, Conn., to improve pizza quality, and Mexican chef Roberto Santibanez to bring black bean spread, avocado cream and carnitas to stadium menus. For Tropicana Field, Sergi hired Dave Pasternack, seafood chef at Esca in Manhattan, to create food for two kiosks. At Fresco Fish Tacos, two Mahi soft tacos with a side of chips and salsa fresco costs $9. At Ti Dave's Po' Boys, an andouille sausage sandwich runs $9, while a shrimp po' boy is $12. Pasternack partnered with Aramark, the food and beverage provider for the New York Mets, for food operations at Citi Field in New York. The experience went so well, he agreed to license his food for the Tropicana Field kiosks. His reasoning for expanding into ballparks: "If you're going to be there for four hours, why can't you go have great food?" Pasternack not only created the menus, he also trained the staff to offer better service. "Instead of people walking up and them ignoring you, which you get a lot of at the ballpark, we asked them to act like they were happy to have a job," Pasternack said during a recent visit to St. Petersburg. "We taught them to say 'Good afternoon,' and, 'Thank you.' We first had to change the mentality of people there." Changing expectations also includes working with team ownership groups, not all of whom have understood through the years how food contributes to a fan experience, Sergi says. "You're starting to get people like the group that runs the Rays," he says. "They get the idea that when you give fans something extra, like a wine tasting, they're going to go home and tell somebody. It stays with them. "I think food communicates, so I try to get food to communicate brand. I think there are ways to reinvent food in sports facilities that say a lot about the team."
Reporter Jeff Houck can be reached at (813) 259-7324.