GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. — Fans are deciding the future of ballpark fare in America’s baseball stadiums, and Mickey Graham, director of marketing for the West Michigan Whitecaps at Fifth Third Ballpark, said those fans seem to be becoming more and more like “foodies.”
|Mickey Graham, director of marketing for the West Michigan Whitecaps at Fifth Third Ballpark
“More and more people are experimenting with stuff at home, and at restaurants, if they don’t have a good diverse menu, they’re not doing as well,” Mr. Graham said. “I think people’s expectation of the quality of food, wherever they go, has definitely gone up. They want high-quality stuff.”
To accommodate the changing tastes of its fans, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Fifth Third Ballpark holds a contest each year called the Fan Food Vote, which allows fans to pitch new menu item concepts to the park. The ideas are whittled down to the final 10, and the public votes for the winner.
This year, the chosen champion was Beer Cheese Poutine, which features pulled pork, barbecue pork, beer cheese and green onions on a bed of waffle fries.
“The Beer Cheese Poutine won overwhelmingly against some of the other items,” Mr. Graham said. “In Grand Rapids, beer is one of the things we’re known for here, so I think the beer cheese really spoke to Grand Rapids fans.”
The loaded fries concept won out over more outrageous options, such as deep-fried bubble gum, a fried Spam and macaroni and cheese sandwich and a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich coated with Doritos.
“I think they’re going more for something that they actually want to eat, not just something kitschy,” Mr. Graham said. “They can take a Twitter picture of a two-foot-long hot dog or they can have something they really enjoy. They’re going for quality.”
Other ballparks are catering to the crazy cuisine-seekers. Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals, is serving the Pulled Pork Patty Melt, a skewered sandwich featuring barbecue pulled pork, fried onion, bacon, shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses between two funnel cakes and topped with a jalapeño popper.
Chase Field, where the Arizona Diamondbacks play, is also debuting an out-there offering. The park’s new Funnel Cake Chicken Sandwich features a crispy chicken fillet topped with garlic black pepper cheddar, strawberry jam, powdered sugar and maple syrup all sandwiched between two funnel cakes.
The Whitecaps have their own frankfenfood sandwich, but it debuted eight years ago. Weighing in at 4,800 calories, the Fifth Third Burger is a 4-lb sandwich that features an 8-inch sesame seed bun, five 1/3-lb beef patties, a cup of chili, five slices of cheese, liberal doses of nacho cheese, Fritos, gobs of salsa and lettuce. The stadium still sells the sandwich, Mr. Graham said, but its sales have steadily declined over the years.
“See, we had big crazy sandwiches, too, but our fans just don’t want that anymore,” Mr. Graham said. “Not only do we give our fans the chance to vote on an item each year, but everybody votes with their wallet. Even when we have those bigger items – they’re not buying them. We’ve been doing the Fan Food Vote for 8 years … 4 of the first 5 years it’s been big, gross, nasty high-caloric items. But the last three years, the winners have shown people are going for taste. So it’s not the shock value of an item. They come to the ballpark and they want something good to eat. A lot of fans want something that tastes good and that’s not necessarily a high calorie item. Something they’re not going to get at home … something that adds to the experience.”
As the favor of fans turns toward more upscale and personalized offerings, Mr. Graham said the ballpark may become more of a food destination, shifting focus from high-calorie to high-quality.
“In 5 or 10 years, I can see chefs on the concourse,” he said. “I see more customizable stuff. Maybe fans will tweet an item in to the chef’s stand and 15 minutes later it’s made for them. They just come up and get it; they don’t have to wait in line. I can see those sorts of things happening. We’re not there yet, but I can see it coming.”