The name of the game isn't baseball, football, or soccer; is "concessions." At its heart, a sports stadium is a giant restaurant with more than 50,000 seats and maybe four hours to serve meals and snacks, everything from beers and Old Fashioneds to hot dogs, burgers, pizzas, tacos, crinkle fries, milkshakes, soft drinks, ice cream sandwiches, cold-brew coffee and root beer floats.
This particular Herculean eatery is Safeco Field, home to the Seattle Mariners for seven months of the year, a Major League Baseball schedule with just over 80 regular-season home dates a year, which sounds (and is) overwhelming if you're not prepared.
Used to be, people would complain about prices. ("Seven dollars for a goddamn hot dog?") That's not the case today. For example, the double-patty cheese burger from Great State Burger: organically raised beef, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and "State" sauce. It's a giant mouthful, and it's $10.50. Same item downtown or in Laurelhurst is a couple of bucks less, but hey, you're not at the ballpark.
And speaking of dogs, it's a long road from the Texas State Fair to Safeco Field, and it leads through the old Kingdome, where these dogs were sold in the 1990s. Founder Skip Fletcher passed away at age 80 this year, but his iconic stadium snack, the Fletcher, returns this year as the Mariner Dog. $7.50, toppings included.
With the Mariners' home opener coming up, we never go to the ballpark without getting something to eat. Several things, usually. Earlier this week we had a chance to preview some of the new items created by guest-chef Ethan Stowell.
A catering company called Centerplate actually manages the concessions, not just at the Safe but at 250 sports, entertainment and convention venues around the country, including racetracks (Saratoga), airports (Dulles), ten NFL football stadiums and four baseball parks, including the Mariners. For all of its nationwide reach, Centerplate's emphasis is on local food, since there's nothing as local as rooting for the home team, after all. Atnd after culinary superstar Tom Douglas (who has his hands full), there's probably no more "local" chef in Seattle than Stowell. And his sidekick this year, Josh Henderson of the Huxley Wallace Collection (which includes Great State Burgers).
There's a difference between running a 60-seat restaurant and feeding 50,000 people at a ball game, but the concept of hospitality has to be the same, says John Sergi, Centerplate's chief design officer. "We're just upping the ante with local ingredients, but it's not just about selling food," Sergi says, "it's about engaging people."
There are over 150 places to buy food and drink at the Safe, with even more coming. Because of its leisurely pace, baseball is particularly suited to grazing. So what's Stowell going to do? Sliders, brats, burgers, po-boys. "I feel comfortable ordering 1,500 pounds of pork [for the BBQ brisket] because the biggest battle is high quality ingredients."
The beef will come from Painted Hills, the pork from Carlton Farms. And, best of all, the freshly-shucked oysters for the Oyster Po'Boy will come from Taylor Shellfish Farms. Battered in panko and deep-fried, they're topped with spicy remoulade, shredded iceberg lettuce, a slice of tomato and served on a Franz Pioneer bun. And only at the complex behind center field formerly called the Bull Pen, now renamed The 'Pen.
"I'm excited about the new food items, local product and fresh ingredients," Stowell says. It's a growing trend, even if (frankly) ballpark fare is basically street food. Cheap seats this year start at $15; top end is a Benjamin or two (or three), but there are all sorts of deals (parking, drinks, food) in between. And fried grasshopers, which are supposed to take the place of beer nuts. I'll take a walk.
Note: I took the hot dog pic; the others ere supplied by Seattle Mariners.