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Take me out to (eat at) the ballgame

The next time you find yourself in San Francisco, consider spending an evening dining outdoors, perhaps enjoying a fresh flatbread filled with salad, a Fishermen’s Wharf-style seafood sandwich or another local favorite, the 40-clove garlic chicken sandwich.  A fine restaurant? No, a night at the old ballpark. By's Allison Linn.
A sampling of "regional food" baseball fans can find at Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies.
A sampling of "regional food" baseball fans can find at Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies.Aramark

The next time you find yourself in San Francisco, consider spending an evening dining outdoors, perhaps enjoying a fresh flatbread filled with salad, a Fishermen’s Wharf-style seafood sandwich or another local favorite, the 40-clove garlic chicken sandwich.

And to complete your meal, don’t forget to add a nice California red wine and a Ghirardelli hot fudge sundae.

No, we’re not talking about visiting one of San Francisco’s many nice restaurants. For these epicurean indulgences, you can take a trip to AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.

There was a time when going to a baseball game meant stuffing yourself full of the type of food that would make any cardiologist grimace — hot dogs of questionable origin and age, nachos dipped in an orange cheese sauce definitely not found in nature, and your choice of soda or watery beer to wash it down.

But these days, a trip to the ballpark also could include indulging in fresh fruit, ribs just off of an outdoor barbecue or a hand-tossed Caesar salad, not to mention sushi, Panini sandwiches, gourmet coffee and microbrews.

Even the good old hot dog is getting a makeover. Some parks now feature fresh-toasted buns, more upscale condiments and higher-quality meat, said Robert Pascal, corporate vice president of marketing with Centerplate Inc., which provides food service for six Major League Baseball teams including the Giants, Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

C.T. Nice, Aramark’s vice president of food and beverage for sports and entertainment, said he began to see higher-end food at baseball games around the time the newer generation of stadiums were being built in cities such as Denver and San Francisco. The stadiums were interested in selling an experience that went beyond just watching a game, he said, and the new construction also allowed for better food service stations.

There was another, more practical incentive — new stadiums command high price tags, and more upscale concessions are one way to increase revenue. At Seattle’s Safeco Field, which Nice was involved with in a prior job, he said the higher-end food resulted in higher per capita spending on food.

The Mariners declined to provide detailed financial information about food sales.

For its fiscal year ended Jan. 2, Centerplate said net sales from Major League Baseball grew $13.6 million over the previous year, citing increased attendance and higher per capita spending. Centerplate would not break out total Major League Baseball revenue for the year, but the company said overall sales for all its operations grew about $38 million to $681.1 million.

More upscale offerings are more lucrative, despite the added training and other costs, said Kevin Hengehold, who as part of his duties for Aramark is in charge of food service for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Of the decision to improve food offerings, he said, “It does come from the business side.”

Thanks to everything from the Food Network to upscale neighborhood restaurants, Pascal said people also have come to expect better food wherever they go, whether it’s the airport or the ballpark.

“Food in general is a bigger part of our lives, and reflecting that, food is a bigger part of our entertainment,” Pascal said.

Many in the industry say offerings such as sushi and high-end salmon sandwiches still make up just a small part of overall ballpark food sales.

“Hot dogs are still king,” said Hengehold.

But customers who do buy the more upscale foods might have otherwise skipped the concession stand completely, said Nice.

Others may decide they want a hot dog and fries after all, but they still like the idea that they could get a fresh salad if they wanted to. At Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, Nice said Aramark is sticking with offerings such as sushi in part because of new Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, even though the buzz is proving bigger than actual sales.

“We would call it successful because the fan feedback has been great, (but) from an economic perspective we’ve got a long way to go,” Nice said.

A better menu also translates into more opportunities to sell food.

In Seattle, many baseball fans come from outside the city, if not the state, and may arrive early and hungry. To cater to those out-of-towners — and keep those food dollars in the ballpark rather than a nearby restaurant — the stadium’s offerings include seafood from a local restaurant, microbrews and, of course, coffee from Seattle-based Starbucks.

Still, while the better food is an added perk, it probably hasn't affected attendance, said Rebecca Hale, director of public information for the Seattle Mariners.

“That’s a function of team performance,” she said, adding, “but it’s obviously a good thing to offer a variety of selections to the folks who do come to the games.”

Pascal expects stadium food to continue its upscale trek, including more offerings that customers can see being made fresh. For example, he points to recent changes at Invesco Field at Mile High, home of the Denver Broncos football team, which now has an open kitchen so people can see pizzas coming out of the ovens and other food preparation.

“That’s really where I see the industry going, is this culinary theater,” Pascal said.

Hengehold said baseball stadiums also are taking a bigger interest in providing branded foods. In Anaheim, Aramark has struck deals with companies including pizza maker California Pizza Kitchen.

“If you can brand it with a well-known brand, you’re going to sell more CPK pizza than Kevin’s pizza,” Hengehold says.

Still, while consumers do seem to be responding to some of the more varied offerings, baseball fans aren’t necessarily looking for healthier alternatives. Hengehold was surprised when fresh fruit took off at the ballpark last year, in part because Aramark had had less success with other healthy offerings, such as a vegetarian burger.

Centerplate’s Pascal remembers a decision several years ago to replace the traditional fluorescent orange cheese-based nacho offering at one of Centerplate's venues with a more upscale offering that included authentic Mexican cheese. To Centerplate’s surprise, customers balked — and demanded that they go back to the processed stuff.

“By and large it is a time of reward,” Pascal said of a trip to the ballpark. “People are treating themselves.”