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Baseball Food Is All Grown Up

MLB stadiums want to be the next hot food destination — and they’re courting big-deal local restaurants to do it

What do we think about when we think about baseball food? It used to be hot dogs and chemical-orange liquid cheese and a light dusting of crushed-up peanut shells coating the floor underneath the stadium seats. And then it was over-the-top nachos, soft serve piled high in plastic baseball caps, and absurd mashups like hot dog-stuffed deep-fried pickles on a stick or churro-stuffed doughnuts topped with swirls of frozen yogurt.

But now something else is happening: Stadiums across the major league are focusing on local food. They’re thinking more about how to feel true to their cities, and their commitment to their communities is only growing deeper and more serious. Is stadium food growing up?

Many say yes — and that food isn’t only getting better, it’s also a major force driving the baseball stadium experience. Patrick Schaeffer, the senior executive chef at Citi Field, says stadium dining is a priority for the New York Mets. “Food is one of the things that the Mets focus on the most, other than the players on the field,” he says. “We put a lot of time and effort into that.”

Schaeffer — technically an employee of Aramark, the global megabrand focused on large-scale food service, including in places like concert venues, stadiums, and arenas — works closely with his partners at Citi Field and in the Mets organization to bring interesting chefs and restaurants into the ballpark. Even before a current season is over, the culinary teams start thinking about which new concepts could be added for the new year. “We put feelers out and see what’s fun, what’s neat, and what we think could fit in [to Citi Field], and then we go after them.”

Fuku chicken sandwich.
Nick Solares

This year in the Mets ballpark, among other offerings, there’s Sweet Chick, a chicken-and-waffles place co-owned by hip-hop artist Nas; there are Hong Kong-style bubble waffles and edible cookie dough; there’s a place that sells only mozzarella sticks and one that slides a layer of melting raclette over a brat in a baguette; there’s Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack and chef and restaurateur David Chang’s fast-casual chicken spot Fuku. Each spot brings something new to the stadium, and each one has a presence in New York outside of Citi Field, too.

So yes, baseball organizations make a point to think about which foods are going to make their way to the social media: Places like Wowfulls and Do got famous on Instagram, and it would be naive to assume that their existence in Citi Field isn’t intended in part to help further the Mets’ internet cred. As senior executive chef, it’s something Schaeffer has to think about in the era of dining culture that we’re in. Consider the cheese pull — a move designed for Instagram, wherein someones pulls something cheesy apart very slowly to capture how stretchy the cheese is — which “has been amazing for sports food,” Schaeffer says. “If you have something that has a nice cheese pull on it, you’re going to get some nice Instagram hits.” At the end of last season he worked with Michael White’s pizza place in the stadium, Nicoletta, to reconfigure the pepperoni and mozzarella sticks. “It wasn’t a wildly popular dish, so we reinvented it for this year, and now we call them the Italian cheese balls.” The balls are essentially pepperoni and smoked mozzarella frittella; Schaeffer promises they have an awesome cheese pull.

Even at Fuku, where the offerings are simple — spicy chicken sandwich, chicken fingers (not spicy, after many a request from customers), and fries — there’s an off-menu special served in a baseball cap. Stephanie Abrams, Fuku’s executive corporate chef, says, “We’re always trying to evolve and have new offerings for people.” To her, the ethos behind Fuku’s ballpark menu is, “Stay fresh, stay exciting, and let people always have something new.” She’s currently working on developing new options for this summer’s games, and she helped develop dishes like the stadium’s loaded fries.

The fries come topped with a spicy cheese sauce and (house-made) ranch, and Abrams notes that “the white pops against the bright yellow, so when people are walking around with it you see it from far away — you say, oh what is that, I want to eat that.”

The food is good, but it also looks cool. And as Chang points out, “That’s almost more exciting than the game sometimes, when you’re like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know that was there.’ That’s what we wanted to create: We wanted people to want to find our dishes.”

BLT hot dog from Box Frites.
Box Frites at Citi Field.

In the same park, famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer’s company Union Square Hospitality Group has quite a presence. Beyond Shake Shack, which has been in Citi Field for just about a decade, the Mets stadium holds a location of Meyer’s NYC barbecue spot Blue Smoke and three concepts developed specifically with ballparks in mind: Box Frites, Papa Rosso, and El Verano Taqueria. Says John Karangis, the executive chef overseeing USHG’s catering and events divisions, “There’s a big desire to have Aramark and their competitors partner with local businesses to ensure they’re really being mindful of what people are looking for.” He’s seen Americans pay more attention to dining out in the last decade and calls it obvious that the same level of detail and care has made its way into stadiums.

People send Karangis photos of novelty stadium foods all the time, saying things like, “Whoa, this [team] is wrapping a hot dog in bacon 15 times.” And while the chef tries to stay more even-keeled about the food his team is putting out, he does think it would be “foolish” not to keep an eye on stadium trends. At Box Frites, he did develop a BLT hot dog — something fun and a little different without being too weird or difficult to eat.

The MLB this year hosted its first Food Fest, a sold-out event where fans and baseball food influencers could taste a dish from all 30 stadiums. Even when the samplings veered novelty — Flamin’ Hot Cheeto-dusted elote from LA, bacon-wrapped plantains from Miami, Pittsburgh’s pierogi hoagies — they still tied back to local culture in some way. “I can get tacos in Dodgers stadium now,” Chang points out. Stadium food “really is a reflection of what’s in the local market.”

Tom Henneman, partner at Philadelphia’s Federal Donuts, thinks about the same trend toward local when he considers his doughnut and fried chicken outpost in Philly’s Citizens Bank Park. “I feel like there was a period in time when people wanted to see how big you could build the burger. How many patties, how much bacon.” (Three years ago, the Phillies’ stadium debuted a burger with nine patties and nine slices of cheese.) “But the way Aramark’s doing it with the local food, that’s great — the fan base and the customers are people from the city, and they want things that are familiar to them.”

Henneman says the brand was approached about five years ago when the Phillies and Aramark were trying to get more local options into Citizens Bank Park. “It was something we were immediately interested in,” he says. “For something as American as fried chicken and doughnuts and the comfort that comes along with that — you can associate that with baseball in a way, and for us it was a natural fit.”

Crab grilled cheese sandwiches from the Nationals.
Ian Stroud
The flamethrower — a pulled pork sandwich with bacon jam and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Ian Stroud

The other thing that’s super appealing? “It brought 45,000 people every night that might not otherwise ever come to our shops.” Having 80-plus home games in a season — significantly more than in any other sport — gives restaurants a chance to really be present and make an impact.

Head chef Matt Fein worked every single one of those 80-odd home games in Federal Donuts’ first season in the park. After that, they decided to simplify the menu, serving only the fried chicken sandwich and the doughnuts. It was easier to maintain and it was what the people wanted, anyway — something to walk around with, something they could take back and eat easily at their seats, a dish that didn’t have to be eaten right away. And having such a landmark Philadelphia spot in the stadium is good not only for local food lovers, but for out-of-towners too.

When nearby teams like the Baltimore Orioles, the Washington Nationals, or the Mets come play the Phillies, their fans get excited because they’ve heard about Federal Donuts and they get a chance to try the food, even if they don’t have a chance to explore the rest of the city. “Some of the busiest games for the Federal Donuts at the park are when the nearby out-of-town teams come in,” Fein says. “At the end of the game, toward the seventh or eighth inning, whenever the Mets or the Nationals come into town, we get a 20- to 25-minute wait for doughnuts because people want to bring them back home by the dozen.”

So is the reign of novelty food over? Is local really going to replace tater tot nachos and deep-fried s’mores? “I think people are going back toward really simple good-eating things,” says Chang. But there’s also always going to be a place for nostalgia. “The reason I wanted to put fries and sandwiches in a baseball hat is because I remember going to the old Memorial stadium before the Orioles moved to Camden Yards, and that’s the thing I would always ask my dad for: a souvenir baseball cap with an ice cream sundae in it.” He used to collect the caps, and he wanted to be able to give kids today that same narrative. “We’re still figuring it out, but to be part of a sporting event, that’s the dream.”

Ian Stroud
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