By Barry Janoff
April 20, 2017: When the 2017 MLB season opened earlier this month, it wasn’t just the players who were ready for action.
At stadiums nationwide, countless people needed to make sure that hot dogs were hot, beer was cold, crackers were jacked, food offerings were various and tasty, promotions were fun, families were entertained and the whole MLB experience was buzzworthy.
MLB fans are taking notice of the diversity in menu items, amenities and interactive touchpoints that teams are offering at the ballpark.
According to the 25th annual Sports Fan Loyalty Survey conducted by Brand Keys, NY, released earlier this month, MLB was ranked No. 1 in fan loyalty for the first time in a decade, replacing perennial leader NFL.
"To be honest, we didn’t expect to see baseball move from No. 2 to No. 1 and football at No. 3 (behind the NBA)," said Robert Passikoff, president for New York-based Brand Key. “We had indications it might happen, but we certainly were surprised.”
Passikoff said the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win was a motivating factor in MLB’s rise, rewarding their long-suffering fans with a championship and doing it with a group of players who were throwbacks to the day when people in the seats actually felt a one-on-one communication with the stars in the field. But he also pointed to the fact that baseball is striving to meet fans’ "very high expectations for game features and values that drive loyalty."
In New York, the Mets have been working hard to provide fans with a winning and buzzworthy experience in Citi Field, which opened in 2009 on what had been the parking lot of the team’s previous venue, Shea Stadium (1964-2008), in Queens.
Considering all that the Big Apple has to offer — Broadway, countless top restaurants, lots of sports including another MLB team in The Bronx — becoming a top destination is no small feat.
Citi Field features six restaurants (including the Delta Sky360º Club, Hyundai Club, Porsche Grille and the Foxwoods Club), one concession location for every 150 people (stadium capacity 41.922), 54 luxury boxes, the Coca-Cola Corner (right field, seats 1,284); and the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, the main entrance to the stadium honoring Robinson and built to resemble Ebbets Field (long-time home to the Brooklyn Dodgers).
Local food offerings in Citi Field include Shake Shack, Papa Rosso, Two Boots, Pat LaFrieds’ Original Filet Mignon Steak Sandwich, Fuku, Arancini Bros., Mama’s of Corona, Mister Softee and, of course, Nathan’s Famous hot dogs.
The Classic New York Pastrami sandwich served in Citi Field is featured in Topps new "Incredible Eats" insert set.
Aramark handles food, beverage and merchandise services for Citi Field under a 30-year deal that began in 2009. (See Q&A with Patrick Schaeffer, Aramark senior executive chef, below.)
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Lou DePaoli, evp and chief revenue officer for the Mets, about the challenges of integrating baseball with food and entertainment, constantly raising the bar on fan satisfaction and offering a unique destination in a city and region known for its unparalleled options.
NYSportsJournalism.com: For a long time, when you would go to a baseball game, hot dogs, a soft drink, fries and a beer seemed to please fans. Now, the bar is being raised via a variety of food and drinks and other entertainment beyond the game itself. Is the challenge now to keep raising the bar?
Lou DePaoli: It’s not just baseball. It’s that way in all professional sports. It’s entertainment. We are in the entertainment business. We have to compete with Broadway and all the options that people have in New York. So you have to offer that higher level of experience and entertainment. For us, that experience is great food, a varsity of drink options. Coupled with a free T-shirt, great promotions, other elements. All directed to provide fans with a great experience.
NYSJ: Do you think fans take it for granted or do they appreciate the effort being put into making a trip to the Citi Field much more than seeing a baseball game?
LD: It’s our job to see that they enjoy themselves and have a great time, whether they are here as a family, a couple or a group of friends. And when they go home they think to themselves, or tell others, 'We had a great time. We had a great experience.' Of course, what greatly adds to the experience is something over which we have no control: the Mets winning. I don’t think fans take winning for granted, so, in that same way, I don’t think they take for granted the experience and options we offer to them. And we offer so many different things, be it food, promotions, places for people to gather and watch the game if they don’t want to be in their seats, that the experience changes from game to game.
NYSJ: I’m sure you remember the days when fans could go down before a game to certain areas and get player autographs, or at least have some conversation, which seems to be much harder to do these days. What are you doing to bring the fans and players closer together?
LD: It’s all about the fans. Keeping the fans happy. Keeping them personally connected to the players and the game. One of the big ways we do it is through social media. It works for the players on many levels and the fans have the direct connection they want. As for autographs before the game, there is a lot less of the actual fan-player one-on-one autographs at all ballparks. But at Citi Field, before the game, if you look down the right field line, (outfielder) Curtis Granderson, is talking to fans. He’ll stop on his way to right field and pose for pictures with the fans.
NYSJ: How have fans reacted?
LD: The fans think that’s great. Signing autographs after a while becomes mundane (for the players). There’s a re-sale marketing for autographs. But if you get a picture with a player, you’re probably going to keep that picture. That builds a much better relationship between a player and a fan. And we encourage players to do that as much as possible.
NYSJ: Are you finding that your corporate partners are getting more creative when it comes to the overall experience in the ballpark and also making the experience as personal to fans as possible?
LD: We’ve seen big changes in that regard. In the past, a company might come in put up a sign and figure that was enough to attract fans. Now, it is more and more about fan engagement, driving fans to your Web site or to buy your product because you’ve made an effort to reach out to them instead of being satisfied with having them find you. For us, Budweiser, Delta, Coca-Cola, they want to have a presence, they want to have a place where they can interact with fans. And by them doing that, it impacts the Mets' brand and how fans perceive us. And that’s the best part. Finding ways for us to activate the partnership so that the fans come first, but we benefit and our partners benefit. It’s a two-way street.
"We offer so many different options, be it food, promotions, places for people to gather, that the experience changes from game to game."
NYSJ: With so many of your fans being kids who grew up to be fans of the team as adults, do you find marketing partners want to build a relationship with the Mets so that they could interact with a young demographic that potential could become consumers for life?
LD: I know that the Mets are happy when we hear adults come in and say they’ve been fans since they were kids. We have a lot of promotions geared for kids and families. We have Family Sundays. It’s a gigantic festival of inflatables, interactive games, face-painters, give-aways, other activities all aimed at a younger audience. It’s two hours before the game outside the stadium and it’s free. Then you go to the game if you have tickets, watch the Mets win, and then we let the kids run the bases. So you get a lot more than tickets to the game. And it’s a great want to connect with a younger audience. McDonald’s is our partner for that this year and other partners are involved.
NYSJ: How big a challenge is it to keep all of your partners happy in the context of not having their messages, strategies and activation unique so they there is brand retention among fans, in particular if several brands have united for a specific promotion?
LD: That is very important to us. When we plan events, and sit down with our partners, we work hard to give each one their own space, to make certain everything is segmented. So that every partner, even if more than one are working together, they have ample opportunity to get their message to the fans. For example, we used to have static signage with five different partners, and it would be up for the whole game. And we learned that it wasn’t the most effective way to have fans retain the messages of those partners. Now, we have LED signage, and one of the big advantages of LED signage is that we can give each partner their own space. If my sign is going to be up I want to be up for an entire half-inning, and not have any other message interfere with it.
NYSJ: The Mets have a situation in that the team played in Shea Stadium from 1964 until Citi Field opened in 2009. (Citigroup has naming rights under a 20-year deal signed in 2008 valued at $20 million per season, according to industry analysts.) Do you remember a point when you heard people stop saying ‘We’re going to Shea Stadium’ and start saying ‘We’re going to Citi Field’?
LD: (Laughs.) People started saying Citi Field right away, but the attachment to Shea Stadium was strong for a long time, and still is because of everything that happened there. I don’t know if there was a specific moment, but I have heard as the years have gone on that you don’t hear people say Shea Stadium. Citi has been a terrific partner for us, and they do a lot of activation that connects their name with the Mets, beyond putting their name on the stadium.
NYSJ: Is there a mix of joy and melancholy in that you want people to continue to have great experiences in Citi but don’t want them to forget the history that happened in Shea?
LD: At this point, we’re going into our ninth year in Citi, so there are a growing number of kids who never went to Shea Stadium and only know it through the Mets history. And as the team continues to win and we continue to build and enhance the fan experience in Citi Field, that’s the memories that fans will carry with them.
Q&A: Ballpark Food Is Fare And Fowl And Hits The Spot
Nathan’s Famous may have signed a deal this month to become the first official hot dog for MLB, but food offerings in MLB parks are going farther beyond dogs, burgers and fries every year.
Aramark this season will provide food and beverage, retail and/or facilities services to teams including the Baltimore Orioles (Camden Yards), Boston Red Sox (Fenway Park), Colorado Rockies (Coors Field), Houston Astros (Minute Maid Park), Kansas City Royals, New York Mets (Citi Field), Philadelphia Phillies (Citizens Bank Park), Pittsburgh Pirates (PNC Park), San Diego Padres (Petco Park) and Toronto Blue Jays (Rogers Centre).
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Patrick Schaeffer, Aramark senior executive chef, about lobster, sushi, steak, fries, cheese curds and other favorites at Citi Field and other MLB stadiums.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Ballpark food used to be hot dogs, fries, beer. Now you can get Lobster Melt (Boston Red Sox Fenway Park), LaFrieda Black Angus Steak Frites (New York Mets Citi Field), Braised Kielbasa Reuben (Pittsburgh Pirates PNC Park), Short Rib Cheese Curds (Kansas City Royals Kauffman Stadium) and Apple Pie Nachos (Colorado Rockies Coors Field). Does that make chefs all-stars at the ballparks?
Chef Patrick Schaeffer: (Laughs.) Aramark prides itself on the quality of the food and the way we present it to our guests. We do prepare some analytics to see what sells and what doesn’t. We have some information based one that. But as chefs and culinarians in an environment such as Citi Field, we actually push ourselves to come up with fresh creations. We work with people such as Chef Michael White, John Capon (Citi Field Bash Burger pictured below), Pat LeFrieda and all those guys. That’s what helps to keep my ideas fresh and keeps me motivated.
NYSJ: Would you like to hear people say they are going to Citi Field for the food and we’ll also see a baseball game?
Chef Patrick: It would make me happy to hear that. But it makes our job a lot easier when the team is doing well on the field. It’s all part of the entertainment.
NYSJ: Is part of the challenge, be it in New York or elsewhere, that people have access to great food and restaurants, so when they come here and know that a professional chef is overseeing the menu there are certain high expectations?
Chef Patrick: We do want everyone who comes here and eats to have a great experience, and one that they tell others about. New York is made up of hugely diverse communities, in its people, its food, its culture. So we want folks to be able to come to Citi Field perhaps taste something they can’t get in their neighborhood. A different taste from the city or a different taste from the region.
NYSJ: Topps just released an insert set of trading cards featuring menu items from MLB ballparks, including Citi Field’s Classic Pastrami Sandwich a nd several other Aramark items from around baseball. Was that a nice reward?
Chef Patrick: We are known here for our Classic Pastrami Sandwich, and I would put it up against any pastrami sandwich. So it was really neat to see it on a trading card. Especially since people can collect them along with the trading cards of the players.
NYSJ: Do you hear from the Mets or visiting players who eat the food here, either pro or con?
Chef Patrick: Absolutely. They don’t come to the restaurants or concession areas to get food. We bring it to the club house. So there are certain days where we will do a 'taste of the ballpark' and bring in many of the items we prepare. The players seem to like that. I haven’t heard any complaints.
NYSJ: Does it surprise you when you meet athletes, and not just baseball players, who enjoy cooking and enjoy making creative dishes at home?
Chef Patrick: In today’s culture, everybody is into cooking. It’s hard not to be into cooking. There are a lot of guys in the locker room who are passionate about food. Are into where the food comes from, if its a local farm. Some of them go back to their home towns and bring food from here with them.
NYSJ: Nine MLB ballparks currently operate their own in-stadium gardens. The gardens in AT&T Park, Busch Stadium, Fenway Park (pictured), Coors Field, Nationals Park, Progressive Field and Safeco Field are all utilized to source food for concession stands and restaurants within the ballpark. How does that work?
Chef Patrick: In some stadiums where we have a presence, we have found space to grow produce and actually use it in our menu items. A big part of our cross-training is going to different stadiums and venues to see what is being prepared, how fans are reacting, as in the case of Fenway Park (Fenway Farms, a 5,000-square-foot rooftop farm opened in 2015) to see if there is some new or different concept we can incorporate, and in some cases to see how we can assist.
NYSJ: There have been some cooking shows on Food Network, such as Chopped, where they have chefs compete, and it’s not unusual to see someone who prepares food at a sports venue in the mix. Have you found that helps to get the word out that it’s much more than hot dogs and burgers being prepared in stadiums?
Chef Patrick: I have. It really supports the message about how diversified food in a ballpark can be. I also have found that people become interested in cooking, and in some cases want to work in a ballpark, because they see someone who prepares food in a sports stadium on one of those shows. In those times when I want to recruit for a ballpark staff, I have found that it has become much easier to find someone who is very good in the kitchen, is creative and wants to work in sports.
NYSJ: Is it fun knowing that chefs are celebrities?
Chef Patrick: (Laughs.) Yes!
Aramark Serves Appetizing MLB Menus, Topps Cooks Up Culinary Trading Cards
Back to Home Page