The Dilly Dog was a rookie sensation for the Texas Rangers and Delaware North Sportservice last season. (Courtesy Delaware North Sportservice)

Expansion of MLB FoodFest a testament to baseball’s ties to food

After the success of Major League Baseball’s inaugural FoodFest event in New York City in 2018, the league has not only brought back the event but also expanded it to Los Angeles and London for 2019. The event, which makes its first appearance in LA later this month, brings unique concession items from all 30 MLB stadiums under one roof and testifies to the prominence of concessions at the heart of the baseball stadium experience.

“Baseball games appear to be about the experience throughout the ballpark as much as it is about seeing the two teams play,” said Andrew Spencer, vice president of customer engagement and revenue at Delaware North.

Compared with in-game transactions at NFL, NHL and Major League Soccer venues, where purchases primarily happen during breaks in the action, MLB transactions take place evenly throughout the game.

“We have tracked transaction dollars and unit sales by time and see that baseball per caps rise about an hour before the first pitch and tend to be very stable throughout the game versus other leagues, when the game play will interrupt sales in a very dramatic fashion,” Spencer said. “Our findings indicate that the importance of food and food choice is more important to baseball fans than other sports fan.”

While Aramark spokesperson David Freireich said that food isn’t necessarily more valuable to the baseball experience, it is more integrated. “Perhaps more than any other sport, the food experience in baseball has become an essential part of shaping the overall gameday experience as well as a defining ballpark characteristic,” he said.

Various factors help contribute to this: the warmer months encouraging movement around the stadium, the length of the game and style of play with 18 half-inning changeovers, and the length of an 81-game home season attracting fans to the stadium multiple times. Especially for season-ticket holders, having a “wide variety of great food becomes very important,” Spencer said. Baseball also tends to attract more families.

“All of these factors create an environment that encourages socializing and is conducive to moving around,” Freireich said. “It’s important to remember that fans are foodies too, so we design our menus to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and flavors. Menus need to be fresh, innovative, on-trend and taste good.”

Mike Plutino, founder and CEO of the Food Service Matters consultancy, said the culture of baseball and food are more closely aligned than in other sports. He credits the history — the “buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack” line from “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” comes as part of the tradition — of connecting fans to food and also teams creating a preseason “food story” every season. “It sets the stage for a season’s worth of taste-testing and it is a win-win for the fans, the teams and the team’s food and beverage sponsors,” he said.

Signature food items are released every year on a national scale, and many of those big-ticket items or family-share creations are available in general concessions.

While traditional fare of hot dogs and peanuts remain the most popular at ballparks, the diversity in today’s menus that incorporate local brands and restaurants, partnerships with celebrity chiefs and multiple styles, such as sit-down restaurants and social areas, is a way to appeal to a diverse mix.

The connection to the region really helps, Plutino said. From partnerships with local chefs who already have a following or craft brewers known in the area, infusing flavors and experiences from the community into the ballpark —Lobel’s Steak Sandwich at Yankees Stadium and David Chang’s Fuku spicy chicken sandwiches at Citi Field, both in New York; garlic fries at Oracle Park in San Francisco; and the Chef Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago serve as examples in his mind — “we’ve found that today’s increasingly food-savvy fans want quality and convenience and have shown a willingness to engage in the local food story.”

Spencer said research shows that baseball fans will enter the building and roam throughout the venue to sample new items and find favorites, whereas in other leagues they see fans stay closer to their seats. This meandering lifestyle, Aramark said, leads to a different spending nature. Per caps run higher in the NFL, driven by suite catering, but sales volume and the number of transactions per game tend to be higher in baseball. Food and beverage sales also represent a higher percentage of team revenue in baseball, compared with football.

Freireich said the MLB FoodFest is a symbol of how popular food has become and how food served at ballparks offers an extension of the team brand. “At the start of every baseball, football and arena season we unveil new menus and, without question, our ballpark food offerings always attract the most attention and generate the most engagement,” he said.

MLB FoodFest runs April 26-28 at Magic Box at The Reef near downtown Los Angeles. Each $45 standard ticket gives visitors a chance to try eight different food items. A $75 ticket gets them up to 33 different food items. An additional $15 gives ticket-holders access to three beers.

Details have yet to be announced for the London and New York events, which will take place in the second half of the season.

Other leagues are taking notice too. Bob Chesterman, NHL senior vice president of events and entertainment, said the league has discussed adding a food event as a stand-alone or as part of an existing event.

NHL officials attended last year’s MLB FoodFest. “We were impressed with the overall concept and the ultimate execution,” Chesterman said.