The Grand Salami was among the new members of the food lineup that Seattle’s T-Mobile Park introduced. (Courtesy Centerplate)

How media day evolved into a full-scale culinary event

Ballpark chefs tire of getting asked the question of what they do during the offseason. “This is what we are doing,” said Steve Dominguez, Centerplate regional vice president at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park, after a media tasting event that drew at least 100 to the stadium ahead of the season. “Media day is opening day for us, and we show off our hard work.”

As food culture has grown nationwide, food culture in stadiums has built up alongside, allowing the preseason Major League Baseball team-by-team media day to turn more into a full-on culinary tasting event.

“We used to see these tastings as a small component of larger media days, but they’ve evolved into stand-alone events,” said Tom Funk, chief operating officer for Levy, which has about half a dozen MLB accounts. “Our chefs and operators work for the entire offseason to plan their menus and by the time these tastings roll around, they can’t wait to share them with the fans. We encourage all of our partners to host these events, as there really is no better way to get fans excited about what they can enjoy at the ballpark than sharing an early look with the media.”

From Seattle to Texas and New York to Los Angeles, the embracing of the tasting event allows teams and concession partners to showcase new items, create a buzz before Opening Day and give media a fresh story coming off spring training and into the season. “We are trying to create energy around new items,” Dominguez said. “You don’t always have that $10 million project to announce, but this lets you be there every year. It gets us in the minds of fans and helps spread the message and market an item at the critical point before Opening Day.”

Getting those new items in front of fans has grown easier with the popularizing of food culture. Funk said that when Levy began hosting these events, the guest lists were narrow and focused on local food and sports writers. In the last few years, though, lifestyle and fashion reporters, social media influencers and pretty much any type of journalist is welcome. “It’s easy to send menus and photos to journalists listing what’s new, but when you get the reporters to come out to the ballpark and see, smell and taste the food, they get really excited about it,” he said.

John Blake, executive vice president of communications for the Texas Rangers, said the tasting event has turned into one of the most anticipated events of the year, something that has really grown in the last five years. “It has become not just informative but a lot of fun,” he said. “We get a lot of play on it, and I’ve tried to time it right before Opening Day to give us a really good buzz going into the season.”

Beyond just the new creations from Delaware North, concessionaire for the team and about a dozen other MLB clubs, the Rangers also show off new merchandise items from Delaware North and highlight key promotional events. And Dallas media loves it. From podcasts to Facebook Live streaming to social media posts aplenty, Blake calls it a “great tool” and a way to attract a variety of media. Plus, doing the event over lunch really allows the team to get everyone eating.

Casey Rapp, Delaware North’s general manager at Globe Life Park, said when he started in 2004 the media event was as much about parking information as food with just one or two products to sample. Now, though, expect a dozen — or more — new items every year. And it has grown every season.

“It is more than just about us,” said Rapp, who really helped make the media event a food tasting event with sample-size tasting menus and a wealth of new items. “A lot of other teams have started to get on board with this, almost making it like a friendly competition. I think there is a lot more attention being paid to what the new items are, and MLB is even taking notice” with its New York-based Food Festival that debuted last year.

Rapp and Dominguez showcase the new items, using it as a way to highlight both the fresh offerings from a taste standpoint, but also giving information about where to find them and how much they cost. “We use it as a way to let them know there are a lot of culinary-type items at a ballpark,” Rapp said. “It is not just hot dogs and nachos.”

On the actual day of the event, the chefs get to work creating all the new dishes. They’ve already made these dishes countless times during the process of building a new menu, so this isn’t so much a practice run as just another chance to create. With most events hovering over the lunch hour, the teams create the items and take professional photos to share with those who weren’t able to make the event.

Rapp says they have handouts available at the event with pricing, locations and who to contact if they want pictures. Stations are set up for pictures and journalists can sample the food while chefs and managers remain available for interviews, including for live lunch hits for local television or Facebook Live streams.

Getting to the point of a media day fills the offseason. With November and December as brainstorming months, Rapp says they whittle down the roughly 50 ideas for new items to 20 by the first part of January and then start tasting and sampling. Some ideas take more time to create, such as when the Rangers introduced the Boomstick in 2012, a 3-pound, 2-foot-long hot dog loaded with items, as they needed to figure out how to even make some of the components. For this year, the Rangers had to discern how to create the Fowl Pole, a 2-pound chicken tender that must be baked and then fried.

Teams will take fan feedback — the Rangers meet with their vegan fan club president to discuss new vegan items for the year — and connect with new local purveyors over the offseason. Seattle has introduced a variety of new local partners and has a special location in center field that shows off a handful of them in one location.

The tasting event also offers an opportunity to introduce new partners and their products alongside the unveiling of the dozen or more new food items fans will see at the ballpark. And all along the way it gives journalists the chance to eat around the ballpark in one easy hour.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was originally published. Steve Dominguez is a regional vice president for Centerplate.