Turkey burgers and fruit salads sit alongside hot dogs and sodas, and do well with fans.
During a recent BlueClaws baseball game at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, N.J., John Walters accompanied daughter Rachel, 7, to the concession stand, where she smiled as she unwrapped a crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bottle of water.
Other patrons behind them were similarly excited as they walked away with their turkey burgers, veggie burgers and fresh fruit. Could this be a ballpark, a place famous for its hot dogs, soda and Cracker Jacks? Yes, but FirstEnergy Park is one of a growing number that has introduced a seemingly unconventional concept in the annals of American baseball stadiums: lighter and more nutritious concessions for an increasingly health-conscious fan base.
“For most people, ballparks are all about ‘fun’ foods, like going to the carnival — so hot dogs, french fries, ice cream, soda, beer and chicken tenders are still the most popular items at our concession stand,” said Eric McConnell, concessions manager at Yogi Berra Stadium in Upper Montclair, N.J., home of the New Jersey Jackals. “But there’s a greater awareness of healthier options than ever before, so you’ve got to have the veggie burgers and salads to satisfy that segment of your audience.”
Though cooking and serving space is limited at the 3,800-seat stadium, “we recently started offering options like Caesar salads, veggie burgers, marinated chicken breast sandwiches, and flavored frozen yogurt from Applegate Farms, and will of course accommodate any special request,” McConnell said. “We want to offer those healthier options and do what we can to meet our customers’ changing needs.”
At the 6,100-seat TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater, N.J., home of the Atlantic League’s Somerset Patriots, Mike McDermott, local general manager of Centerplate, said that TD Bank has been experimenting with healthier options for several years.
“We tried different things during the ‘carb craze,’ including tofu hot dogs and bunless burgers, but ultimately installed our Healthy Options window on the third base side about three or four years ago,” he said.
There, fans can enjoy turkey and chicken wraps with baked potato chips, mixed garden and Caesar salads, fresh fruit salads, and veggie burgers.
“This year, we added our new frozen chiller smoothies, which are 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices in four different flavors, including strawberry mango,” he added, “and we also offer a vegetable burrito as well as gluten-free hot dog and hamburger buns upon request.”
At the 6,600-seat FirstEnergy Park, BlueClaws General Manager Brandon Marano said the stadium’s decision to offer a line of health-conscious fare was part of a concerted effort to support both fans and employees.
“Hamburgers and hot dogs are great if you’re here for one night, but our season ticket holders, who attend up to 80 games a season, wanted other options,” Marano said, “as did many of our 300 game-day employees, who also eat here.”
Those requests led to the stadium’s new Healthy Plate Concession Stand initiative, offered in conjunction with Horizon Blue Cross & Blue Shield of New Jersey.
“Working with Blue Cross’ professional dietitians, we’re now offering menu items including turkey and veggie burgers, veggie hot dogs, uncrustable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, baked chips, vanilla frozen yogurt with three different fruit toppings, fresh fruit salad, and a variety of non-soda beverages,” Marano said. “You can have your whole meal at the Healthy Plate Concession Stand.”
Launched on opening night in April, “the stand is doing well so far, and we’re hoping it continues to take off,” he said. “It’s something new, but a lot of stadiums and public venues are moving toward healthier options, even in their vending machines. People are asking for these items and we want to offer something for everyone.”
From an operations perspective as well, the new Healthy Plate Concession Stand has proven to be a successful way to serve the stadium’s health-conscious clientele.
“Before, we used to have to special-order food for clients who were vegetarians or who had special needs,” BlueClaws supervisor Diana Trub said. “Now these customers are really enjoying our turkey and veggie burgers, and we expect that the frozen yogurt and fruit salads with fresh cantaloupe, pineapple, strawberries and honeydew will be big hits as well.”
At Trenton, N.J.s’s 6,200-seat Arm & Hammer Park, home of the Trenton Thunder, Director of Food Services Kevin O’Byrne is excited about the stadium’s new Healthy Plate Concession Stand, which, like the one at FirstEnergy Park, was rolled out this season in conjunction with Horizon Blue Cross & Blue Shield.
“We’re offering entrees that represent healthier takes on ballpark favorites, like vegetarian hot dogs and hamburgers, lean turkey and roast beef sandwiches, a portobello mushroom and grilled veggie sandwich on a wheat bun, baked potatoes with broccoli and turkey bacon toppings, and gluten-free cookies and frozen yogurt,” O’Byrne said. “Entrees are all generally under 300 calories each, and all of their nutritional information is displayed.”
So how have these options played out so far?
“Probably less than 10 percent of our fans are currently buying them, but they represent a vocal and growing segment,” the Patriots’ McDermott said. “Having these items helps people stick to their diets and eat healthier while enabling our ballpark to reinvent itself every year so that things don’t get stale for fans.”
The Thunder’s O’Byrne confirmed that their Healthy Plate Concession Stand is experiencing a similar growth in popularity.
“Ballparks haven’t traditionally been places where you could exercise healthy food choices, but people enjoy having the ability to eat healthier,” he said. “In fact, we’re selling more of our vegetarian chili than our regular chili.”
BlueClaws fan Kathy Snell said “the turkey burger is great. The other food is good, but it can be fattening, so this is a nice alternative.”
And one that area ballparks are hoping will be a home run.
“We want to make sure we’re addressing this growing slice of our fan base and serving as a model of what ballparks can and should be,” O’Byrne said.
Source: Susan Bloom, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press