Hot Dogs and Beyond

Sometimes a food item, like the Joey Pankake, just has to be made. (Via West Michigan Whitecaps)

Sometimes a food item, like the Joey Pankake, just has to be made. (Via West Michigan Whitecaps)

Pensacola’s Bayfront Stadium is easily one of the most scenic ballparks in all of baseball, big leagues included. Fans pack the place night after night to enjoy gorgeous views of Pensacola Bay and some good Double-A baseball. I’m just there for the redneck egg rolls.

As the crowd grows outside the ballpark to see team co-owner and PGA star Bubba Watson get splashed in a dunking booth, I push past them and head to the concession stand on the third-base side of the park. I had no idea what redneck egg rolls were. I went on name alone. It’s hilarious. I had to at least give it a try.

I am far from the only one who feels that way about the increasing number of zany foods now served at minor league ballparks. The food trend that seemed to come with the ballpark construction boom in the big leagues is now a big deal in the minors.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., the West Michigan Whitecaps have done their own concessions since the team launched 22 years ago, giving them the freedom to serve whatever they damn well please. And that’s led to some wonderful results. Who can resist trying something called “deep fried Nutella?”

Deep-fried Nutella Poppers (Via West Michigan Whitecaps)

Deep-fried Nutella Poppers (Via West Michigan Whitecaps)

“We always used to deep fry just about everything imaginable,” said Mickey Graham, the Whitecaps’ director of marketing and media relations. “Those items were kitschy and would get some attention, but then they would just die off.”

Now, he said, Whitecaps fans have higher expectations. They want creative menu items that taste good enough that they’ll want to come back and eat them again. Deep-fried Nutella, for instance, is new this year and has already skyrocketed to the top of the popularity list.

The Fifth Third Burger (Via West Michigan Whitecaps)

The Fifth Third Burger (Via West Michigan Whitecaps)

Graham traced the trend back to the Whitecaps’ famously gluttonous Fifth-Third Burger, which it introduced to great fanfare (and, in some cases, horror) in 2009. It’s still on the menu today. The burger includes five one-third-pound hamburger patties topped with five slices of American cheese, generous helpings of nacho cheese and chili, and Fritos corn chips. It sells for $20, but you can easily stuff four people with it.

“The idea came from a promotion we did the year before,” explained Graham. “We did a healthy food cart in response to fans wanting healthier options, and it went over like a lead weight.”

Someone at one of the team’s creative brainstorming sessions that winter joked that the Whitecaps should go in the complete opposite direction and offer an over-the-top, Paul Bunyan-sized burger. Everyone laughed. Then they thought about it. The Fifth-Third Burger was born.

Hot to Tots (Via West Michigan Whitecaps)

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Hot to Tots (Via West Michigan Whitecaps)

Things escalated rather quickly from there. Graham said the team now surveys its fans every year, taking suggestions for new menu items and whittling those down to one standout idea. This year, it’s Hot to Tots, tater tots bathed in hot wing sauce and covered with blue cheese and pulled chicken.

“It tastes amazing,” said Graham. “I don’t even like spicy food, but I can’t stop eating it.”

Sometimes, ideas just fall right in your lap. When the Tigers broke camp this spring, they assigned to West Michigan a second baseman whose name you just can’t make up — Joey Pankake already sounded like a Whitecaps menu item.

Joey Pankake with the Joey Pankake. (Via West Michigan Whitecaps)

Joey Pankake with the Joey Pankake. (Via West Michigan Whitecaps)

And now, it is. The Joey Pankake, food version, features alternating layers of pancake, mesquite pulled pork and bacon topped with syrup. It’s a pregnant lady’s dream, and the team has posted a billboard in the center of town to promote it. With a name like Joey Pankake, how can you not want to try it?

That’s how I felt about redneck egg rolls. Even if they turned out to taste gross, at least I could tell all my friends I tasted them. But here’s the thing. I know it won’t. Minor league teams have raised the bar to the point where even the craziest foods are delicious.

Just look at the Charleston Riverdogs, which have a Culinary School of Charleston graduate, Josh Shea, running their food and beverage department. Perhaps no other team in the minors has raised the food bar more.

Smoked Brisket Ramen Bowl (Via Charleston RiverDogs)

Smoked Brisket Ramen Bowl (Via Charleston RiverDogs)

Need an example? Shea smokes his own brisket at the stadium for 18 hours and uses that brisket on sandwiches and a new dish that has become the hit of the 2015 season so far — the smoked brisket ramen bowl.

“It takes you back to your college days when you ate ramen all the time, except we jazz it up with vegetables and put in house smoked brisket on top of it,” said Shea.

He admitted that being based in Charleston, a culinary hotspot with tons of higher end restaurants, helps his creativity. Shea not only worked in a few high-end restaurants and fancy catering businesses after he graduated from culinary school, he now frequents them as a customer to glean little things he can apply to the ballpark menu.

Two years ago, he saw one chef doing something called a beer shake and decided that had potential at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” said Shea. “You take the milk out of the milkshake and put beer in it.”

Shea and his staff keep pairing new beers with different ice creams, like chocolate stouts and mocha porters with coffee and chocolate ice creams. But the king at this point is a blend of Guinness stout, vanilla ice cream and caramel syrup, whipped up to a milkshake consistency.

“It’s just caught on in a big way, and there’s no going back from it now,” he said.

Summer Harvest Salad (via Charleston RiverDogs)

Summer Harvest Salad (via Charleston RiverDogs)

Shea and Co. get creative for health enthusiasts, too. Anyone still holding on for dear life to the gluten-free trend can attend a Riverdogs game and enjoy gluten-free beer, black bean burgers, and tacos with roasted corn and pico de gallo. They also can try the summer harvest salad, a mix of hydroponic butter leaf lettuce, basil and tomatoes served in a souvenir batting helmet. You don’t see that anywhere else.

But let’s face it. The most popular ballpark food items, no matter how dolled up, are bad for you. Shea’s brisket may be the ideal ballpark meal for paleo diet devotees, but the No. 1 seller is the Homewrecker Hot Dog, a footlong slathered with pimiento cheese and topped with cole slaw, pickled okra, barbecue sauce and bacon. Anyone who sleeps in the same bed with someone else knows why it’s called a homewrecker.

The redneck egg rolls certainly don’t look healthy, either. The stuffed wontons are fried to a crispy brown with a side of spicy remoulade for dipping. I found out later these are the same egg rolls on the menu at Sonny’s Barbecue, a chain restaurant with locations all over the Southeast. I appreciate the Southern tie-in.

And I like that Pensacola also serves Wahoos Sushi at Bubba’s Sand Trap, a small stand named after Watson where fans can also order oysters by the dozen and shrimp by the pound. It seems only right to be able to eat seafood in a ballpark that’s on the water.

Mike Barry, director of food and beverage for the Lakewood BlueClaws, would love to serve more seafood at FirstEnergy Park, too. Lakewood is near the Jersey Shore and draws tons of fans vacationing there. He worries, however, about the relatively short shelf life. When seafood goes bad, it goes horribly, horribly bad.

Barry and the BlueClaws’ catering manager meet every Monday to kick around ideas for the next home stand. They test theories and vet each other’s suggestions to make sure whatever they go forward with meets certain criteria above and beyond great taste. Price point is a big one.

“It doesn’t matter if a hot dog is the best tasting hot dog in the history of hot dogs,” said Graham. “If it costs $15, people aren’t going to buy it.”

Portability is another consideration. Anyone who’s had a barbecue sandwich spill out from a soggy bun gets that.

“We also want to see what will work fast,” said Barry. “If you get a long line at the concession stand, how long will the wait be? How much prep work time is there?”

Beyond that, Berry and his peers in minor league ballpark food service strive for cool tie-ins with the team and town. Fans in Montgomery, Ala., for instance, expect to be able to order good old-fashioned Southern biscuits at their home ballpark. The team is called the Biscuits, for crying out loud. But the Biscuits turn it up a notch by including dispensers of Alaga Syrup, which has been produced in Montgomery for more than 100 years. (The name derives from the founder, a Georgia boy, marrying an Alabama girl.)

Alaga is like a cross between maple syrup and molasses. The locals pour it over buttered biscuits, and it tastes great on the chicken biscuits the team sells. Trust me, don’t be stingy with the syrup.

Porkroll Egg Cheeseburger (Via Lakewood BlueClaws)

Porkroll Egg Cheeseburger (Via Lakewood BlueClaws)

“Here in New Jersey at the Shore, the one big thing is pork roll,” said Barry, referring to the processed meat that looks suspiciously like bologna. “People here are very big on pork roll sandwiches, so we introduced a pork roll, egg and cheese burger at our burger stand.”

Then there’s that seafood issue, which Barry has managed to address with an otherworldly crab cake sandwich, the Triple C. It features a half-pound crab cake topped with mango and pineapple coleslaw and a generous dollop of chipotle ranch cream sauce. The Triple C won Minor League Baseball’s Food Fight contest last year, and is now one of the Claws’ most popular items this year.

The Triple C (Via Lakewood BlueClaws)

The Triple C (Via Lakewood BlueClaws)

What’s next? Well, the next big ballpark food may come from combining foods the ballpark already has on hand. Shea is leveraging that smoker as much as he can. At a recent Riverdogs homestand, he served a Smoked Mahi sandwich that went over very well. Barry said he’s thinking about doing a churro sundae. The stadium already has a soft serve machine. It sells churros. Why not give it a shot?

Charlotte Cheesesteak (Via Chris Gigley)

Charlotte Cheesesteak (Via Chris Gigley)

Regardless, there always will be something interesting and tasty to eat at a Lakewood BlueClaws game. And that’s the case at most minor league parks now. At Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla., for instance, a fella behind the third base stands makes one of the meanest cheesesteaks in baseball. And he does it over an open grill with the Florida sun bearing down on him.

Birmingham BBQ Salad (Via Chris Gigley)

Birmingham BBQ Salad (Via Chris Gigley)

The cantina in the right field corner of LoanMart Field in Rancho Cucamonga serves up giant burritos and offers a salsa bar that puts Chipotle’s salsa selection to shame. Barbecue from the legendary Alabama barbecue shack Dreamland is served at the gorgeous new ballpark in Birmingham, Ala.

Oh, and those redneck egg rolls in Pensacola? Delicious.

Stuffed with pork, coleslaw and Monterrey Jack, they are far, far better than the traditional kind. And that remoulade takes it to another level. In fact, as gorgeous as that ballpark is and as good as the baseball was — I’m from Cincinnati and Reds top prospect Robert Stephenson started! — I forgot all about all that after my second order of egg rolls.

The Redneck Egg Rolls (Via Chris Gigley)

The Redneck Egg Rolls (Via Chris Gigley)

Maybe Shea summed up the current situation at minor league ballparks best.

“You have the show in the front, which is the baseball game,” he said. “But we’re putting on another show on the back side of the stadium now with all the different variety of foods we sell and how we sell it.”

For me, anyway, that second show is quickly becoming the main event.


Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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Craig Tyle
Guest
Craig Tyle

Great article. Now, how about a follow-up on craft beer?

Chris Gigley
Guest

I would looooove to do that. For the record, there’s only one professional baseball team that has a brewery in its ballpark. Naturally, it’s the Durham Bulls. I’d start there with your beer tour.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

No spoilers, but if you had said wine, I might have had good news for you…

Yehoshua Friedman
Guest
Yehoshua Friedman

I bless you and wish you all well. On the theoretical side it is really interesting to read about all that stuff that gives me indigestion just thinking of it. I couldn’t eat it anyway because I’m kosher. Stay healthy, you guys.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

This was really fun. And now I kinda want to visit Pensacola just for those egg rolls. Definitely Charleston.

Thanks for writing this!

tz
Guest
tz

Loved the article, and now I’m really hungry!

One note – I’m very thankful for the gluten-free health “fad” that’s been out there lately. Before it became fashionable for the healthy types, eating options for folks with celiac disease or other gluten-related allergies were virtually non-existent (unless you wanted to go into anaphylactic shock). Now besides veggies and properly seasoned meats, there are actually some tolerable options for pasta, pizza, and other baked goods.

Christian
Guest
Christian

Man, after reading that, whatever I have for lunch today will be disappointing.

GC
Guest
GC

John Steinbeck had his character Doc order a beer milk shake in “Cannery Row”. Apparently Red Robin restaurants have also featured it without it catching my attention.