SBJ/July 17 - 23, 2006/SBJ In Depth

Consumers put heat on concessionaires

Rick Abramson remembers the 1960s when most ballpark hot dogs were boiled in big kettles, drained in cheesecloth and dipped in mustard before they were dumped in bun warmers to keep until the gates opened and hungry fans flocked to the concession stands.

Customers prefer to see the hot dog prepared
fresh ­— pre-wrapped dogs are a no-no.
Abramson, president of Delaware North Sportservice, a 91-year-old concessions company, started selling hot dogs for the company as a teenager at old Milwaukee County Stadium. “Before Sterno, we put charcoal in the bottom of the vending trays to keep the hot dogs warm,” Abramson said. “There were two compartments, one for the buns and one for the dogs. Vendors went up and down the seats with napkins and a jar of mustard.”

Russell Szekely, Aramark’s chef at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, remembers when a lot of pre-wrapped, steamed hot dogs were served. “You would walk up to the stand, the worker would reach into a drawer and out would come a dog, and you’re not sure when they cooked it.”

Now, it’s all about freshness, grilling a dog and handing it right to the customer. Said Szekely, “No more mystery dogs.”

Steaming and storing hot dogs was partly a function of faster cooking times and transaction turnarounds. In the last two to three decades, however, customer demands for a better product and increased safety standards have changed the way hot dogs are prepared and served.

“We determined if you can get away from the steam dog and go with a combination of flat grills and rollers, people prefer them to be cooked that way,” said Ken Young, president of Ovations Food Services.

“If there’s a choice, we usually go with a grilled kosher dog,” Young said. “Grilling a fresh dog really doesn’t take that much longer as long as you have the right number of employees. The tradeoff is it’s a fraction slower vs. higher quality, but it’s worth it — that’s what the customer thinks.”

The trend has actually gone full circle, said Chris Bigelow, a food service consultant and a former Aramark and Centerplate employee.

“Twenty years ago, it was a flat grill [product] and you didn’t need exhaust hoods,” Bigelow said. “Then the fire marshal came in and [implemented grill regulations] and everybody went to roller grills or steamed and boiled on the East Coast. Now, in the new generation of stadiums, people love to see the dogs [charred] on the grill. It’s back to the old system [with] upfront hoods.”

John Vingas, Centerplate’s vice president of catering, describes fans’ enjoyment in watching the cooking process as “culinary theater.”

“Seeing it, smelling it, interacting with the stand worker and ultimately eating it,” Vingas said. “We’re coming from the days of the steaming drawer with a small wet bun compressed around the hot dog.”

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