Forget the Spicy Tuna Rolls; Most Fans Still Just Want a Dog
By Ken Belson
BOSTON — The Fenway Frank. The Dodger Dog. The Cincinnati Cheese Coney. They are, for better or worse, the gastronomic benchmarks at baseball stadiums across the country, and as much a gustatory ritual as beer, peanuts and Cracker Jack.
The humble hot dog and its culinary cousin the sausage have also managed to withstand the onslaught from food courts, luxury suites and expanded, health-conscious menus that fill the nearly two dozen ballparks built since 1990.
“It seems like no matter what they add, the No. 1-selling item remains the hot dog,” said Chris Bigelow, a consultant to stadium concessionaires. “It must be a Pavlovian response: you come to a ballpark, you have to have a hot dog. It’s true in the suites, too, despite all that catering.”
Fans are expected to gobble 26.3 million hot dogs and sausages at major league parks this season, according to estimates by the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. In many parks, hot dogs make up roughly 10 percent of food and beverage sales, and they are also a fan favorite in Japan and other baseball-loving countries.
Hot dog and sausage consumption around the majors has remained remarkably steady during the last decade or so, even as teams have turned their stadiums into designer dining destinations, with steakhouses, themed restaurants, brew pubs and waiter service. They have also withstood a public health campaign in New York that requires that calorie counts be posted on menus, including many of those at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium, where hot dogs remain top sellers.
Given the more elaborate dining options at these and other new ballparks, hot dogs may even end up being a default for diet-conscious fans.
“From a calorie perspective, a hot dog and a light beer might be one of the better options,” said Brian Elbel, an assistant professor of medicine and health policy at New York University, who conducted a study that showed that posting calorie counts in restaurants did little to change consumer eating habits. The introduction of veggie dogs, with one-third the calories and almost no fat, have failed to unseat the all-beef or beef-pork frank.
There is no shortage of theories on why the hot dog remains the top-selling food item at ballparks, and books and scholarly articles have even been written on the topic. Hot dogs can be boiled, steamed, grilled or barbecued, and filled with beef, pork, turkey and a variety of spices. They can be tailored to suit one’s taste with mustard, relish, onions, sauerkraut and any number of other toppings.
The all-American hot dog is also relatively cheap, can be eaten while watching the game and requires only one hand (leaving the other one free to hold a beer or a cellphone, or to catch a foul ball). For most fans, they are also often the only prepared food served at their seats.
Hot dogs are also among the most profitable foods served at ballparks. They are precooked and need only to be steamed or caramelized, keeping the preparation time brief and the turnover high. They take up half as much space as a hamburger on a grill and require less ventilation when cooking. Fans apply their own condiments, reducing labor costs.
“We believe in hot dogs, they’re our bread and butter,” said Rick Abramson, the president of sport service at the Delaware North Companies, which handles the concessions at nine major league ballparks.
Hot dogs and baseball have a long history, though the details of their relationship are as murky as the hot water that dirty dogs are cooked in. Harry M. Stevens, a vendor at the old Polo Grounds in New York, is widely credited with marrying the dog, the bun and baseball when, in 1901, he started serving “dachshund sausages” on rolls.
Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, a cartoonist, was supposedly at the game and could not spell dachshund, so instead wrote “hot dog.” Researchers later found that Dorgan was not at the Polo Grounds in 1901, and discovered references in The Yale Record from 1895 to students who “contentedly munched on hot dogs.”
Babe Ruth's hot-dog-eating binges were so extreme, they sidelined him from games.
“The traditional American hot dog has not taken a back seat to designer food,” said Becky Mercuri, who wrote “The Great American Hot Dog Book.” “They’ve introduced everything from salad to sushi, but frankly speaking, the hot dog is still king.”
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