Nats Fans Need A Taste of What O's Fans Have

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By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Three months into Washington's baseball renaissance, ice cream has arrived at the Bobby.

It's just packaged bars and sandwiches -- soft-serve is still a dream -- but let's count our blessings. Who knows what miracles may lie ahead: Hot dog vendors in the stands? Half-smokes?

Well, maybe not half-smokes. When I asked the head honcho for Aramark, the company that runs the concessions at RFK Stadium, whether Washington's favorite hometown specialty might make an appearance at the ballpark, Mike Hudachek replied, "Half-smokes? I never even heard of them."

But to his credit, Hudachek whipped out a little notebook and promised to get right on it. Aramark, facing pressure from fans, the mayor and the stadium's landlord, is working hard to fix the food at RFK. This is serious stuff; a good baseball concession does $40 million a year in sales.

In Washington's love affair with our Nationals, most fans happily overlook the crumbling stadium's shortcomings. Sure, you need a high-powered telescope to read the scoreboard. And the PA system is maddeningly thin.

But, oh, those Nats -- these scrappy survivors play old-fashioned smallball, specialize in late-inning comebacks and are as thrilled by RFK's big crowds as we are to have the game back.

The crowds are bigger than that Baltimore team's. Take that, Peter ("There are no real baseball fans in D.C.") Angelos. Everybody's happy -- except about the food.

"Aramark has made some changes and the lines don't look as bad to me, but there has to be a quality improvement," says Allen Lew, chief of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which runs RFK. "I need them to try harder."

Lew wants local foods on the menu. Hudachek says that's coming -- just this week, a Burrito Brothers stand opened. But why can't RFK have something like Boog Powell's barbecue stand alongside Oriole Park? There's plenty of room outside RFK. Aramark says it's working on a such a venture.

But RFK's offerings aren't likely to match those at Camden Yards -- not this season, not ever. And since Baltimore was where Washington fans went for a baseball fix during our long captivity, that's what molded our expectations.

So I spent a day with Aramark executives at both stadiums to find the cause of the service gap. Oriole Park, which Aramark has served since the stadium opened in 1992, has 50-foot-wide concourses with plenty of room for food stands. Some RFK concourses are less than half that wide.

Baltimore has generous storage and freezer space, so supplying stands with food for a whole game is no problem. Many RFK stands, half the size of those in Baltimore, have no storage space, no fridge. Aramark has built enormous walk-in coolers since Opening Day, easing the supply problem, but workers still must cart food from beneath the stadium to the upper deck mid-game--without elevators.

The Orioles' kitchen is spacious and modern. RFK's -- carved this spring out of an old concession stand -- has no air conditioning and is narrower than a traffic lane. Yet Executive Chef Laurence Cohen managed to fix rack of lamb when the president dropped by. (Bush's party appreciated the lamb but called down for hot dogs.)

Baltimore has more than 700 food workers; RFK has about 500. RFK has more hawkers in the stands, but 75 percent sell beer, while only 40 percent do so in Baltimore.

Hudachek says that must change. "The hawkers are entrepreneurs, and they want to sell beer because that's how they make the most money. But our job is to make the fan experience a happy one, and we need to get those guys to hawk hot dogs."

Today's fans expect ethnic and local specialties -- chili in Cincinnati, cheese steaks in Philly. Aramark managers believe RFK can handle a bigger menu, but only with better infrastructure. "Wherever we can find a plug, we put in an ice machine," says Greg Costa, Aramark's RFK manager, pointing to an extension cord stretching down three levels from ice machine to outlet.

Amazingly, some District politicians argue that RFK is good enough. They want to renege on the promise to build a new ballpark. They need to see how much jury-rigging it's taken to make this outdated mess remotely usable.

Camden Yards-quality service will come only after the Bobby has been flattened. Meanwhile, the Good Humor man is here, and in this summer of miracles, that's fine for now.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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