By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
There will be cherry trees on Center Field Plaza and cherry pie as well. Plus iconic chili dogs. And sushi.
When Nationals Park officially opens March 30, fans are in for an entirely different baseball experience, especially once they get hungry.
Blocks from the Capitol, on the banks of the Anacostia River, sea gulls glide past the 4,811-square-foot scoreboard, perhaps with hopes of good crumbs to come. You might not find a place to park, but on Opening Day you will find plenty to eat and drink. Among the vendors will be 11 local independent businesses, including Ben's Chili Bowl and Gifford's Ice Cream & Candy.
"Our offerings are going to be hard to rival," Nationals spokeswoman Chartese Burnett said last week as she stepped back to avoid a forklift loaded with kitchen equipment on the main concourse, which is still a construction site. "I'm a vegetarian, and to be able to get sushi and veggie burgers at a ballpark? Come on. We'll have something for everyone."
Baseball fans have already said goodbye to well-worn RFK Stadium, with its long concession lines for tepid sausage sandwiches and precooked hamburgers under the management of Aramark. At some games, vendors ran out of food in early innings because of the lack of on-site cooking and storage facilities. The final insult: The seats at RFK didn't even have cup holders.
To shorten the wait and make sure fans are never far from the action on the field, the stadium will have 48 concession stands, up from 35 at RFK, using nearly 200 cash registers. Three sprawling club restaurants will encompass more than six times the square footage of the old park's Diamond Club. One will fire pizzas in a wood-burning oven.
For patrons with deep pockets, just steps away from the 500 thickly padded $300 Presidential Seats will be the posh President's Club, outfitted with a gorgeous oval cherry bar and a wall of glass that looks onto the home team's indoor batting cage. And throughout the park, tier upon tier, there will be a cup holder at each of the 41,222 seats.
Centerplate, the Connecticut-based catering management firm handling the food service, has a strong nationwide reputation for good-quality food and reliable service. Locally, it also has a proven track record at FedEx Field and the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
The company will run its own concepts throughout the park, where the official hot dogs will be Gwaltney in the concessions and Hebrew National in the suites. But beyond its own food, including sushi and pizza, "when we go into a new venue, we like to have a sense of the local customs and flavors and bring that into the ballpark," says Centerplate spokeswoman Gail Doar. "We want to offer people more than standard fare."
At AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, for example, Centerplate brought in Ghirardelli ice cream, and the 40-clove garlic chicken sandwich from the local restaurant Stinking Rose.
At Nationals Park, some of Washington's most beloved institutions will be represented.
"Our customers are saying it's going to be great," says Kamal Ali, whose parents, Ben and Virginia, opened Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street in 1958. The Alis plan to decorate their concession with a big family photo.
In the Left Center Field Food Court, Boardwalk Fries, which started in Ocean City in 1980, will be next to Red Hot & Blue, which opened in Arlington in 1988. The barbecue place had a concession with a limited menu at RFK Stadium, but at the new venue it will sell sandwiches of beef brisket, pulled pork and pulled chicken as well as potato salad, coleslaw and nachos.
Other vendors with a local pedigree are Gifford's, Cantina Marina, Hard Times Cafe, La Piccola Gelateria, Mayorga Coffee, Noah's Pretzels, Kosher Sports and Krazee Ice. (Representatives of Five Guys and Capitol City Brewing Co. have also talked to Centerplate, but no deals had been reached as of Monday.)
For some of the vendors, selling at the ballpark is a good way to get their names before the public.
"This is our big break and great for our brand image," says Sheila Prince, co-owner of Krazee Ice, a Clinton-based snow cone business that for several years has sold from a truck at events in Prince George's County. Prince and partner Tanya Thomas will have a cart on Center Field Plaza.
Doug Welsh, director of marketing for Hard Times Cafe, which opened its first location in Old Town Alexandria in 1980, also sees the opportunity mostly in terms of publicity. "We expect to be profitable but not by much," he says. Look for Hard Times in the Left Center Field Food Court.
At press time, Centerplate had not announced prices, which are set by an agreement negotiated by the company, the Nationals and the individual concessionaires. But unofficially, Welsh of Hard Times said a chili dog with no sides will go for $6.50 at the stadium, compared with $6.99 for a chili dog, fries and pickles at Hard Times restaurants; wings with blue cheese and celery will cost about $9, compared with $8.29 at the restaurants.
Fran DiFerdinando of Boardwalk Fries said a 16-ounce bag of french fries will cost $5, compared with an average price of $2 at a shopping mall.
Hand-rolled pretzels will be made on-site by Noah's Pretzels at a concession near the center field gate. The company, which started in 2007 and has a single location in Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg, is named for co-owner Dwayne Herndon's 7-year-old son.
In addition to the traditional pretzel shape, Noah's will sell a team-logo pretzel in the shape of a "W" plus a wheat- and dairy-free pretzel to serve the needs of those who, like Noah, are on special diets.
Gifford's will introduce the Dinger, vanilla ice cream sandwiched between chocolate cookies, which will cost $6.
"Growing up, I remember distinctive things that tied together food and baseball, like the Fenway Frank or the Dodger Dog," says Gifford's co-owner Neal Lieberman. (Dinger is baseball slang for a home run.)
Gifford's also will sell 10 flavors of ice cream for $5 per scoop. (At Gifford's stores, a scoop goes for $3.80.) Its main concession, between home plate and first base, also will sell milkshakes, bags of caramels and an ice cream sundae served in a miniature plastic Nationals helmet.