Where the empty calories just keep on coming
By Tim Carman,
In a game obsessed with numbers — home runs, earned run averages, stolen bases, Derek Jeter hookups — it should come as little surprise, that, given half a chance, baseball fans can rattle off exactly how many hot dogs they’ve wolfed down during the course of a nine-inning game.
Case in point: Before the first pitch at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore last week, Mark Mirchandani casually announced that he already had gobbled three Esskay dogs. Nearly three hours later, when the Orioles had finished off the Toronto Blue Jays, 2-1, Mirchandani said he had polished off 10 franks — not to mention two orders of nachos, two servings of peanuts, five tiny cups of ice cream, one soda and, apparently to restore order to his battered digestive system, a small container of salad. He had his reasons for the binge, which, incidentally, totaled approximately 7,800 calories, or about three times what the average male needs a day.
Mirchandani was sitting in the Left Field All-Inclusive Picnic Perch, the rather pastoral, slightly enigmatic name that the Orioles have attached to their all-you-can-eat seats. For $35 each, Mirchandani and the rest of his colleagues at Mindgrub — yes, Mindgrub, a technology agency that focuses on mobile apps — could feast on as much ballpark food as they could stuff in their faces during the seven innings of the pig-out promotion. Mirchandani, 25, had no complaints about his belly-busting meal, save for the soda.
“It’s all just watered down,” he said, downplaying his own criticism with some well-played irony. “I don’t know how I’ll sleep tonight.”
First introduced to the majors around 2007, the all-you-can-eat seat is one of baseball’s more controversial (and successful) solutions to sell hard-to-fill sections. At least 19 of 30 Major League clubs offer the seats in some form or another, whether the Chicago White Sox’s patio parties at U.S. Cellular Field or the all-inclusive sections at every home game at Oriole Park and PNC Park in Pittsburgh. (You can find the promotion in minor league parks as well.)
“The Picnic Perch has created demand for an area that previously was one of our least-utilized areas of the ballpark,” points out Greg Bader, director of communications for the Orioles.
Nutritionists, of course, shudder at the notion. “Anything that encourages people to overeat in this age of rampant obesity and diabetes is unwelcome,” notes Kelly Brownell, professor of psychology, epidemiology and public health at Yale University and director of the school’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “Unlimited junk food is not anyone’s bargain.”
It’s true that baseball concessions rate slightly above vending-machine fare in nutritional quality, but historically, the junk food also has been priced in such a way as to discourage overindulgence (and perhaps to help finance escalating player salaries). All-you-can-eat seats stand this dynamic on its head: For the price of a mid-level restaurant meal (around $30 to $50), baseball fans can consume as many dogs, nachos and sodas as they want. In this way, the grub available at these seats is a small reflection of the processed-food industry: The calories are plentiful, cheap and mostly empty.
Except in the case of the Washington Nationals. In the nation’s capital, where the federal government drowns in rivers of red ink, the city’s overachieving baseball team has developed all-you-can-eat promotions exclusively for those folks who still have fistfuls of dollars at their disposal. The Lexus Presidents Club and the PNC Diamond Club, both located behind home plate, offer fans the chance to feast all night long for the bargain price of $325 and $170, respectively. (The seats are even pricier for more-sought-after series, such as the Yankees-Nationals games in June, when the Presidents Club tickets run $400 a pop.)
The food in these exclusive, all-inclusive seats at Nationals Park reflect the tastes of the people who populate them. A Nats spokeswoman notes that both clubs offer a “customized gourmet meal created by chefs from Levy Restaurants, our food and beverage partner.” These meals can include hand-carved meats, pasta or “farm-to-fork” dishes featuring local fruits and vegetables. The Presidents Club, she adds, even features an antipasto-and-salad bar and a “Sweet Shoppe” with gelato, cakes and cookies. Draft beer and wine are included in the price of admission.
The four West Virginia University undergrads roaming the concourse at PNC Park in Pittsburgh could only dream of unlimited beer as part of their All You Can Eat seats. Instead, the quartet had to satisfy themselves with an endless parade of hamburgers, hot dogs, popcorn, nachos, peanuts, sodas and Blue Bunny ice cream sandwiches. They were determined to get their money’s worth.
Truth be told, it doesn’t take much effort to unearth the value of All You Can Eat seats at PNC Park, at least by the hyper-inflated economics of baseball stadiums. Three sections in the outfield, near the right field foul pole, are reserved for the promotion at every Pirates home game. Advance tickets for seats in that general area run about $20 apiece, which means if you bought an advance All You Can Eat ticket for $38, you need to consume only about $18 worth of concessions to make the deal work to your advantage.
The four West Virginia students had no problem crossing that threshold. Billy McDonald, a 21-year-old from Northern Virginia, had polished off, among other items, four hamburgers and one hot dog, which roughly translated into about $39 worth of concessions. Of course, this is a decidedly warped comparison given that, for instance, the burgers are but a fraction of the size of the half-pound patties found farther down the concourse at Manny’s BBQ, where the ground-beef sandwiches sell for $9 a pop. “Baby burgers” is how one Manny’s BBQ employee described the All You Can Eat variation.
“Is the food top of the line?” McDonald asks. “Obviously not.”
But as McDonald’s buddy, 20-year-old Steve Kresen, bottom-lined it: “We came in here to eat food.” That was an understatement in Kresen’s case. He swore that he’d packed away four hot dogs, one hamburger, two orders of nachos, one bag of peanuts, two sodas and three ice cream sandwiches. It was only the seventh inning, and he said he weighs only 170 pounds — at least before the game.
All-you-can-eat seats provide different benefits to different people. For the West Virginia boys, the tickets essentially offer access to a junk-food trough, with baseball as a nominal backdrop. (Decked out in Pittsburgh Penguins gear, the students were more interested in leaving PNC and watching the playoff hockey game that night on the big screen outside the Consol Energy Center.) For Lisa Onink, a 48-year-old from Ellwood City, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, the seats provide sheer convenience. She and her husband, Todd, can enjoy the closest thing to a bargain dinner at the ballpark without rushing to eat after work in order to make it to the stadium by first pitch. For others, the promotion is a (relatively) cheap way to feed families.
But the seats also can serve as something of an outdoor party. At least they did last week at Camden Yards, where no fewer than three groups took advantage of the Orioles promotion on a chilly Tuesday night. Among them was a group of employees from Hersh’s Pizza & Drinks in south Baltimore. The outing, noted Melissa Thompson, had turned into “somewhat of a challenge” to see who could chow down the most. Thompson, 37, was holding up her end. She had consumed four dogs and two orders of nachos. “We still have ice cream to go,” she deadpanned.
In this way, all-you-can-eat seats are a rebel yell against calls to scale back the American diet. At a time when nutritionists, activists and first lady Michelle Obama cry for moderation, balance and more fruits and vegetables, all-you-can-eat promotions encourage the opposite. Sure, at Camden Yards, you can grab a plastic container layered with a short stack of iceberg lettuce leaves — with the option to smother them in ranch dressing — but as one concessions manager told me, the most popular Picnic Perch items are the dogs and the trays of nachos caked in as much neon-yellow cheese sauce as you desire.
Major League Baseball adopts a sort of libertarian philosophy when explaining its embrace of these caloric orgies. “The fact that so many clubs have provided all-you-can-eat seats demonstrates that it is a promotion that has proven to be popular among fans,” says Matt Bourne, MLB’s vice president of business public relations, in a written statement. “Fans are not required to sit in all-you-can-eat seats, it is one of many choices that fans have when purchasing a Major League ticket. We believe that each fan is best equipped to make individual choices about what promotion they would like to participate in based on their own personal situation.”
Then again, Major League teams aren’t exactly serving up all-you-can-eat veggie burgers and hummus (items sold individually at Nationals Park) or unlimited fresh fruit and vegetables (like those hawked at Melissa’s/World Variety Produce in Yankee Stadium). After all, if concessions operators understand anything, it’s that old habits die hard: Baseball fans seem to gag their inner dietitian once they walk past stadium turnstiles.
Just ask Brittany Gilbert, a 17-year-old senior from Chilhowie High School in southwest Virginia. She was part of a senior field trip to Camden Yards, and she was not about to waste the opportunity to indulge in the Orioles’s all-inclusive offer.
“They said, ‘Be prepared to gain five pounds,’ ” said the cheerleader. “I’m okay with that. Prom’s over.”