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April, 2010

Culinary Kings

How Fifth Third Ballpark has become a hotbed for new and exciting food offerings.

Culinary Kings

Once upon a time, fans headed to the ballpark thinking about peanuts and cracker jacks. Maybe a hot dog and a beer.

But while some people like to stick to the status quo, others prefer to push the envelope.

Hungry fans at Fifth Third Ballpark will tell you that when it comes to the timelessmarriage of food and baseball, the West Michigan Whitecaps are ahead of the pack.Known for their unique and creative ability to spice up the concession stands, theWhitecaps have emerged as trendsetters when it comes to salivating snacks and tantalizingtastes.

“Food has always been a big part of the experience here,” said Whitecaps’ PresidentScott Lane. “Part of it is making sure fans enjoy their food while they enjoy the ballgame,and part of it is keeping people guessing what we’re going to come up with next.”

In preparation for the 2010 season, Whitecaps fans were given the opportunity to domore than just guess. The team enlisted their feasting faithful to suggest what new food itemthey wanted to see added to the concessions menu. After whittling down the lengthy list ofcreative entries to 10 finalists, fans were empowered once again to vote for a winner.

The results? Too close to call.

Nearly 25,000 votes poured in and two options stood out. In fact, only two votesseparated the most sought-after new menu items. But did the Whitecaps call for a recountto confirm the winner? Of course not. They decided to add both delectable delicacies tothe Fifth Third Ballpark lineup in 2010.

The winner by just two votes was an unexpected regional dish from the Upper Peninsulacalled the Cudighi Yooper Sandwich. Less recognizable to Michiganders from the LowerPeninsula, any self respecting Yooper can tell you this delicious concoction consists of aspicy sausage patty smothered in cheese, pizza sauce, peppers and onions.

The other winner was a glorious combination of two time-tested favorites. What do youget when you cross a hot dog with a cheese steak? The Declaration of Indigestion, whichhappens to be the perfect way to proclaim your steadfast support for the right to arteryclogginggoodness. Picture a half-pound, foot-long hot dog that is covered in a classicPhilly Cheese Steak – sliced steak, grilled peppers and onions, melted Philly cheese – andserved on a giant sub roll. Now picture it in front of you. You may continue to salivate.

The Cudighi Yooper Sandwich and the Declaration of Indigestion may be the latestattention-getting food items at Fifth Third Ballpark, but they are hardly the first.

The Whitecaps’ reputation as an innovator in the realm of concessions dates backto the team’s inception in 1994. In addition to the standard ballpark fare that fans areaccustomed to finding at venues across the country, the team’s management was eager totry new items and let the fans decide whether they should stay or go.

Before Lane helped the start-up franchise in West Michigan he worked for the Kane County Cougars in suburban Chicago. The center-cut pork chop that he found so successful with Kane County made the trip with him toGrand Rapids and quickly took on a life of its own.

“Our fans started referring to the sandwich as the ‘Swimmin’ Pig,’” Lane recalled. “The concession workers would ask them if they wanted itplain or ‘swimming’ in barbecue sauce and the name caught on.”

Not only did the concession item prove to be a hit with taste buds, but its success spread to the promotional realm and eventually inspiredFranky the Swimmin’ Pig, the popular mascot that entertains fans on a nightly basis at Fifth Third Ballpark.

But the Swimmin’ Pig was only the tip of the iceberg. Other unique concession items that have been happily devoured at Whitecaps gamesover the years include deep fried Pepsi, deep fried Pop Tarts, giant turkey drumsticks, gyros, apple cider floats, and a mashed potato bar.Dippin’ Dots, now a staple at venues across the country, were first made available to the West Michigan market at – where else – Fifth ThirdBallpark. The team has even created their own version of relish called “Shreddies,” an original creation of shredded pickles that only localfans have the opportunity to sample.

As the Whitecaps’ primary foodsupplier, Gordon Food Service hosts anannual “food cutting” where they cookup a variety of mouth-watering new ideasfor the team to consider for the upcomingseason. When this tradition began, sixor so members from the team’s frontoffice would participate in the tasting todetermine any of the new items could besuccessful at the ballpark. These days thetasting has turned into a full-fledged event,with upwards of 50 people attending thefestivities and enjoying the tables of treatsvying for the chance to be the next menuitem at Fifth Third Ballpark.

For Director of Food and BeverageMatt Timon, the Whitecaps’ adventurousculinary philosophy makes life a little morechallenging.

“It’s fun because we offer our fanssomething different every year,” saidTimon. “Our menu has more variety thana lot of major league clubs out there. Justin the ice cream category, for example,fans can choose between Dippin’ Dots,Hudsonville scoop ice cream, soft serve,fried ice cream, sundaes, novelty icecream, and root beer floats.”

While the club has a long history ofcreative food offerings, however, the menuitem that brought international attentionand put them in the national spotlightwas unveiled just last season. After abrainstorming meeting between marketingexecutives from the Whitecaps and FifthThird Bank, the team set out to incorporateone of their closest partners into their questfor culinary creativity.

They subsequently made a splash withthe Fifth Third Burger, a 4,800-caloriecreation of colossal proportions thatcaptivated food lovers nationwide.Featuring five 1/3-pound patties of beef,the one-of-a-kind burger is layered withhearty portions of American cheese, chili, salsa, nacho cheese and tortilla chips, andthen topped with lettuce, tomato and sourcream. It is served on an eight-inch sesameseed bun for good measure.

The sheer shock value of such a monstrous list of ingredients immediately caught people’s attention. Stories detailing the new burger were aired nationally on NBC, ABC, CBS and ESPN, not to mention newspapers from across the country. One of the Whitecaps’ most exhilarating moments of the season came in July with a visit from the show “Man v. Food” on the Travel Channel. In the show, host Adam Richman travels to different cities across the country in order to sample local specialties from the host city. Every episode ends with a food “challenge,” and during his stop in West Michigan Richman took on the Fifth Third Burger. In addition to being featured extensively on national television, the show’s stop at Fifth Third Ballpark also inspired a few hundred people to attend the ballgame simply to witness the spectacle of Richman taking on their hometown burger.

Though the Fifth Third Burger regularly feeds families of four, Richman was not the only tortured soul that dared to conquer the beast by themselves. Of the 1,948 burgers that were sold during the 2009 season, 476 individuals took on the challenge and 298 succeeded in fully devouring their meal – a “healthy” 63 percent. That’s quite a success rate in a baseball world that rewards .300 hitters with All-Star appearances.

The determined fans that did finish their burgers were rewarded with a commemorative t-shirt, a photo on the Fifth Third Burger Wall of Fame and, most importantly, a story they will undoubtedly recount for ages.

But for every food item that hits it big, there are countless others that never make the cut.

“It gets interesting,” said Timon, also known as the voice of reason. “Every year our staff comes up with crazy ideas for new concessions items and it’s my job to make them happen. It’s a fun challenge that keeps us on our toes in the food and beverage world, but sometimes we get ideas that just can’t be done.”

While Timon may be responsible for running the concessions operation, it is the rest of the staff that generally comes up with the wacky food ideas. Timon, on the other hand, is the one that has to either alter the ideas to make them logistically feasible or shoot them down altogether.

When the ideas for the Fifth Third Burger were first presented, suggested toppings ranged from jelly (too sweet) to pickled cactus (too sour) to SPAM (just gross). You can thank Timon for steering his coworkers to more traditional ballpark ingredients.

And when you find yourself staring at the myriad options when you get to the front of the concession line this summer, you can thank the West Michigan Whitecaps’ commitment to innovation and experimentation for making your next decision so difficult.