Baseball, Hotdogs and ... Tofu?

Baseball games usually mean hot dogs, brats and burgers—so what’s a vegetarian fan to do? Simple—belly up to the concession stands at Miller Park and the Mallards stadium—you’ll be right at home.

Jul 2, 2009

The next time you’re at a ballgame, pay close attention to the sweat-drenched vendor hustling up and down the aisles. Instead of peddling brats, he may be joining in the new trend to offer healthier, vegetarian options at sporting events. Cracker Jack and veggie dogs, anyone?

The movement to add new alternatives to standard ballpark fare was highlighted by a recent PETA release, which ranked the top ten vegetarian-friendly stadiums in Major League Baseball. Tied at number ten on the list, with offerings such as veggie dogs, veggie wraps, baked potatoes and stir-fry, is Milwaukee’s Miller Park—the Phillies’ Citizen’s Bank Park sat at number one. For many, the home of the Brewers is known more for its racing sausages than any meatless meal, but the Brew Crew isn’t the only club putting animal-free products next to the traditional concessions clean-up hitters of beef and pork.

In fact, as of 2008, fifteen of the MLB’s thirty ballparks now offer veggie dogs, according to Johanna McCloy of Soy Happy, a consumer advocacy group focused on promoting vegetarian options at sporting events. McCloy, who founded Soy Happy in 2001, says that offering meatless alternatives, while still relatively new and not wildly profitable, goes beyond the sweet sounds of the cash register.

“It’s really more an issue of being inclusive and being diverse and just understanding that palates have changed,” says McCloy. “It’s good business, and if nothing else, it’s good PR to know that you serve a diverse range of customers.”

Even more than the positive press that serving vegetarian options can bring, McCloy says it creates a great sense of pride within the organization. She admits the world of ballpark concessions has come a long way since she started Soy Happy eight years ago, from the days when she would call “all of the ballparks and was lucky if they had a veggie burger, never mind a veggie dog.” Today, one can find a faux frankfurter waiting on heating racks in half of the major league stadiums.

But while introducing vegetarian food to the bright lights and big checkbooks of the major leagues is good, they represent only a small portion of the ballparks scattered across the country. In the minor and independent leagues, where promotion and fun take the place of luxury boxes and retractable roofs, making vegetarian options a profitable enterprise is a much trickier proposition.

Dave Boyer, who for the last six years has served as the food and beverage manager for the Madison Mallards, acknowledges the difficulties in keeping vegetarian alternatives on the menu.

“Over the years we’ve tried different vegetarian items, but we really haven’t had a whole lot of success,” Boyer says. “We run specials occasionally, but the vegetarian ones don’t seem to do as well.”

Of course, saying the Mallards occasionally run specials is like saying the president occasionally wears suits. According to Boyer, the Mallards run around eight specials a game, which have included—with varying degrees of success—waffle sundaes, barbecue pork ramen noodles, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon. “One of the philosophies of the Mallards is that we’ll try anything, and we always want to try new things,” Boyer says.

This isn’t to suggest a Mallards game is completely devoid of vegetarian food options. Much to the contrary, veggie burgers, which are made fresh at a meat market across the street from the ballpark, have done very well. Last year they sold over nine hundred pounds of the meatless burger, which translates to around 150 patties a game. In addition, Willy Street Co-Op sponsors a stand at the ballpark, offering black bean wraps and southern fried tofu sandwiches for those unwilling to down a PB&J with a PBR. And although the bar wasn’t set terribly high, as Boyer notes, “it’s actually more popular than I anticipated it to be.”

It remains to be seen how widespread the trend toward vegetarian alternatives will become. Ultimately, the success of veggie dogs and black bean burgers depend on people’s willingness to eat them, and while they’re gaining momentum, they’re still not king of the concessions stand yet.

“Right now I’ve got four slabs of bacon on the grill,” Boyer pointed out between questions on alternative foods and the Willy Street Co-Op. “That probably doesn’t fit in well with the whole vegetarian thing, does it?”

No, but until veggie bacon becomes standard ballpark fare, it’ll be hard to complain.

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