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Love At First Bite: Spectra Delves Into Unique Ballpark Food

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As Spectra builds menus across 17 minor league parks from New Mexico to Maryland and Oregon to North Carolina, they do so by connecting with the team and crafting regionally-based cuisine. That’s why fans of the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas buy hot dogs topped with pickled pig skin in droves.

Or Triple-A Omaha Stormchasers fans go wild for a signature dog topped with bacon, pulled pork and nacho cheese.

“You have to embrace the regional cuisine with great fresh items and on-point new flavors,” says Richard Schneider, Spectra’s COO of food services and hospitality. “We sell a lot of hot dogs and popcorn, but it is more than that. We tie to the region, always are creative and have local options to tie to the entertainment experience.”

Spectra approaches ballpark cuisine from an owner’s perspective, being that the company’s founder is Ken Young, who owns three minor league franchises, the Biloxi Shuckers, Albuquerque Isotopes and Norfolk Tides.

“That gives us a perspective that we see it from our client’s understanding,” Schneider said. “We are aligned from a customer-service standpoint, a vision standpoint and in the overall value proposition. When guests go out (to the park) they are going to be entertained and we are part of the team to make that happen.”

Jay Satenspiel, Spectra senior vice president of food services and hospitality for the central region, said they watch trends in stadiums and regions to create experiences and menus in tune with the team, whether for promotional nights or all season. With each local general manager writing the menu, not the Philadelphia head office, Spectra relies on its nimbleness to stay in tune with regional needs.

Take the nacho as an example, which took new life in 2002 when Spectra debuted a barbecue nacho in Memphis. “Now everything goes on a nacho,” Satenspiel said. “We are innovative and nimble enough to regionalize a staple in baseball. Look at (the nacho) now.”

Sure, every Spectra venue offers the ballpark staples of hot dogs, pretzels and nachos, but each menu includes local variety. John Schow, Spectra general manager of El Paso Stadium-Southwest University Park, said authentic Mexican cuisine leads the way for him.

The tacos come authentic. And expect to find Mexican-style bread made by a local bakery, margaritas and street corn topping a hot dog. The biggest seller, though, with 23,000 sold last year alone, is the Border Nacho, served in a chihuahua-shaped bowl with melted cheese, steak or chicken, salsa roja and jalapeño crema.

“The fans here support the team and we want them to be proud of their home town and we want to represent their home town,” Schow said. “We look at what people are selling around town and we are authentic. It takes some doing.”

That local flair looks different in every venue. El Paso brings in authentic Mexican cuisine, while Omaha partners with Omaha Steaks for burgers, Hebrew National for hot dogs, Valentino’s for pizza and local brewing companies for craft beers. “When you get the basics right, pop all popcorn fresh to get the smells out and do your hot dogs, nachos and chicken tenders right, you can expand on it,” said Ryan Slane, general manager of Werner Park, home of the Omaha Stormchasers. “We try to come up with different items every year and give fans twists.”

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Those twists can be anything from highlighting Omaha as the home of the Rueben sandwich or creating the Brisket Rollington—a Nebraskan take on the Beef Wellington.

“You have to look and see what people are doing around the country,” Slane said. “If someone is doing a great idea, we want to take it and spin it our way.”

That works during spring, too, with Specta’s three spring training facilities in Arizona putting a premium on the social experience and having specialty items—how about a sweet chili jam with peanut butter on a cheeseburger?—and unique beverages to go along with classic ballpark fare to entice Instagram and Snapchat posts, said Rob Bracket, general manager of Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Arizona. With 77 unique brands of beer, including 35 crafts brands from around the country and Arizona, the social experience comes heightened.

That carries through to the regular season, too, with a newfound focus on social spaces within ballparks requiring the variety of quick bites for someone to eat their way around the ballpark or try a new brew they may have seen elsewhere in the city. The family-friendly atmosphere needs to have a culinary experience to match.

And all along the way Spectra works with the team to make it happen, whether Star Wars-themed food to coincide with a promotional night or “quarter hot dog days,” Spectra works to integrate with the team.

“We are not just a food-service company,” Satenspiel said. “We are true partners. Any fan that comes in is not going to know Specta runs the food services, they will know the team and the variety of food they serve. At the end of the day, it is all about creating an amazing guest experience.”

Tim Newcomb covers gear and business for Baseball America. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb

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