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THEIR BUSINESS IS PEANUTS
Joe Jares
January 17, 1966
Feeding spectators at sports events, a multimillion-dollar industry, entails remarkable logistics and fascinating hazards. Naturally, it has developed a number of oddball characters
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January 17, 1966

Their Business Is Peanuts

Feeding spectators at sports events, a multimillion-dollar industry, entails remarkable logistics and fascinating hazards. Naturally, it has developed a number of oddball characters

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Stevens came to America from England in 1881 and eventually settled in Niles, Ohio. In 1887 he was touring Ohio selling copies of a book by a Civil War general when he noticed the inept scorecard operation at the Columbus ball park and took it over for $500. He quickly sold $700 worth of ads and quit the bookselling business for good. He dabbled in scorecard sales in Toledo, Boston, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, often hawking in the stands himself. Dressed in a scarlet jacket and spouting quotations from Shakespeare, he became a minor celebrity—Scorecard Harry. "They all look alike on the field," went one spiel. "Buy 5� worth of independence, gents—5�, five pennies, a nickel only, and get the names of all the players. Be an independent American citizen. Don't depend on your neighbor for the score when you can get an official guide, directory, souvenir and keepsake for a nick." He is credited with creating that giant of the American idiom, "You can't tell the players without a scorecard."

In Pittsburgh, Stevens was in partnership with Ed Barrow, then a struggling baseball executive. When Harry seized the chance to move to New York's Polo Grounds and take over the food sales as well as the scorecards, Barrow decided to stay with baseball. "We dissolved our partnership," said Barrow. "Stevens headed for New York and millions. I turned to the Atlantic League." (Their friendship lasted, though. In 1925 Stevens loaned Barrow $350,000 to buy 10% of the New York Yankees.)

Before the hot dog debut at the Polo Grounds, Stevens sold hard-boiled eggs, coconut custard pies and other delights. Scorecards became just a small facet of the business, yet the firm name has always been followed by the description, "Publisher and Caterer." Stevens expanded to Madison Square Garden (where Harry's son Frank used to baby-sit gangsters' guns during six-day bicycle races), Belmont Park and Saratoga. All the sons—Hal, Frank, Bill and Joe—helped out. "There's always a Stevens around," said one. "That's why we get someplace."

One place they got to was a new racetrack in Ju�rez, Mexico in 1909. Hal managed the concessions and papa Harry invested $100,000 in the track itself. Ju�rez was not exactly as genteel as Saratoga Springs, N.Y., especially after the Mexican Revolution started in 1911 and Pancho Villa's men frequented the neighborhood. Hal once recalled that a Villa trooper pulled a pistol on a vendor who refused to cash a printing-press $50 bill, and the firm has an old photo that shows a hole made by a U.S. cannonball in one of the two towers. People around Ju�rez were understandably edgy. One night an employee decided to play a practical joke. He threw gravel on the tin roof of the Stevens office and turned off the lights. When the lights came back on, the office workers noticed Hal Stevens was missing. They found him huddled in a walk-in icebox, clutching the day's receipts. A true concessionaire to the end.

Starting with Scorecard Harry, all the Stevenses have thrived on hard work and long hours. And they have kept themselves close to the source of their profits. Frank, who took over the leadership after Harry's death, loaded soda trays at the Polo Grounds the night of the Dempsey-Firpo fight, and the tradition has persisted. Late one night at the office a few years ago, Frank and Bill were going over accounts. "We've missed one thing in this business," said Bill. "We don't have anything to do between one and 8 in the morning."

Even the post-midnight hours were busy at one Stevens branch in 1958. An 18-inch snowstorm at Bowie racetrack in Maryland marooned thousands of people for the night. The concessions manager, Raymond Hartshorn, closed down the bars but kept the food stands open, giving away 60 pies, 300 cakes, 3,100 hot dogs, 6,831 sandwiches and 8,136 cups of coffee (all paid for later by the track). People slept on dining-room tables with tablecloths for blankets. Others played dice with sugar cubes. "We managed to feed them all, but I don't know how," said Hartshorn. "We even managed to serve breakfast. Luckily, we had a large supply of bread on hand. I stayed up until 5 o'clock the next afternoon directing the operation."

Hartshorn should have been pleased with his staff's performance, but concessionaires are hard to satisfy. On his way home through the snow, he suddenly sat up straight in his car seat and got furious. "How did we have that much bread left on a Saturday?" he fumed.

Willie Cohen, a Stevens employee for 46 years, undergoes a different kind of ordeal once or twice every year. He manages the concessions at both Yonkers and Roosevelt raceways near New York City. The harness tracks use many of the same employees and much of the same equipment, and the trouble comes about because one track normally opens the night after the other closes. Last year Yonkers' second session opened July 29; Roosevelt's last race was over at 11:30 the night before. As usual, Cohen got little sleep, supervising a moving operation that included 100 cash registers, 1,000 silver coffeepots and 1,500 plate covers. An 18-ton trailer hauled some of the equipment, 3�-ton trucks made 10 other trips, and the transition went so smoothly that not one item was broken. By 6 a.m. the kitchen at Yonkers was preparing a full dinner menu.

"The only time things really become hectic is when the Kentucky Derby rolls around," says Joseph Stevens, one of Harry's grandsons. "Although it only lasts one day, it is the biggest day in the sports concession business, and we bring in 1,580 of our workers from all parts of the nation. The moment it ends we start planning for next year." Stevens won the concession rights for the Derby only five weeks before the race of May 3, 1941, and by the time the big day had arrived two new kitchens had been built, six large gas ranges installed and 1,350 employees hired, including 150 boys just to sweep up broken glass.

Before the Kentucky Derby contract went to Stevens, it was held by Sportservice Inc., a Buffalo-based company founded by the three Jacobs brothers, Marvin, Charles and Louis, who long ago established a reputation for refusing to discuss their affairs with anyone. The Derby is about the only thing the Jacobs clan has lost in decades. Sport-service is the giant of the mass-feeding industry, filling fans at 10 major league baseball stadiums and more than 70 racetracks, plus jai alai front�ns, arenas and auditoriums, not only in the U.S. but in Canada, Puerto Rico, England and Italy. An anonymous spokesman, the only kind available at Sportservice, says the firm grosses more than $50 million a year. All Lou Jacobs will say is, "We're in business to sell peanuts."

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