SI Vault
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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Guzzling and gorging at stadiums, arenas and racetracks is an American tradition with an anthem all its own: "Take me out to the ball game.... Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack." That ditty was written in 1908, and even then little boys and grown men loved the juicy splat when they bit into mustard-smeared hot dogs. The crunch of peanut shells underfoot was as satisfying as hiking over crisp autumn leaves. Spectators washed their insides with so much sugary soda pop that they left for home with the same body chemistry as a jelly doughnut.

Today's sports fans are still happy gluttons to whom the crack of a bat or a kickoff whistle sounds like a dinner gong. Consider what this means to the concessionaire, the man with exclusive rights to peddle goodies to the crowd. He has 5,000 to 100,000 potential customers trapped for several hours in the appetizing atmosphere of the grandstand—the smell of hamburgers sizzling on the grill, the invigorating spray of frosty beer from the cup of an enthusiastic arm-waving rooter. In an average year the captive audience at U.S. sports events runs to some 200 million who spend considerably more than that in dollars.

The concessionaire calls his business "mass feeding," an in-trade term that makes the fan sound like just another steer being fattened on a ranch. But the business is massive. In a crowd of 55,000 people at Dodger Stadium, 43,000 hot dogs will be sold. During a typical Dodger-Giant weekend series, 276 gallons of chopped onions, 84 cases of relish and 42 cases of mustard flavor the dogs and burgers. Food and drink at the third World Series game in L.A. last year brought the concessionaire $81,604. Seventy bushels of mint are used at the Kentucky Derby each year just to adorn the juleps. Forbes Field is the only major league park where beer is not sold, but the average Pittsburgher still spends from 50� to 70� on his appetite at a single game and as much as 90� at a double-header. On a big handicap day at a major racetrack it is not unusual for 50,000 people to splurge $75,000, besides what they shell out for bets, parking and programs. In one stretch of 21 games at Busch Stadium in St. Louis last year the fans consumed 28,000 hamburgers, 35,000 cups of coffee, 61,000 boxes of popcorn, 100,000 bags of peanuts, 200,000 hot dogs and a Niagara Falls of beer and soda pop (661,000 cups).

Through a process of survival of the sharpest, this captive-audience catering has bred a shrewd, tough species. The modern concessionaire is capable of telling immediately after an event whether one too many paper napkins was used or one patron got a nickel too much in change. He has the ever-suspicious eyes of a Las Vegas pit boss and the psychological know-how to predict exactly when and why the guy in Section A, Seat 17 will feel a hunger pang.

He knows, for example, that his highest baseball profits will come from a daytime doubleheader when the air is humid and the home team takes a big lead early in each game. He knows 30% of his sales will come when the crowd enters, only 5% when it leaves. He knows that a man hawking salted peanuts should always be trailed by a man selling Cokes. And he knows that a man chewing gum will not buy anything, that a horse-racing patron is nervous and therefore will eat a lot (long intermissions help, too), that track and field nuts are too busy with stopwatches to be tempted by food and that boxing fans drink much and eat little.

Not that concessionaires mind people drinking, as long as the liquid brings in a profit. Unfortunately, water is free, and concessionaires dislike any competition, especially something that cheap. So they usually make fountains scarce. It is an old joke at arid Madison Square Garden that if someone faints he will have to be revived by a pail of beer in his face. Seamy Chicago Stadium is just as bad, but the management did install fountain attachments to some lavatory washbowls about two years ago.

When plush Dodger Stadium was being built, hardly a detail was overlooked, especially the detail of overlooking fountains. Somehow, in a sports palace seating 56,000 people, the only fountains were in the two dugouts and Owner Walter O'Malley's offices. The public and the press put up a fuss, leading a defensive Dodger official to point out that there were 221 water faucets. An indignant woman customer replied to this announcement: "I don't mind bucking the crowds when I go to the ladies' room, but I draw the line at sticking my snout under the tap." Before the L.A. health department finally ordered fountains installed, an enterprising 11-year-old boy set up shop near one entrance with a wagonload of the precious fluid and a sign: "Last Chance to Get Water."

The frugal baseball fans of Milwaukee do not care much for water (without hops and malt added), so they competed with the concessionaires by bringing their own brew to the ball park, paying 12� to 18� outside for what would have cost 30� a cup inside. When the city council banned carry-in beer in 1961, a public-spirited committee fought the ban and got it repealed in 1962, proclaiming, "Future generations will remember us gratefully." (In Atlanta next season premium beer will be 50�.)

Harry Curland, concessions boss at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park racetracks, used to run the operation at the Los Angeles Coliseum and also had some problems with competing customers. He recalls that for months a certain brand of candy bar was giving him nightmares. "I'd see people eating these bars and see the wrappers," he says, "and I couldn't figure out where they were coming from. I didn't sell them. Then one hot summer day I saw this woman wearing a huge, expansive coat, meandering about the crowd. I had seen her before, but something told me to follow her.

"Then I spotted her selling a candy bar. Inside that greatcoat she had pocket after pocket full of hot dogs, buns, pop, candy bars, popcorn, Cracker Jack, everything. She was ruining our concessions and with no overhead!"

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