The Evolution of Fan Food: Stadium Offerings Reflect a More Educated Consumer

By Jacqueline Church, Foodable Contributor

What are the top three foods you think of when you hear “ball park” or “stadium?” Most would answer: hot dogs, peanuts, Cracker Jack. Increasingly, the answer is: local, sustainable, gluten-free. 

What’s that? You’re calling for an instant replay?

In fact, the traditional foods are still big fan favorites. However, food trends like locally grown (sometimes very locally grown, like at Boston’s Fenway Park rooftop garden), sustainable, and gluten-free are driving the evolution of fan food.

In both a bottom-up and top-down fashion, major league sports’ foodservice reflects trends in the restaurant-going public at large. Hospitality giants like Aramark actively canvas national food trends in NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL cities, creating offerings that deepen the connections between sports teams and their communities. “Fans are now foodies,” says David Freireich, Sr. Director of Corporate Communications for Aramark. “And food is integral to the game-day experience. Having a ballpark and its menu reflect the hometown identity has become a point of pride and an extension of the team.”

Stadium food no longer consists of only traditional, unhealthy fare.

Stadium food no longer consists of only traditional, unhealthy fare.

While traditional ballpark foods are still the most popular, fans are more sophisticated and more diverse than ever before. Some want a multi-star dining experience and chef-driven menus, while others stick to the basics, and still others are looking for ballpark food that fits their dietary restrictions or preferences. Many ballpark chefs now come from fine-dining backgrounds and serve up sophisticated food to satisfy the new, broader fanbase. Celebrity chef partnerships add cache to menus across the country and menus can include seasonal specials as well as "tribute menu" items like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Red Sail Dog (Hebrew National hot dog with Sriracha, mustard, red sauerkraut, scallion curls on a top split bun, a tribute to the Bucs' Red Sail logo.

Celebrating Food

Any fan of foodie television knows names like Andrew Zimmern, Jose Garces, and Michael Symon. Their influence can be tasted at Kauffman Stadium (Kansas City Royals), Lincoln Financial Field (Eagles), and Quicken Loans Arena (Cleveland Cavaliers), respectively. That all-star celebrity chef roster now has over 20 names on it. So far, no truly bizarre foods have debuted.

Fenway Park's rooftop garden, Fenway Farms  | Credit: Green City Growers

Fenway Park's rooftop garden, Fenway Farms | Credit: Green City Growers

Local Flavor

The Boston Red Sox has Fenway Farm and lobster rolls, Coors Field is doing home-grown, too. Dynasty Quesadillas in San Antonio Spurs’ AT&T Center, Polish Hill Pretzels in Pittsburgh's CONSOL Energy Center are two examples of hearty fare reflecting the fanbase and local culture. And what could be more LA than the Staples Center’s roasted beet salad, sesame crusted tuna, and gluten-free beer? Okay, maybe the sushi that’s made fresh at every game? Or, the Pack-n-cheese at Lambeau Field?

Gluten-Free, Peanut-Free, Worry-Free

One trend that isn't going anywhere is special “free-from” menus to meet the needs of a public that has more food allergies and sensitivities than ever. Many parks have begun to offer peanut-free days and now we’re seeing gluten-free seating sections and a growing list of gluten-free offerings. Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies both have gluten-free sections and the range of offerings will likely expand as the GF trend grows. “Gluten-free is pretty much here to stay,” says Freirich. “We really strive to have something for everyone.”

Dishes That Connect the Dots

Fish Tacos  | Credit: Instagram @vijayaselvaraju

Fish Tacos | Credit: Instagram @vijayaselvaraju

Like many restaurants, stadiums are featuring dishes that burst with local flavor, enhancing the  feeling of a “hometown team” through game-day eats:

  • Fish Tacos at Qualcomm Stadium (San Diego Chargers)
  • Old Bay Shredded Chicken at the Baltimore Ravens’ hometown stadium
  • Dungeness Crab Rolls at the Seattle Seahawks Stadium
  • Turkey Empanadas at the Dolphins’ SunLife Stadium

Surely Boston’s epic winter will show up on next year’s menu: Fenway Snow Cone, anyone?