Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjacks? Not necessarily.
At Safeco Field, this year’s menu includes fried fish that were dredged in batter made with Manny’s Pale Ale, a hometown brew. There will be hot wings topped with locally made Bonache hot sauce, oysters from Taylor Shellfish, and cocktails (invented by Rob Roy’s Anu Apte) using small-batch area spirits from places like the Woodinville Whiskey Company and Oola Distillery.
The ingredients at the ballpark’s various venues can be as discriminating as the menu at any farm-to-table restaurant. It’s a hallmark of Centerplate, the company providing food services for Safeco and other stadiums and gathering places worldwide. The company’s in the fourth year of a partnership with Seattle restaurateur Ethan Stowell, who isn’t there each inning personally flipping burgers, but is far more than a celebrity name slapped on the food.
“The deals we have with chefs — we do this all over the world — almost every one of them are working chefs… One of the key ways they inform the program is by connecting us to their supply chain,” said John Sergi, the Chief Design Officer of Centerplate.
For instance, Stowell tipped Centerplate executive chef David Dekker to Marc Olsen’s company, Bonache, to help supply the Swingin’ Wings venue new this season. The hot sauces Olsen began bottling when tending bar at Hattie’s Hat won Centerplate’s approval. Olsen — who had been producing small-scale bottles of Habanero and Hatch chile and bright Socorro sauce for restaurants and grocery stores — delivered 18 industrial-sized buckets to Safeco recently for his debut meals. He’s committed to producing a minimum of 500 gallons of each of his sauces for Safeco throughout the season.
“For the Hit it Here Cafe we are bringing in enough of the Habanero sauce to take care of 350 seats!” Olsen said in an email. He had to seriously ramp up production to meet the demand of the stadium, he said, but the real challenge might be keeping up with new orders that come in from all the people trying his sauces for the first time.
Not everyone can create large enough quantities to meet the stadium’s needs — but the limits of artisan producers are a challenge for any restaurateur seeking out seasonal products and small companies, Sergi said. “You just have to make intelligent choices as to how and when and where, and be aware if you’re in a limited supply how to back it up and work around it,” he said. “In truth, it’s not more expensive and it’s not really more work. It’s more fun.”
Case in point for this year’s menu: When Dekker first called Corky Luster of the Ballard Bee Company asking about a Safeco order, Luster told him there was no way it would work. The stadium would need some 300 pounds of the honey Luster carefully collects from local hives — a huge percentage of his seasonal production. Then, Luster said, Dekker tried back with the “very manageable” request of five pounds of honey to start off the season. Luster was in. The 2014 menu calls for drizzling the precious honey over fried cheese curds from Pike Place Market-based Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.
“That would be a great combination,” Luster said. “I really admire (them) looking to work with local vendors, because it’s so easy just to go to Sysco and put your order in and it’s done.”
Stowell’s known now for an ever-increasing roster of both fast-casual and fine-dining restaurants, but when Sergi first met him he was cooking the line at his first venture, the upscale and acclaimed Union.
Sergi was visiting Seattle and asked high-profile New York seafood chef Dave Pasternak, who also worked with Centerplate, where he should eat.
“I walked in and sat down at the bar and had dinner by myself, and it was fantastic. After that I asked to meet the chef, and they said ‘He’s right here,” Sergi said.
Seattle native Stowell had been a Mariners fan since childhood, but was initially hesitant about a ballpark gig. ‘I don’t know, man,” he remembers thinking. “I’m not a stadium food kind of guy…I don’t know anything about cooking for 25,000 people.”
After going into it, though, he said, “I learned a lot from this company, I learned a lot about how to manage our company.” He remembers going to the corporation’s meetings and thinking “These guys are having more conversations about hospitality than I am in my small restaurant… We need to change something.”
He has a relative restaurant empire of his own now, but said he still gets a lot out of the partnership. “I would do it a thousand times again.” By the start of each season, the team is already studying what to offer the next year, Stowell said.
He pitches ideas and sources, and spends time in the kitchen with Dekker. He says Centerplate and its staff should get the credit for the Safeco food – – but he’s proud to have a part in it.
“I think the whole thing is pretty cool,” Stowell said. He thinks the food is better for customers — in some ways, it’s even less expensive, he said — and that giving business to Seattle food suppliers makes a big difference.
“Every time we do something I consider it a kind of victory,” he said, taking business away from nameless national corporations serving up “corn dogs or whatever” and keeping it in the community.
In other words, you might say, it’s root, root, root for the home team.
Some of this year’s menu highlights at Safeco Field:
Hot wings at the new Swingin’ Wings.
A redone Sound Seafood stand, with offerings from Manny’s Pale Ale batter on the fish & chips to Taylor Shellfish oysters on the po’boy.
Cask-conditioned ale served in two locations on the main concourse.
Cocktails at the Sound Bar developed by Anu Apte of Rob Roy.
Desserts from Autumn Martin’s Hot Cakes will be served in the premium suites.