Centerplate Lets Major League Baseball Forget Peanuts and Cracker Jack

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Safeco Field in Seattle hasn't hosted a Major League Baseball playoff game since 2001 and has seen two winning Seattle Mariners seasons in the past decade.

Its food, however, is near the top of the league.

Still home to its long-beloved Ivar Dogs -- slivers of fried cod topped with tartar sauce and cole slaw -- and Porter's Place BBQ's spicy "The Man" sauce, Safeco Field took a desolate portion of the stadium near the bullpens and turned it into a food paradise in 2012. The 'Pen opens two and a half hours before the first pitch, has an unobscured view of the field, fights off Seattle's notorious dampness with a cozy fire pit and features a cocktail lounge and open-air craft beer bar.

At the center of it all is James Beard Award-nominated chef Ethan Stowell's Hamburg + Frites burger bar, his La Creperie crepe stand, Bill Pustari's New Haven-style pizza spot Apizza and a cantina and taco/torta stand named after former Mariner slugger Edgar Martinez. With the Mariners' average ticket price above the league average at nearly $28.50, the team has to give fans at Safeco some sort of value just to keep them in the building. With the team's fortunes keeping average attendance below 30,000 since 2007 and below 40,000 for the better part of the past decade, the team could use an assist.

Concessionaire and hospitality firm Centerplate has been in charge of Safeco's food and beverage options for the past half-decade and has brought them steadily up to the standards of not only the surrounding SoDo District, but of the most food-savvy fanbases in the U.S. Centerplate also oversees concessions and hospitality at the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park, the Tampa Bay Rays' Tropicana Field and at more than 300 other locations, including venues in the National Football League, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, the English Premier League and minor leagues around the world.

Its stated goal is to make it better to be in each of those facilities. That's a bit easier to do when clients such as the Giants win two World Series titles in the past decade and the Rays are playoff contenders, but chief executive Des Hague insists Centerplate would be taking the same approach if the Mariners were celebrating back-to-back titles.

We ran across Hague and his team about a month ago while commenting on a picture of a macaroni and cheese hot dog served by Centerplate at Portland Timbers games and posted by ESPN's Darren Rovell. It's a formidable food item, but it's just one example of the kind of signature, locally sourced foods Hague and his company have been trying to introduce at each of their venues. At Safeco this year, Ivar Dogs are joined by local oysters and salmon and nine-gallon casks of beer from 50 local brewers.

We spoke with Hague about the upcoming baseball season, his company's attempt to make the food inside the stadium look more like the restaurants outside and why human biology will never allow in-seat ordering to take over stadium concessions:

This entire conversation began with a picture of a macaroni and cheese hot dog at a Portland Timbers game. What are some of the signature items that Centerplate has worked on in Major League Baseball that have set your facilities apart?

Hague: I think that our whole mission, going back five years ago, was that we were going to create one-of-a-kind, locally relevant hospitality programs. Going back into each facility, the Top 10 items in our space represent 70% of the revenue. Our play is that we're going to make the core menu the best. The challenge for our teams five years ago was to create things we're going to be famous for.

If you go to San Francisco, it's the crab sandwich and garlic fries. If you go to Seattle, it's the Ivar Dog or the Hamburg + Frites. If you go to Tampa, it's going to be the Everglades Barbecue. If you go to San Diego, it's going to be the Seaside Market salad or fish tacos.

We don't just do that with the food, but with the beer and wine. We absolutely obsess on that. We don't want cookie cutter. We want bespoke.

Centerplate management and executive team leadership believes that our corporate mission is to make every community that we live in better. On an annual basis, we're giving back anywhere between $20 million and $25 million to communities. It's more than just partnering with local suppliers; it's about being part of the local fabric. We want to be in the community, we want to work in outreach with the local community and we want to make sure that we're helping the underserved.

How do we do that? In Denver, we're working with a hydroelectric company to produce, in a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse, fruits and vegetables to feed our convention center in Denver and employ returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. That model will be used across North America.

Is it a conscious effort?

Hague: About five years ago, we developed an insight that we think has driven our strategy: We have to own the design capabilities within our facilities. We set up an in-house department called Stir and brought in a head consultant and made a cross-functional team marketing and facility management and went out there to ask a lot of question and do a lot of surveys. We didn't do the "motherhood and apple pie" survey, but we found out what each community wanted -- and each community wanted something different, but they all wanted something local, which means something different in each community.

What we've done with Stir and with our marketing department is go out there and find the right suppliers who have the wherewithal to match our corporate mission of making it better to be there. We're looking for high-quality, innovative, leading-edge, sometimes bleeding-edge, familiar-with-a-twist concepts and marrying them with the right personalities who are there to help communities and not just themselves. I'm not looking for a famous chef so I can splash his or her face on a poster: We're looking for how we can make it more unique to be at Safeco Field.

When we say local, we'd like to think that everything's within a couple hundred miles from the facility. Not everything is possible, but many things are.

The San Francisco Giants have been fortunate enough to win two World Series in the past five years. That creates a somewhat different environment in AT&T Park than it does at Seattle Mariners games in Safeco Field. Have the fortunes of the teams in Centerplate ballparks influenced your company's approach, and does an underperforming team allow you to be more creative with your offerings?

Hague: I think it's a great question, but I'm not quite sure how to answer it. I think that the fortunes of the team have an impact on the fans and on their morale. But when we've done our surveys, the most important thing that we've found is that when a fan goes to watch a ballgame, their hospitality has higher demand and impact than the team winning. When asked the question, in ranking of importance -- and this may sound a little bit strange to a rabid fan -- the food and hospitality experience ranks at about 76% to 77% of importance to the fans' experience. The team winning is in the mid 60s.

I'm not saying our hospitality is that important. I'm saying the fans are saying that. I would also say that no more risk is being taken with the Mariners than with the Tampa Bay Rays or San Francisco Giants. I would say there's equal amount of risk in San Francisco, where we have as many new offerings as we do at Safeco Field.

Speaking of AT&T Park and the Giants, they're really embracing Apple's iBeacon technology and its connection to Major League Baseball's At The Ballpark app for ticketing and concessions mapping. Did Centerplate play a role in that program, and what are the benefits of having a more connected fan environment?

Hague: Over the last five years and change, we've tried about 20 to 25 different technology platforms. We're using and actively testing many options across MLB, the NFL, arenas, convention centers and soccer stadiums in the U.K. We're trying to overcome two historic holdings: That's connectivity in older buildings and user adoption rates. If we look at, specifically, the San Francisco Giants, what we're pleased about is that we offer in-seat capabilities for 8,000 fans there.

We're enamored about the social media platforms, how we use the cafe and if fans can see their tweets go up on the wall -- that's nice and informative. But what we're really seeing is that the old technology is still driving purchase intent and awareness: Digital menu boards. From 75 feet, they're seeing signs for what's in the area. At 50 feet, menu boards identify the products. From 25 feet, it's the price point and menu options. That drives double-digit growth and speeds up service, which is great when you have 40,000 to 75,000 people to serve.

I'm not a golfer, but the old adage is that you drive for show and you putt for dough. The drive is the social aspect and the dough is digital menu boards.

What has Centerplate been doing with teams in some of those older facilities to help get them up to speed?

Hague: Look at the Tampa Bay Rays, who've been working with Fortress to bring in all-access ticketing, and the Giants, who have been making those 8,000 in-seat experiences better and adding technology to the new club areas opening this year. At Safeco Field, it's about providing greater speed of access and loyalty programs -- things that are doable. We're looking to see how we can partner with them to get technological upgrades and bring their experience to a higher level.

Who are your first adopters?

Hague: We're blessed to have a lot of forward-thinking clients. We've tested 25 different technologies over the last four years and the testers have ranged from minor league clubs like the Louisville Sluggers to the Tampa Bay Rays to D.C. United to the San Francisco 49ers in their new stadium to Tottenham Hotspur in the U.K. ... all the way through to the Copperbox, which was part of the Olympics in 2012.

We're working with them to find relevant solutions. I don't want the gimmicks: I want results and not rhetoric. I want this to be a commercializable improvement to the fan experience. We think it's our obligation to the defenders of live experiences and live events.

How does technology make it better to be there? Does it serve you faster? Does it give you more options? Does it give you easier access? Does it tell you where the lines are shorter? Can it help you speed through? Can you pick up when you want to pick up and can you order when you want to order? Those are the questions that we're asking and answering through the cadre of technological innovations that are available to us at this point.

How has technology changed fans' expectations of a live ballgame? Are there specific aspects of your service that they've come to anticipate every time?

Hague: Everyone's hooked into more of the Twitter and Facebook aspects of the experience, and it's almost like bragging rights: Look at me, I'm here. We get that, but what we found is that the adoption rate is remarkably low at this point. It's less than a percentage point for things like instant ordering and activation.

It could be skepticism of the technology because they've tried it before and it's been cumbersome. You have to go to a website and log in and give them all your information, and then you're worried about security and you think about Target and that whole debacle.

I'm not minimizing that aspect, but it also goes into life at a live event. There's a reason that plays were designed to be 90 minutes when we first came to Broadway, because people need those biological breaks -- those body breaks. While we think it's great that people can order in seats, 50% of the people are going to buy their food before they get to their seats. You've already lost 50% of the marketplace. You don't want them to not have the ability to buy before they get to their seats because then you destroy sales.

We feel that the building of the adoption rate will be around how it can help people buy something when they take a break to go to the restroom and 'Can I do it with something that will make my life easier' and bust the system, like a speed pass. We think that's the way it will evolve, not from ordering in seats.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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