With the opening of the baseball season comes the traditional ballpark fare - hot dogs, popcorn, and fries - the kinds of food often avoided by the health conscious.
Some ballparks across the country, cognizant of growing nationwide concerns about obesity, are taking a different approach to feeding their fans by adding low-carb options, more choices for vegetarians, and even smaller-portion servings.
At Fifth Third Field, however, where last year the chili-topped "Muddy hot dog" debuted to great success, new choices to this year's menu likely won't appear on the cover of many health magazines. But Mud Hens officials said the additions should be well-received by the Class AAA team's fans.
Topping the list of new items unveiled yesterday for the media was the new "Georgia Dog." Billed as a favorite down South, this dog has cole slaw atop chili and diced onions.
"You want to have a nice, well-rounded selection," said Craig Nelson, Mud Hens general manager for food and beverage. "We get some feedback from the fans, look at what sold, and what was the most popular across the country."
Other new items that will be available when the 2004 home season opens Thursday against the Durham Bulls include a meatball sandwich, ribs, a barbecue beef sandwich, and onion rings.
To wash that down, Toledo fans will have two new diet pop choices. And two of three new treats are also aimed at the health conscious: Slim Fast and Carb Smart ice cream bars. If that doesn't work for you, this year you'll also be able to get an old-fashioned root beer float.
"You always want to update things, especially in the sports and entertainment business," Mr. Nelson said. "But you'll always have your staples - the hot dogs, peanuts, cotton candy - and then work some new stuff in here and there."
When new doesn't work, however, it's considered strike three. That's what the Mud Hens discovered after opening season at the new downtown stadium. A salad and deli sandwich stand designed to offer fans lighter food choices was closed after the first year because of lack of business, Mr. Nelson said.
At the Detroit Tigers' Comerica Park, officials said there will be little change to this year's concession menu.
But officials there and at other ballparks nationwide agree it's the fans - and their stomachs - that dictate most major menu decisions. As America becomes more health conscious, so are the ballparks they love.
That means crepes and sushi at Jacobs Field in Cleveland and mini hot dogs and Bitty Burgers at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
"It's amazing how educated our customers are. They want low-fat, low-carb items," said Robin Rosenberg, chef for Levy Restaurants, which handles concessions for 66 sports and entertainment venues across the country, including PNC Park.
"Ten, 15 years ago, there were three choices in the industry: pretzel, hot dog, and nachos," he noted. "Everyone is getting so creative these days and giving people what they want."
What many fans want are vegetarian options. In a survey ranking vegetarian offerings at major league ballparks across the country, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gave top billing to Jacobs Field.
Dan Shannon, PETA campaign coordinator, said those stadiums that offered vegetarian versions of traditional ballpark food increased their concessions business.
"So a vegetarian can go to the ballfield and can have a traditional hotdog, only a veggie hotdog, and a beer," he said.
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