Mr. Grumpy Unloads

Scott Watson

It's time to take off the kid gloves. The Nats and their concessions management have done a poor job of planning for the fan, and planning is one of the few things that they've had time to do. There are bound to be glitches in any new operation on the scale of Nats Park, but design mistakes and failure to stockpile ballpark staples are unforgivable.

First things first:

I thought that my "grumpy Nats fan" schtick was just an online persona - you know, honest in my criticism, but all in good fun, giving voice to common fan complaints. Now, I know that I'm just one p*ssed-off fan. And it's not tied to a losing streak, or the team's on-field performance [thanks, Tim Redding!]. It's the fan experience.

I attended Friday night's game, and yesterday's Wintry Extravaganza. Thanks to a generous friend, I walked away from Friday night pleased with the comfort of some prime seats in Section 211, and wowed by the baseball experience available to the higher rollers. As always in the park's short history, the friendliness of the staff was evident at every turn.

But I did note that the popcorn machines at the first two vendor stands offering the stuff were broken, and I was surprised that not a single vendor with proud signs selling vegetarian dogs and burgers had any for sale. It seemed odd, and kinda silly, that the Nats would go to the trouble of publicly offering some variety without carrying through.

Sunday showed me that there are some real problems, and that they run deep. How in the #$%@^@ can two separate concession stands tell people "we've got those fully-loaded [whatevers], but we don't have any mustard"? Some condiment areas also were plumb out of that delicious yellow opiate. No mustard at a BALLGAME? I saw quite a few really unhappy fans over near Ben's when they realized that they'd have to go on a search to complete their dogs.

I tried to carefully survey the concession sales (all for you, our devoted readers!), and I saw a lot of frustration. Having a bottleneck at every grill, where one employee took an order, and then prepared each individual burger or specialty dog, seemed insane, and led me to realize that someone hadn't been thinking when they designed and staffed those stands. Even a friendly staff can't ultimately satisfy a long line of people who plunked down a lot of money to see a game, and are instead watching it on TV screens waiting in line.

The poor planning didn't end there, though; countless fans waited for up to 10 minutes, only to *then* be told that their items were unavailable. Or to learn that the hot-chocolate maker was broken. On the 200-level concourse by the Scoreboard Pavilion, the first three stands that advertised hot chocolate all had broken machines. Did the Nats intentionally buy broken machines, or did they just rely on eBay to get them from Forbes Field? Did they fail to read the Post's weather report, thinking it would be 80 degrees out, and no one would want hot chocolate? Did they think at all?

I also broke down and decided that my husky [read: "fat"] self could afford to eat a veggie . . . something. After promising that they had veggie burgers (they had no veggie dogs; silly me for asking), I finally got to the front and was told - by the same man who let me know that they were in stock - that I'd have to wait four minutes. I took a deep breath and said "fine," as he pulled a frozen slab of gray from a drawer. When he started to drop it into a deep fryer, I asked him to just throw it on the grill, telling him I'd wait even if it took longer. He then argued with me that they "had to" deep fry it. Well, that's when the dark clouds REALLY rolled over the Park.

I know, I know - waaaah waaaah waaaaah. It seems a minor thing, or a series of minor things. But I shelled out a lot of money to take a friend, and both of us missed long segments of on-field action waiting to be disappointed.

And Stan? I also kept in my pocket about fifty more bucks that I would have shelled over to the smiling attendants offering me food and drink, if only they'd had it. But never again; I'll bring in my own food and water, and pocket the money. At least I'll see the game.

By Scott Watson  |  April 14, 2008; 10:26 AM ET  | Category:  Scott Watson
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They DEEP FRIED your veggie burger? That is the strangest thing I have ever heard!

Posted by: Betty | April 14, 2008 11:16 AM

I wouldn't know if they deep-fried it or not; I walked away in a fugue. . . .

Posted by: S Watson | April 14, 2008 11:28 AM

btw, "but design mistakes and failure to stockpile ballpark staples [ARE] unforgivable."

clearly, mr. grumpy has done a poor job of planning. . . .

** gulp **

Posted by: S Watson | April 14, 2008 11:40 AM

I encountered multiple condiment carts with either the ketchup and/or mustard not working. Not to mention the onion/relish machines, which appear to be as incomprehensible to operate as they are prone to breaking. And finally, how can a vending location run out of food trays BEFORE a game starts? We had that happen on Friday night at 6:30 -- they said they were "out" of trays an hour before game time.

Posted by: agree | April 14, 2008 11:48 AM

Great point and I appreciate the rant. I hope Kasten sees this.

I left a line this weekend that wasn't moving anywhere. Long lines are fine when you see movement behind the counter. But the staff WERE NOT working together. Just puttering around, one person fixing one order, la-di-da.

I wanted to see them at least LOOK like they were moving quick and worried about the line. Some stands have it down. They're moving quick and shouting and cooperating with each other and looking beyond the customer in front of them. Those lines MOVE.

I hope they all get it soon because I don't think they want any more grumpy Scotts.

Posted by: Stantun | April 14, 2008 11:52 AM

Sounds like RFK, revisited.

Posted by: Pompous Magnus | April 14, 2008 12:05 PM

I had a 45 minute wait in line at Senator's Sausage on the right field side on Saturday during the rain delay. The line wasn't that long, but there was only one person working behind the stand. How can you only have 1 person working a stand during a weekend game with 32,000 in attendance? Luckily there was a 1 1/2 hour rain delay, or I would have missed part of the game!

Posted by: Senator's Sausage | April 14, 2008 12:31 PM

My parents had very similar complaints about yesterday's concession efforts. Two different vendors on the Gallery level took the money for hot chocolate in one instance and a crab cake in the other, and only then were my parents informed that the items in question would not be ready for several minutes.

Not only that, a couple of the hot dog/half smoke vendors ran out of chili!

The long lines are getting old after this many games.

Posted by: Tom Brooke | April 14, 2008 12:32 PM

RFK was better with respect to concessions. I went on Saturday afternoon. No iced tea available before the GAME STARTED. They had a YEAR to order tea. No onions or mustard at the condiment areas. Also clear and blatant price gouging. I know you don't go to a ballgame expecting Happy Hour, but fifteen bucks for a dog and a beer is ridiculous.

Posted by: DunnLoringDenizen | April 14, 2008 12:36 PM

How did anybody NOT see this coming?

What with the very clear directive to hire people for job training, as well as the fact that these folks are paid by the hour, and not by the food sold or meeting sales goals ... Yeah, I'm bringing in my own food too, and have been since Opening Day.

Oh, and yes, Kasten and the Lerner's are gouging us completely. Not to mention that they're not paying to put a good product on the field ...

Posted by: DC Centurion's Shield | April 14, 2008 1:18 PM

...or does it almost seem as though the folks behind the counter are almost enjoying taking the maximum time to serve up a hot dog (or drink). I bet if they were working commission you would see those lines a movin!

Posted by: Is it just me.... | April 14, 2008 1:57 PM

Haven't had this particular piece of linear pleasure yet. Did find that things were pretty snappy at the Hard Times in LF.

But what's up selling Large sodas with no tops that you then transport through crowded concourses to your seat? Can't wait to try a tray with 3 or 4 of those puppies and see how many people I can splash....

Posted by: OutsideTheLaw | April 14, 2008 2:43 PM

As a season ticket holder, i've been to every game but 1, and at every game i've had problems with concessions. Food that is posted on the menus is constantly unavailable; usually the only way to find out about it is to wait a half inning in line? How difficult would it be to tape over the offending item on the menu? OR...why not just get it right? For all the talk about fixing the problems after opening night...the results are dismal. The staff is too often to blame as well. VERY slow, unfriendly service is the norm all too often. Last week I waited in line for 5 mins for a soda...and when it was finally my turn, i was told the stand was closed. After all the hype about the first rate concessions that we heard all winter (an inability to keep stands stocked, unfrinedly staff/outrageous prices, no condiments, no trays, huge lines, no communication), what we are being offered is pathetic. Its a HUGE black mark on the new park, which is otherwise fantastic. The Nats will lose revenue and-more importantly-fans, if this isnt corrected before first impressions of the park are cemented.

Posted by: first impressions going awry... | April 14, 2008 3:06 PM

I concur.

Waiting 15 minutes for a Keilbasa and Bratwurst and then being told that they only had Polish Sausages by the food service staff only to find out at the cashier that Polishes are not even part of the menu.

Then not being able to get a top for my soda was just icing on the cake.

Posted by: D Park | April 14, 2008 3:20 PM

Sometimes I think that management/ownership fails to understand why so very many of us are at the park: we love baseball, want to see baseball, ideally winning baseball, but happy to be there otherwise as well. I really miss the days when vendors sold dogs in the stands. It's hard to do, but my expectations of a vendor in the stands' product is indeed different. And because I haven't had to leave the game (and no, tv screens are not the experience I seek) for up to 45 minutes or more, I am more forgiving about service and quality. The happiest fan is going to be the one who's there for the game, and the most enduring fans are going to be the generations fed by the thrill and suspense of the game rather than disgustingly over-priced, gimicky food. Again thinking of the children who could become enduring fans, most families could only entertain the notion of tickets and food a couple of times a season, I imagine.

Posted by: cb201 | April 14, 2008 4:45 PM

Hello!!! This is Washington DC people...did you really expect a motivated and energized workforce at the concession stands? You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig. The lazy, anti-service culture which typified the employees throughout the administration of Marion Barry will never go away. I can't put my finger on it, but you don't see this level of indifference at ballparks in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee or Cleveland even when the workers are still making the same minimum wage.

This does not, however, excuse the supply issues that plague the stadium after a week. I can see how a stand MIGHT run out of hot dogs or popcorn during a game, but there has to be a warehouse somewhere nearby that is stocked with lids, trays and tubs of condiments.

Posted by: Mike Sorce | April 14, 2008 9:23 PM

Quick! Call Barry Svrgula! A hot dog without mustard!

Thanks cb201. You summed it up perfectly.

Remember the old shtick they used to say...?

"I went to a fight last night at the (insert venue here) and a hockey game broke out..."

Maybe it should be now:
"i went to a food court and a baseball game started"

Hey Grumpy. Just get out of line. Buy a scorebook. And pack a sandwich will ya?

And while everyone riles against team ownership, remember DC is collecting 10% on each sale.

Posted by: DanD187 | April 15, 2008 8:26 AM

DanD187 wrote: "i went to a food court and a baseball game started"

Hey Grumpy. Just get out of line. Buy a scorebook. And pack a sandwich will ya?>>

Oh, sure. The Nats will buy LOTS of free agent talent, and pay Spanky Zimmerman, based on ticket sales alone. . . .

Listen -- when I show up and greet my flock, I'll make sure to offer 'em a full ecclesiastical experience. You wouldn't tell 'em to just sit for the prayers, but bring their own sermon, would 'ya?

Posted by: Pope Benedict | April 15, 2008 9:05 AM

I don't disagree with any of Mister Grumpy's points; his blog is supposed to be about critiquing the experience we've been offered, and he's right: the vendors need to step up to plate! Me, I want management to see that baseball is an end in itself, and all that other junk is just means to a profit. They are entitled to earn it, and need it to sustain salaries, etc. But a full stadium of loyal fans serves long-term "corporate" goals, too. I'd give anything to go to more games, but I can't afford it, even if I bring my own food. I counted 74 more home games before the season ends, and I might be able to budget to see 10-15 of them (more if I can swing the time to get $5-seats). The Lerners need to know (and show) they are lucky to have fans like me, of which there are many.

Posted by: cb201 | April 15, 2008 9:06 AM

Wow, all that AND poor attendance numbers??? Come on back to Baltimore and get a real ballpark experience!

Posted by: eh? | April 15, 2008 11:43 AM

I've yet to go to a game at NP and these comments scare me! I'll admit it...I'm used to Camden Yards, where I've never encountered concession problems. Even when the Red Sox and Yanks are in town and it's a packed house, the food is fast and dee-lish. Serving up the platters at Boog's BBQ is a fast moving system. Plus the lines for crab cakes and ribs on Eutaw St seem effortless. It's all part of the ballpark experience, and they sure do have it right in Baltimore...even if the team and owner do suck!

...and that's part of a much larger rant about the uninspired, boring design of NP. C'mom...just a big scoreboard and views of parking garages! Look at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, or even the proposed Tampa Bay stadium. There's nothing distinctive about this place and I think us Nats fans got hosed.

Posted by: natsfan79 | April 15, 2008 3:29 PM

NatsFan79 -- Don't let the criticism of the stadium keep you from going out and enjoying a lot of games. With all of my criticism, I still think that it's a good-to-great place to watch the game. The sightlines are excellent, the pitch/angle are comfortable, if you're in the infield "bowl," you get a strong sense of activity [the folks milling and enjoying the centerfield pavilion keep things exciting]. If you're in the outfield looking back, there is a cathedral-like feeling that you're in a house of baseball.

With THAT said -- avoid the "baseball mall" feeling, and bring in your own food. Find an under-attended hot dog stand, and go with the basics. THOSE places don't seem screwed-up. All of the other elements are incredibly frustrating -- because they seem so damned unnecessary -- but they don't have to spoil the game.

Posted by: Scott Watson | April 15, 2008 3:37 PM

Let me second Scott's reply to Natsfan79... Nationals Park (and I hope we can come up with a non-corporate nickname that will stick) is a great place to see a baseball game. The Gallery Level is MUCH closer to the field than the upper Deck at Camden Yards and the open concourse is much better than the closed off concourse in Baltimore. The seats are comfortable and my water bottles from home have fit nicely in the cupholders. And there are Subway and other sandwich shops located near most of the Metro stops from which you might embark on the way to the game. (or, as noted, find a vendor with a shorter line -- they exist)

Sure there are lots of little problems, but they will be fixed because Stan reads this blog every day.... right?

Posted by: Tom Brooke | April 15, 2008 5:26 PM

you mean you snuck bottled water into a game? mine got confiscated!

Posted by: big_al | April 24, 2008 7:12 PM

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