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New Ballpark, New Eats

The Washington Nationals are finished defending the performance of Aramark, the food service giant that has provided mediocre food and desultory service at RFK Stadium since baseball returned to the District. The team announced today that at its new stadium, all food service will be provided by a new concessionaire, Centerplate, a South Carolina company that holds the contracts for six Major League Baseball stadiums and ten National Football League teams.

The very good news for Washington fans is that Centerplate is the company behind the excellent selection and service at the San Francisco Giants' newish ballpark, where the garlic fries, 40-clove garlic chicken sandwiches from the Stinking Rose restaurants, and Ghirardelli hot fudge sundaes are generally acclaimed as among the best offerings in pro sports. Centerplate is also the company behind the impressive upgrade in food at old Yankee Stadium--further evidence of how bogus were Aramark's constant whines about how hard it is to serve decent food in antiquated RFK.

Our man Steinberg over at the Sports Bog has visited this terrain already and reports that Centerplate has made the Giants park primo for vegetarians too, for whatever that's worth.

But there's room for some caution and skepticism too, because Centerplate also counts among its clients the Washington Redskins and--get ready--the D.C. Convention Center, which is renowned for its mediocre and ridiculously priced offerings.

So it's not quite clear what we'll see at the new stadium in the way of concessions. The Nationals and Centerplate promise to team up with local restaurants to make the food interesting and Washington-centric. Actually, Aramark made some progress on that front after its disastrous first season, and the Red, Hot and Blue barbecue stand at RFK is a highlight that would stand up well against any park in the league. But the Burrito Brothers stand didn't last very long and when Foggy Bottom beer went out of business, that was the end of the local brews at the ballpark.

So which Centerplate will we see down on the Anacostia waterfront? The splendor of the Giants or the misery of the D.C. convention center? Is this a matter of different kinds of contracts in different cities? Or is it a workforce issue, as some have argued about Aramark's failure at RFK? Aramark never seemed to read the Washington market well, figuring it for way downscale from Baltimore, when all evidence points in the opposite direction.

At the very least, the new company won't have any facilities excuses, as the new park is designed with big, modern kitchens and food service areas. Maybe the new guys can finally swing a deal with Ben's Chili Bowl.

What else would you like to see in the way of comestibles at the new stadium?

By Marc Fisher |  September 4, 2007; 2:31 PM ET
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I'm very happy to hear the Nats are jettisoning Aramark and their awful food. I'm skeptical Centerplate can do any better with service as they're likely to now hire the same people who worked for Aramark if not draw from the same shallow pool of employee prospects.

What also worries me is how expensive will Centerplate and the Nats make the food concessions? The Redskins under Dan "I'm all about fleecing the fans of all their money" Snyder have the most expensive food and drinks of any stadium I've ever been. Is it no wonder people complain about drunk and unruly football fans at FedUp Field when beers are $8 which drives fans to drink more when tailgating so not to pay and arm and a leg for a beer inside the stadium? I fear this to will happen at Nats games if the Lerner group is as greedy as Snyder.

I second Ben's Chilli Bowl. It would be great if they could bring in half smokes, crabcakes, and keep Red, Hot, & Blue.

Posted by: Nats fan | September 4, 2007 3:27 PM

I hate to hop onto the train of cynicism, but I think that staffing is going to remain the Achilles heel of concession service for the Nationals. We went to the Nats game on Sunday and the food service staff could not have been more disinterested in their jobs. I know that this is far from a high paying and mentally stimulating career, but would it hurt to show a LITTLE interest in what you are doing? I wish Centerplate a lot of luck next season, but I fear that we are going to making many of the same complaints a year from now, just with higher priced concessions and more variety.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | September 4, 2007 4:08 PM

If the new food service is going to be any good, the new contractors and the Nats need to listen up; ANYONE who worked for Aramark as food server should be presumed to be slow-moving, incapable of making change, and plain disinterested in the customer. For the love of GOD, such people should be presumptively disqualified from working at the new stadium.

And here's a suggestion for a new entrant; at Tiger Woods' tournament this year (the AT&T Classic, I believe it was called), Morton's had a nice little stand that served, assembly-line style, one dish and one dish only - steak, medium rare, on a roll with fries. It was FABULOUS. How about it?

Posted by: Desultory Desi | September 4, 2007 4:27 PM

As far as local eateries go, I think Ben's is a pipe dream. They have built a strong business in this city by doing what they do exactly where they do it. Granted the younger generation seems a bit more entrepeneurial, but I'd be amazed if they would even consider operating outside of U Street.

The local outfits that I think would really have a shot at making a go of it at the stadium would be:

5 Guys
Matchbox
Tonic
Armands

As far as beer goes, what about Capitol City or Old Dominion?

Finally, in regard to Centerplate vs. Aramark... even if the employees are lackluster, at least having new and more interesting menu items is a step in the right direction. I'll have one Ghiradelli Ice Cream Sundae in a plastic helmet, please!

Posted by: Lepanto | September 4, 2007 4:50 PM

Last time I was in GW Hospital, the food was provided by Aramark. I had to order out.

Posted by: Mike Licht | September 4, 2007 4:52 PM

Oh, Lepanto, Five Guys...don't start tempting me, now! I might have to become a baseball fan! Although they'd have to slim their menu wayyyyy down - it takes forever to get an order filled there now.

Posted by: h3 | September 4, 2007 5:50 PM

The food will be what the owners want it to be. It's good that they've selected a concessionaire who can turn out good grub. It's bad that they've selected one who turns out swill. What do the owners want the food to be?

Ben's Chili Bowl, Two Guys, etc. are fine where they are. When I go to the ball park I want a ball park experience, not a recycled food court experience.

Posted by: KK | September 4, 2007 8:52 PM

Armands? Have you ever actually eaten there? Armamark serves a better pizza.

Posted by: KK | September 4, 2007 8:57 PM

40-clove garlic chicken sandwiches? Garlic fries? If I wanted to smell that, I would go to Italy. Or at least the nearest Catholic church.

BTW, don't knock food court grub. Every food court I've seen has been pretty busy so that says something about the food.

Posted by: sharon | September 4, 2007 9:05 PM

So does ballpark food have to be enhanced in the modern age too? Lousy food and mediocre service are and have always been part of the game experience. As long as the beer is cold and not too outrageously expensive, who cares?

Posted by: Paul | September 4, 2007 10:01 PM

International food, the big difference between Washington and all those other places. OK on local stuff like crabcakes and halfsmokes, but have special features like Ethiopian, Salvadoran, Vietnamese. Recognize the biggest difference between our region all others --- the Embassies and the new cultures among us.

Posted by: joe c | September 5, 2007 10:23 AM

I've never had a particular problem with the concesionaies at RFK. Food quality is in large part dependant on the facilities offered at the building and on what the owners are willing to spend on it. Armark also does the Telecome Company Center and the Baltimore Convention Center, and they do an ok job. I sit in section 422 at RFK and the concesions people ther are always fairly fast with whatever you need.

And if you want real chili, get them to bring back Hard Times cafe. That's good chili.

Posted by: EricS | September 5, 2007 10:28 AM

"BTW, don't knock food court grub. Every food court I've seen has been pretty busy so that says something about the food."

I'm sure every mall restroom you've visited is busy too.

Posted by: slappy | September 5, 2007 10:47 AM

I think the issue is more what the owners are willing to have. Snyder clearly doesn't care about the fans, and I can't imagine that food was a big consideration at the convention center either. In Philadelphia, Aramark still does the food at Citizens Bank Park and it has great variety and is affordable. And it is not really a food court - there are still the normal stands available, just more options if you are interested.

The key thing is how committed the owners are to a good ballpark experience. They say they are, but the results at RFK haven't been very encouraging. If the ownership demands good food service at the new park, they'll get it.

Posted by: Section 316 | September 5, 2007 11:10 AM

Sharon don't rag on the SF Chicken Sandwich. They could even serve that at RFK, and it would make going there worth it.

Posted by: Kim | September 5, 2007 11:19 AM

You want to improve the food. Allow people to bring in outside food like you can at the Orioles. It creates competition that improves prices and quality for everyone.

Posted by: Matt | September 5, 2007 12:14 PM

fact is, the food could be primo, the kitchens perfect, but if the same uninterested, bitter, angry, and just plain terrible staff are moved from one stadium to the next...nothing will change. i know there are good people working for the concessionaire, but there are a LOT of terrible ones too. they need to have some incentive in their contracts to be friendly or else they get canned....something along those lines.

Posted by: IMGoph | September 5, 2007 12:27 PM

Let's not forget a few things:

1. Quality of service and product is the function of the concessionaire. Employee service is a product of oversight and training. There was significant progress in the weeks after the Lerner's were announced as the new owners. They were able to put pressure on Aramark. to make some upgrades. It became very obvious this year that either Aramark figured that they had a lock on the new stadium contract or just didn't care.

2. Local food is a great idea, but what is it? Certainly not Armand's Pizza, which is a mediocre version of Chicago Pizza. If you want local pizza, it almost has to be Ledo's. Half Smokes (not my fave) are fine. Chili must be from Ben's. Maybe hamburgers from Urban burger. Beyond that???? I will give kudos to the A & R Seafood (on the lower level) which seems to be local and doesn't seem to use Aramark folks. Their employees have always been anxious and willing to go that extra step.

3. Prices are going to be interesting. What many fans at RFK may not know is that the food is, by actual calculation, the cheapest in Major League Baseball.

4. If you look around RFK, you can see that both team ownership and DCS&E have basically moved on. I do have some sympathy for the DC United fans, who will now be subjected to a 4th rate service experience.

Remember that the Lerners, in particular, have a reputation to uphold. You can bet that they won't allow shoddy service, products, or dissatisfied customers.

Posted by: mikes | September 5, 2007 12:44 PM

I guess "Section 316" has never wondered over to the right field food court section of CBP. That row of restaurants there including the Gino's, Bull's, and others look an awful lot like a food court to me, and that outfield seating design is very similar to the National's new staduim. I think you're getting a food court whether you like it or not. The only difference is that it will cost you $20+ per person to eat a meal there.

Posted by: Jester | September 5, 2007 1:24 PM

One under-appreciated feature of the DC-area dining scene is the Peruvian chicken restaurant. I'd love to see a Crisp & Juicy stand at the new ballpark, and I'll take a side of yucca with that!

Posted by: John K | September 5, 2007 5:13 PM

It has already been discussed but bears repeating. The best food won't matter if the staff has a sense of entitlement with an indifferent attitude towards the customer, their job, and their employer.

Posted by: BDWEsqTM | September 5, 2007 6:59 PM

I think Best Buy hires the same idiots. Where has customer service gone? DC blows. I hope I can move sooner rather than later.

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