Executive chef Manny Arce didn't want to keep his only table waiting on a night he needed to impress.
On Feb. 15, a small group of executives from the Seattle Mariners and Centerplate, the company that manages the team’s concessions, convened at Poquitos, a Mexican restaurant in the heart of Seattle. Arce's job that winter night was to secure Poquitos a stand at Safeco Field by impressing the taste testers. He filled their table with a smorgasbord of the restaurant’s favorites until the service reached a lull as other dishes needed more time in the kitchen. To keep his guests occupied, Arce sent out a snack he knew would grapple them: Chapulines, commonly referred to as toasted grasshoppers.
It was neither a planned stunt nor something Arce felt the need to show off. Rather, he did it on a whim. It worked brilliantly.
“We were kind of looking at each other thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of… not for us,’ said Rebecca Hale, the Mariners’ public information officer. “Then we just kept talking about it and thinking about it.
“It didn’t take long, maybe 20 minutes, until we looked at each other and said, ‘Why not?’”
At a time when teams will fry anything, use pizza in place of hamburger buns and pile meat as high as any iPhone camera can capture, the Mariners took the greatest leap of all. They started selling edible bugs…and they became an instant sensation. The team has sold out of the grasshoppers before first pitch several times this season, and eventually capped per-game orders to 312, honoring the lifetime batting average of Seattle great Edgar Martinez. The toasted grasshoppers are sold at Edgar’s Cantina, where they’re dusted in a chili-lime salt before they’re sold in two-ounce portions (about 20-25 grasshoppers) for $4.
Poquitos has featured the cooked critters on their menu since opening in 2009, importing them from Oaxaca, Mexico, where they’re sold on the streets in mountainous piles. But the item never came close to selling as well in the restaurant as it has at Safeco Field. As of June 29—42 home games into the season—approximately 16,000 orders have been placed, amounting to more than 320,000 consumed grasshoppers.
While the taste and texture of the toasted bugs can be compared to a variety of different things—from pumpkin seeds to crunchy raisins to smoked salmon—at least one thing about the snack is definite: Every bit of this phenomenon roots back to that February meal at Poquitos, where baseball’s biggest food hit of the year hatched out of Arce’s impromptu decision.
“The attention it’s given us has caused us to take some moments and look at each other thinking, ‘This is just crazy,’” said Rich Fox, owner of Poquitos.
Unlike most teams, the Mariners said they weren’t seeking to vend a gimmicky item that would be plastered around the internet. They sought authentic cuisine, and the grasshoppers’ ties to Oaxaca excited the team as much as anything.
Steve Dominguez, General Manager at Centerplate, knows it’s his job to draw eyeballs to the Mariners’ preseason media event where new concession items are unveiled. He had no worries about people noticing the grasshoppers, only how they would react after seeing them. Dominguez remembers a time 15-20 years ago when it felt unorthodox to offer sushi at the ballpark. Now he was attempting to paint toasted bugs as an appetizing option.
His nerves didn’t let up until the preseason luncheon concluded, with The Seattle Times and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer headlining their stories from the day with the grasshoppers.
“Did I realize it would be the phenomenon it’s become?” Dominguez said, “No. At that point it was well received. There was no, ‘What are you guys doing?’
“Once you get past the perception of what it is, it’s a protein item, it’s good for you, there’s no gluten and very little carbs.”
"Imagine a cop driving by the Chuck E. Cheese wondering what in the hell is going on, only to find out it's black market grasshoppers."
Whatever the reason for trying may be—nutrition, double dares or otherwise—a crush of people overwhelmed Edgar’s Cantina in search of grasshoppers opening week. The stand sold out during the Mariners’ first four games and Arce and his team didn’t think they’d be able to locate enough product to supply two weekend games against the Rangers, not to mention the remaining three games of the homestand. Shipping grasshoppers 3,000-plus miles doesn’t lend itself to a particularly speedy delivery.
Arce leaned on his network of culinary contacts in the Seattle area to accumulate enough grasshoppers before each game. The closest call came about an hour before first pitch one night when Arce drove nearly 30 miles to meet a supplier in Kent, Washington to pick up a 50-pound package of grasshoppers. The two made the exchange “like an illicit drug deal” in a Chuck E. Cheese parking lot.
He arrived back at Safeco Field just as the game began, equipped with a lot of grasshoppers and one unforgettable story.
“Imagine a cop driving by the Chuck E. Cheese,” Fox joked, “wondering what in the hell is going on, only to find out it’s black market grasshoppers.”
While that story might be the punchline to this saga, the entire journey has been full of unexpected twists up to this point. Sales are consistent, though they have calmed down since the initial onslaught.
Still, given the amount of turnover in the crowd each game, the novelty of the toasted grasshoppers isn’t likely to wear off anytime soon. Folks around the Mariners and Poquitos are still having plenty of fun with their celebrity product. Fox is printing shirts for his staff that say, “Buy me some peanuts and grasshoppers,” replacing Cracker Jacks in a line from “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Could that be the direction modern concession stands are headed? In a traditionalist’s sport like baseball, probably not. But who knows? All it might take is a spontaneous decision from the kitchen.