ATLANTA — The assembled scribes in the press box were flabbergasted.
Where did you get all that?
That question echoed again and again as I hauled my bounty through the press box at Mercedes Benz Stadium 90 minutes before the kickoff of the Florida State-Alabama game on Sept. 2. The question came for two reasons.
1. Most sportswriters don’t understand the concept of paying for food at a game, and they’re dumbfounded when one of their number actually buys something.
2. None of us had seen stadium food that looked this good.
The concession philosophy at Mercedes Benz Stadium is as brilliant as it is simple, and hopefully it will catch on at every major professional and college venue in America. Here it is: Give people good food from restaurants and chefs they trust at a fair price, and they’ll spend as much or more money as when you gouged them for terrible food.
When the Falcons play their home opener Sunday night against the Packers, fans can eat pulled pork sandwiches from Fox Bros., pizza from Antico and chili sausages from Delia’s Chicken Sausage Stand. They can sip frozen oranges from The Varsity. (They can’t take advantage of the stands from Atlanta native Chick-fil-a, because it’ll be Sunday. Fans at the Peach Bowl and the College Football Playoff national title game can eat all the chicken sandwiches they want, though.) And those fans won’t face prices double or triple what they’d pay in the restaurant. They’ll spend about the same as they would if they visited any of these places on a random Tuesday.
Even better, fans won’t have to buy one giant soda and share it with the entire family. Sodas cost $2 and come with unlimited refills. Soda fountains sit near the entrance to every section, making it easy to pop up for a refill during the multiple timeouts the NFL so thoughtfully places between a score, the kickoff and the ensuing possession.
When I heard about this idea for food, I was intrigued. But my main question was whether it would work in practice. Would the food be as good as it is in the actual restaurant? Would the portion size match?
Based on my trip around the 100 level concourse before Florida State-Alabama, the answer to both questions is yes. I decided to see how much I could get for $40, which in most stadiums might net me two school-lunch hot dogs, two drinks and some stale nachos.
I started at Fox Bros., which is the most beloved of the local restaurants that have set up shop in the stadium.
Atlanta has some great barbecue, and Fox Bros. is among the best. I arrived at the Fox Bros. stand and found a line commensurate with the esteem in which the place is held. But even though I was probably 30th in line, I was at a register within five minutes. I ordered smoked wings ($9 for six at the store, $12 for eight at the stadium) and a pulled pork sandwich ($10 with chips at the store, $8 with no chips at the stadium). Both dishes tasted just as good at the stadium as they did at the flagship. The wings were crispy and drizzled with a spicy sauce. (So invest in one of those $2 drinks.) The sandwich passed the ultimate test. It didn’t require one drop of sauce. The pork was juicy and rubbed beautifully.
Next, I got a burger from Molly B’s Kitchen.
This is a made-for-the-stadium restaurant named after Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s mother and featuring food designed by the creators of Atlanta’s ONE. midtown kitchen and TWO urban licks. This burger ($12) featured two ground short rib patties, gruyere, french onion soup mayo, dijon, pickles and caramelized onions on a brioche bun. The juicy burger with the high-class toppings would have been the best thing I could eat at a lot of stadiums. In this exercise, it finished fourth.
With my remaining $8, I bought The Hot Mess ($7.49 at the store) from Delia’s Chicken Sausage Stand.
The Hot Mess is a chicken sausage link topped with chili, cheddar, pickled jalapenos and Comeback sauce. The sausage had a great snap, and the mix of toppings created precisely the gutbuster I want to consume while watching a football game. The fact that it cost the same or less than a plain, small and probably disgusting hot dog at the average major college or NFL stadium made it that much more delicious.