By Tim Newcomb
August 25, 2014

The San Francisco Giants sell almost as many garlic fries as they do hot dogs. After 81 games, AT&T Park has a certain garlic aroma to it. In Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High, expect to see bison brats at every turn. Portland’s Providence Park? There you’ll find the Tillamook mac ‘n cheese dog.

The garlic fry and brat success wasn’t happenstance. Finding the right signature item for a venue takes research, understanding, and, of course, catchy cuisine.  

Centerplate, a concessionaire for stadiums, arenas and venues across the world, had to start that process all over again to prep for the San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Des Hague, Centerplate CEO, says the overall hospitality experience, which includes signature food items, is about making the live in-game experience remarkable, one that creates memories. That includes the taste buds.

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One signature item can’t overcome mediocre fare throughout a venue, however; so they also devote plenty of research to ensuring key ingredients match with the fan base. Months of fan surveys, consumer trend research for the specific community and even Centerplate’s own STIR think tank work together to form a plan.

“We really want to understand: what do people like in San Francisco? what do they eat?” Hague tells Extra Mustard. “What are the new trends? Who are the chefs or winemakers having an impact?” This 18-month in-house process garners a deep immersion into a city to discover such things as “how would you celebrate seafood, celebrate garlic and the crazy crab with local tradition?”

While all arenas have their own signature items, even the ballpark staple hot dog looks different from venue to venue. Every stadium has a dog, but Hague wants customers to get to know their local flavors, the meats and the breads of their community. “You don’t try and do something across the nation,” Hague says. Whether the German dirty dog or a blue-collar town that demands price-point values, “you have the right products available for the right audience.”

In Portland, that mac ‘n cheese dog was Tillamook-approved in a city that loves its local cheddar and even has Timbers CEO Merritt Paulson telling he enjoys the indulgence.

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When creating signature items, Centerplate looks at fans in three categories: the Splurge Fan, the Family Guy, and the Season Ticket Tolder. For the Splurge Fan (who goes all-out on one game per season), they need higher-end products. The Family Guy, on the other hand, may want affordability. That’s why even the hot dog comes in different packages, from your standard ballpark frank to the Dirty Dog in San Francisco, a German dog with a casing that snaps. A Season Ticket Holder, especially in MLB, can easily get menu fatigue, so Hague says they try to rotate signature items.

For Centerplate, the idea behind a signature item isn’t about creating the world’s largest item, but about crafting food people talk about because of taste. “You see people saying that the price of admission at a Giants game is a cover charge for their crab sandwich,” he says. “We want something you would expect from a local restaurant, but not expect at a ballpark.”

And that differs even within stadiums. Centerplate looks at items in a Tier-One and Tier-Two status. The Tier-One items are in easy walking distance from anywhere in the venue. The Tier-Two items are sometimes harder to find in different regions. Barbecue, for example, is Tier-One in the south, but not on the West Coast.

While Sun Life Stadium in Miami features Cuban-inspired signatures, Safeco Field has a unique “hamburg + frites” item created by local chef Ethan Stowell. New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome turns up the red beans and rice with jambalaya, which may soon get a national rollout.

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Levi’s Stadium revolves around high-end variety. With over 175 items, you’ll certainly smell the garlic fries cooked with local Gilroy garlic, but you can find everything from the $18 Wagyu beef hot dog wrapped in bacon, pulled pork with meat from Alameda’s Niman Ranch, dozens of vegetarian items, such as the smoked jackfruit sliders and vegan dogs, and ethnic cuisine from Rajisthani lamb, kale curry and Peking duck. Hague says from a focus on seafood to house-made mayo and a rotation of local wineries, he wants to keep the options fresh and relevant.

But when a signature item hits big, it’s worth exploring elsewhere. Hague says he knows barbecue will never serve as a Tier-One item in Seattle and garlic fries can’t take over the popularity of poutine at Centerplate’s major Canadian venues. But folks in Spain love garlic, so when Centerplate opens in the new Atletico Madrid stadium in 2016, we may see the evolution of fries in Europe. Soon the signature smell of garlic will overtake us all. Sorry, vampires.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb and Extra Mustard at @SI_ExtraMustard.