Every year our friends at Big Top Baseball unveil something new at their four ballparks, and we think they’re out front with this year’s addition: a double-decker pizza bus.
Big Top Baseball, our Organization of the Year in 2014 and owners of four summer-collegiate Northwoods League teams — Green Bay Bullfrogs, Kenosha Kingfish, Madison Mallards and Wisconsin Rapids Rafters — is usually out in front of most ballpark trends. This year, Big Top bypassed the introduction of an outrageous food item at the ballpark in favor of a customized double-decker bus serving wood-fired pizzas, beginning at $8 a pie.
Now, the point here isn’t that teams should be getting into the pizza business; it’s that something like a pizza bus can be a welcome change of pace from the extreme-food trend that spawned $29 lobster rolls at Fenway Park or the triple-triple, 2,200-calorie cheeseburger at Citizens Bank Park. Extreme foods continue to make headlines, but we’re seeing the food needing to get more and more extreme to get the attention of the press.
Instead of generating headlines with extreme foods, we’re now seeing teams investing in upgraded food offerings, including sit-down, branded ballpark restaurants. We’re in the experiential age, and these offerings can offer a unique, memorable experience far exceeding the inevitable letdown following a $29 lobster roll. At the beginning of the season we covered this trend:
Branded restaurants within the ballpark aren’t new — the New York Mets have offered Shake Shack snacks at Citi Field since 2009, and the Philadelphia Phillies have a wide array of local offerings from branded restaurants — but in the past these have typically been licensed offerings, with the local concessionaire (Delaware North, Centerplate, Ovations) running operations and retaining total control of the experience.
In the past few years we’ve seen the restaurant partners exert more control over the ballpark restaurant experience; after all, it’s their brand on the line, and while ballpark concessionaires have in general upped their game in the last five or so years, restaurant partners are much more active in daily operations, whether it be designing a menu or training staff.
There have been teams getting on the food-truck movement — most notably, the Minnesota Twins operate a food truck branded with the team’s radio partner (also a Pohlad property). But we’re talking more with the Pizza Bus — it’s an experience, not just a food truck. The bottom level is the kitchen, featuring the aforementioned wood-fire stove, a small cooking area and walk-up ordering windows. Fans enter the bus in the normal boarding area and walk up the stairs to a second-level party deck. At the ballpark, this becomes a portable suite (the bus is parked down the third-base line at Warner Park, down the first-base line at Witter Field), complete with drink rails, stools and a serving table. It’s also a marketing tool for the Big Top Baseball teams — we took this photo above the first day it was operating, but since then it’s been outfitted with team and Big Top logos. Besides appearing at ballparks and other Big Top Baseball events, it’s also rented for concerts, community events and corporate gigs.
To sum up: the Pizza Bus works as a food truck, a portable suite, a ballpark amenity, a branding exercise, a promotional device and a revenue generator, much more than just a concession stand.
And the pizza? It’s great.