The Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Class AA; Southern League) enhanced their food service in 2019, with overhauled concession concepts and an extreme menu item known as Crabzilla. By completing both a significant offseason renovation and introducing a unique new food item, the Blue Wahoos are being honored with our Best New Concessions Experience and Best New Food Item awards.
Leading up to the 2019 season, four concession stands at Blue Wahoos Stadium were overhauled to introduce a new look and feel, updated menus, and improved operations. The result was a transition away from the traditional ballpark concessions experience, with an emphasis on unique menu items that reflected the characteristics of each stand.
“It’s a tremendous award,” said Eric Kroll, General Manager, Food and Beverage. “It’s a testament to all the hard work that the Blue Wahoos as well as Ryan Sanders Sports Services, who’s their new concessionaire, put together in partnership to make the award possible.”
In undertaking the concession stand renovations, the Blue Wahoos and Ryan Sanders Sports Services did more than just change signage and branding. While touching on those areas, they also instituted chef-driven menus, uniforms that are specific to each stand, and other elements that reflect a push to make the areas feel more like storefronts rather than traditional concessions.
“Ryan Sanders Sports Services, their philosophy and their ethos for the concessionaire side of the business is culinary-driven chef menus,” Kroll explained. “That’s why we call them storefronts and not concessions, so what RS3 utilizes as ‘concessions’ is storefronts. The reason why we call them storefronts is we place a large emphasis on the menus as chef-driven, with unique condiments, but we also go a step further with themed uniforms, menu board renovations with dynamic moving pictures, and interactive menu boards that kind of take the entire experience from just your mundane, show up at the ballpark and order a hot dog into an entire experience.”
Among the stands introduced as part of the project included Fish & Hits Pub, blending traditional Irish tavern fare with ballpark favorites; Hook, Line & Sinker Coastal Kitchen, a stand emphasizing local seafood; The Wheelhouse Diner, a 50s-style stand that pays tribute to the area’s transportation history; and Casa de Kazoo, which offers fare that honors Pensacola’s Spanish heritage. Each stand offers unique food items, with the Deep-Fried Elvis—a banana in a deep-fried hot dog bun spread with peanut butter and covered in honey and powdered sugar—among the staples at The Wheelhouse. All four were named as part of a fan engagement process via social media, giving them an extra connection to the team’s fan base.
After an adjustment period of getting used to changes in concession offerings, fans responded positively to the overhauled concepts. Kroll noted that the Blue Wahoos are thorough in their efforts to solicit fan feedback, helping him and the rest of the operation get a sense for how the concession concepts were being received as the season unfolded.
“After each game, the Wahoos send a specific survey asking fans for their feedback, asking how their experience went and if there was anything good or bad,” he said. “Seeing those experiences, seeing what fans wrote on a nightly basis about their trip, getting away from the house spending time with the family, kind of resonated through the many survey comments we got throughout the year.”
The offseason overhaul to concession concepts were notable in and of itself, but the effort to spruce up the food offerings did not stop there. This season, the Crabzilla—our choice for Best New Food Item—made its debut, ultimately becoming an example of how an extreme food item can quickly become a fan favorite that has positive implications for ballpark operations.
Featuring a full soft-shell crab, crab remoulade, pork belly, Parmesan crab mac and cheese, fried shrimp, crab pups, lettuce, tomato, and crab fries in one a large gourmet basket, the Crabzilla came about as something of a challenge from Blue Wahoos President Jonathan Griffith, who felt that a distinct cuisine option was needed at the ballpark.
“He had come to myself and Chef Travis [Wilson], and said ‘I’m looking for something over the top,’” said Kroll. “He’s actually a Maryland native, so he’s big into crab and he just wanted to find something that could be unique to the Wahoos. Chef Travis kind of put his hat on and started to come up with some of the details that Jonathan liked and some of the details that are local and the Crabzilla kind of formed.”
“Soft-shell crab is always an attention grabber, because it’s a unique look and a unique presentation when you just put it on a sandwich and so I started with that and I said ‘you know what, let’s hit them with all different kinds of crabs,’” said Blue Wahoos Executive Chef Travis Wilson. “The crab remoulade, the crab mac ‘n cheese, the crab hush puppy, the crab fries, kind of like really hit them with the seafood. People really loved it, and it was a surprise to me because it is such an over-the-top sandwich.”
As with most extreme food items, the Crabzilla is large in scope. When asked about its size, Wilson gave details on how it comes together.
“[It’s] about a foot tall,” he said. “It starts with the brioche bun, which is already kind of nice and fluffy, and then we add lettuce and tomato, pork belly, soft-shelled crab, a big scoop of crab mac n’ cheese, three fried shrimp, top bun, a big bamboo skewer with a couple of crab hush puppies on top, so it’s definitely has some height to it, which added to the intrigue when people order it and it comes out and it kind of drops their jaw a little bit.”
Once it was rolled out, the Crabzilla became a popular item for fans. To accommodate demand, while at the same time allowing the Crabzilla to be cooked in its normal process, an email hotline was created so that fans could request their order before arriving at the ballpark. Through the hotline, fans could get into direct contact with Wilson prior to the game, allowing the Blue Wahoos concessions staff to fulfill orders in a timely fashion.
“It was one of things where you cook it to order, so it takes a good 15-to-20 minutes and sometimes people don’t want to wait that long,” Wilson said. “They had direct contact with me, and they could email an order in and we could have it ready for them just like ordering at a restaurant. And I had a specific cook in charge of making the Crabzilla, and so I would run through with him the number of people that wanted to pick up and it worked out pretty well.”
Given its success this year, the Crabzilla is poised to return in 2020 and should inspire the Blue Wahoos to continue pushing the envelope with their food offerings in the future. “It has given me hope that we can go bigger and better, and people will still try it out,” said Wilson.
Images courtesy Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
Broadcaster of the Year: Jesse Goldberg-Strassler
Promotion of the Year: Funko Fridays
Best Ballpark Improvement (Over $1M): City of Baseball Museum
Ballpark of the Year: Las Vegas Ballpark
Team of the Year: Las Vegas Aviators
Best Ballpark Renovation: American Family Fields of Phoenix
Past Ballpark Digest Best Food Item Winners
2017: Beercheese Poutine
2015: Sweenie Donut Dog
2014: The Big Apple
2008: Fowl Balls
Past Ballpark Digest Best New Concessions Experience Winners
2017: Miller Park