Batter up, belly up, and eat up: the Houston Astros home opener is Monday, April 18 and hungry fans will have more choices than ever at Minute Maid Park's concession stands in 2022. The team from Aramark, which runs all the food and drink stands, is ready to host a sold-out crowd for the opener. But it wasn't easy getting here.
"Supply chain challenges and commodity price increases were huge. A freezer that cost $2,000 last year is now $4,000," Jimmy Coatsworth, general manager for Aramark at Minute Maid Park, tells me. "There were significant delays of equipment. We're still waiting for souvenir cups, deli paper, a freezer, and popcorn machines. The Astros' slogan for 2022 is 'Level Up,' and we don't have souvenir cups saying that. Other commodity prices are up 20 percent over a year ago. Beef prices have jumped dramatically. Fortunately, in some cases we knew that prices would be going up and we bought things early."
The Astros and Aramark are rolling out more upscale new items than Sunday brunch at the Four Seasons. We'll get to them later.
Here's the thing about ballpark food, though. A big league baseball stadium can offer caviar, lobster, filet mignon, and a wine list comparable to Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, but still the majority of fans will grab a hot dog, nachos, and beer and swear it's the best thing they've ever tasted.
As Coatsworth says, "if you don't love a hot dog at a baseball game you're not doing it right."
Hot dog stands are where fans will find the biggest change this season. There's a new hot dog supplier at Minute Maid: the Texas Chili Company.
"Our Texas Chili Company hot dog is 1/6th-pound made with Angus beef. It's a plump dog. We had several hot dog tastings before we settled on the flavor profile. We started with 30 different hot dogs, narrowed it down to 10, then three. We did blind taste tests. We wanted a dog with a good snap and a good texture whether it's grilled, steamed or cooked on a roller. We also didn't want a dog that's too salty. We got a good one, I'm confident that fans will approve."
Dog days of summer (and spring)
Stop worrying —Tuesdays will mean Dollar Dog games again. Unlike some other stadiums, Minute Maid Park will continue to sell the same size franks on Dollar Dog Nights as other days. Coatsworth says there's a Dollar Dog algorithm — his crew prepares 1-1/2 dogs per fan.
Since I promised there'd be no math, that means if the Astros draw 30,000 fans (the average crowd on Tuesdays) Aramark prepares 45,000 franks on short order.
"We cook them all the same way as regular nights. We just help the stands out by doing large batch cooking in our commissary where we can cook 5,500 dogs every 30 minutes in our large ovens," Coatsworth says.
What's (not) poppin'?
Here's a particular supply chain issue that vexes Coatsworth. A year ago he ordered five large popcorn machines and they've yet to arrive. It's not a small thing.
"Popcorn is very important to the sensory experience of a baseball game. Popcorn has a distinctive aroma. It appeals to people's sense of comfort. It targets pleasure areas of the brain. Like movie theaters, popcorn is the first thing you smell when you walk into a ballpark. If you don't smell popcorn, you're not sure what, but something's wrong. People love the saltiness of popcorn and we love it because it helps fans drink more Karbach beer."
The lead hitter at Minute Maid
What's the single most popular food item at Minute Maid Park?
"Nachos are king in this building, and nothing is close. Hot dogs are a distant No.2," Coatsworth notes. "We can't find enough places to sell nachos. We have them on every level and anywhere we can fit a portable stand. I totally get it. I was raised in Houston and I understand our melting pot culture and I definitely know how we love our Tex-Mex. Last year we introduced Asian-style nachos and they were a giant success."
Check out these rookies
Coastsworth has high hopes for several new food items, but topping the list is the House Smoked Pastrami Sandwich and Slovacek's Crawford Bock and Cheddar Sausage.
"The pastrami sandwich has five ounces of pastrami that we smoke at the stadium. It's a great winner, I think. The Crawford Bock and Cheddar Sausage has the perfect amount of beer flavor and big chunks of Cheddar. We also have a new chef Scott Strickland who worked with me here for several years and will kick up the culinary grade several notches."
Fan faves return
Popular local restaurants Killen's BBQ and Pluckers will be back, joined by El Tiempo (replacing Torchy's Tacos) on the mezzanine level in centerfield. El Tiempo will bring its classic fajitas, carnitas, homemade tortillas and, of course, its outrageous frozen margaritas.
Here is a complete list of new food items, courtesy of the Astros, including prices and locations within Minute Maid Park.
La Pina Dog: Last year's limited-time-only sensation is now on the fulltime menu. It's an all-beef hot dog grilled and topped with fresh smoked pineapple and candied jalapeños and teriyaki glaze. Price $13.99 at Sections 113, 129 and 416.
Asian BBQ Nacho: Fried wonton chips, Asian-galazed roasted pork, sweet chili aioli, mint, cilantro, green onion, and fresh lime. Price $14.99 at portables behind Sections 114 and 206.
Tostitos Walking Nacho: Doritos topped with queso blanco, pico de gallo, crema, and your choice of red chicken, green chicken, or pork carnitas. Price $14.99 at a stand behind Section 255.
Smoked Chicken Half: Half a chicken brined in Crawford Bock beer then smoked to perfection for your BBQ plates. Price for two-meat plate $15.49, three-meat plate $20.49 at Butcher Section 224.
House Smoked Pastrami Sandwich: Served on rye bread with Swiss cheese, cole slaw, and housemade dressing. Price $15.99 at Home Plate portable behind Section 116.
Two Banana Leaf Chicken Tamales: Topped with curtido, cotija, and salsa rojo . Price $13.49 at Section 124.
Pupusa : Two pupusas choice of cheese or carnitas loaded with curtido, cotija, and salsa rojo. Price $12.99 at Section 124.
Grande Papas Nacho: Beef carnitas, cheddar cheese, jalapeño, crema, elote, and pico de gallo topped on fries. Price: $13.99 at Section 124.
Coke Floats: Your favorite Blue Bell ice cream flavor and your choice of soda. Price $8.29 at The Creamery at Union Station Section 106.
Slovacek’s Crawford Bock and Cheddar Sausage: Price $8.99 at Slovacek's Sausage portables. Also food stands at Sections 112, 129, 134,231, 416, 427.