- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The stories of long lines, cold hot dogs and shortages of buns at RFK Stadium are legend.

But if all goes well, the stories at Nationals Park will feature glowing accounts of tasty half-smokes, juicy barbecue and refreshing sno-cones served quickly.

The Nationals did not even wait for last season to end to announce that they would replace Aramark, the concessionaire at RFK for three seasons, with Connecticut-based Centerplate, which provides catering and concessions at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and six other major league ballparks.

Already, the Nationals and Centerplate have whetted fans’ appetites by recruiting several local companies to the new ballpark.

Fans can order half-smokes and chili dogs from Ben’s Chili Bowl, the famed U Street eatery. There are stands featuring treats from Gifford’s, the oldest ice cream parlor in Washington. Alexandria-based Hard Times Cafe will be in the stadium serving a wide range of food, including its famous chili-mac (a combination of chili and spaghetti).

Other vendors include Cantina Marina, which serves frozen drinks along with Tex-Mex and Cajun food, Noah’s Pretzels and Krazee Ice, a maker of sno-cones based in Maryland.

“They were looking for a partner that would deliver a standard-setting experience at the new ballpark,” said Bob Pascal, a vice president with Centerplate. “It’s certainly one of the touchstones of our approach to provide choices that are representative of the local flavor and local culture. We don’t like to do something that’s cookie-cutter.”

Nationals president Stan Kasten said the team will continue to add new food options as the season progresses. Five Guys burgers and Capitol City Brewing Co. are among those still in talks with the team.

“They were great in getting all these locals in here,” Kasten said of Centerplate. “We’re going to continue to look for things. We may wait for ‘09 for some things, but there’s no ironclad reason to wait for ‘09.”

Time will tell whether Centerplate will satisfy the high demands of both the Nationals and their fans, who complained loudly about Aramark’s performance last year. But at the very least, the new concessionaire will not be working with the tight concourses, broken elevators and cramped kitchen space of RFK. Nationals Park is a modern stadium built to allow for ease of operations.

“We have all of the best and latest stuff that we need, from kitchen equipment to pantries to storage to vertical transportation,” Kasten said.

What’s more, the Nationals’ relationship with Centerplate could prove to be quite lucrative for the team. Both sides declined to discuss their financial terms, but industry sources said the team is likely to receive more than half of the regular concession proceeds at Nationals Park, plus a share of revenue from catering. Teams rarely get 50 percent of concession revenues.

“It’s going to become a premier catering venue,” Kasten said. “So there’s just a lot of complexity that didn’t exist at RFK.”

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