The food you find at a sports stadium is almost as iconic as the game itself. What would baseball be without peanuts and Cracker Jack, hot dogs and plastic cups of frothy domestic beer? You can, of course, find those tried-and-true standbys at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. But, since deliberately changing its food strategy a few years ago, the home of the Bulls has come to boast a local food lineup that even a major-league ballpark might envy.
Last season, Moe's Southwest Grill gave way to a second Durham location for Gonza Tacos y Tequila; this season, local pizza slingers Pie Pushers replaced Papa John's. The key to the ballpark's culinary success is Bull City Hospitality, which took over the food franchise starting with the Bulls's 2015 season. This was a year after the park reopened with a multimillion-dollar facelift, which the Bulls's parent company, the Capitol Broadcasting Corporation, had taken as a chance to re-examine the park's hospitality side, too.
Food and drinks had been the responsibility of Centerplate, which runs concessions for several large stadiums around the country. But when its CEO, Des Hague, was caught on video kicking a dog in the summer of 2014, it made the decision to build an in-house hospitality operation even easier. The CBC launched Bull City Hospitality as a separate business entity from the Bulls, but one complementary to the stadium's operation.
"If the Bulls sat back and said, 'Hey, we want to try this promotion' or 'We want to develop a relationship with this vendor,' it wasn't like you were talking to someone else that had another boss, and you had to sell them on it," says Dave Levey, Bull City Hospitality's director of food and beverage. "We talk about it as a team."
Prior to Levey's arrival, there were a handful of Triangle-based vendors peddling their treats at the park, including Locopops and locally owned franchises of Chik-fil-A and Rita's Italian Ice.
But now, there are about a dozen local vendors, including Makus Empanadas, Hog Heaven Bar-B-Q, and fried goodies from The Kupkake Fairy. The stadium's impressive local beer list includes Raleigh's Lynnwood Brewing Concern, Wake Forest's White Street Brewing Co., and Durham's Bull Durham Beer Co., yet another company that falls under the CBC's Bulls-related enterprises. There's even a stand to buy fresh fruit cups from the Durham Co-op Market—an unexpected hit.
"The amount of fruit we sell here, it's crazy," Levey says. "Hundreds of dollars of fruit cups a night. They sell out most nights."
Levey thinks bringing a variety of local vendors to the ballpark also helps the in-house concession operation stay focused on keeping the basics great.
"A lot of times we sat back and said, 'Let's make sure that, from the Bull City Hospitality side, we're sticking to the core items that you would expect at a ballpark,'" he says.
Of course, one of those is hot dogs, which have been subjected to serious scrutiny. Levey says that, in his experience, most people favor all-beef hot dogs over other varieties, but a blind taste test of more than twenty franks revealed that the two-meat Bright Leaf brand from Carolina Packers remained the favorite at Bulls HQ.
"Carolina Packers is not necessarily famous for their all-beef hot dog. They're famous for their red hot dog," Levey says of the famous regional oddity whose ingredients—spoiler alert—are identical to its brown counterpart. "The red hot dog has always been a two-meat hot dog, pork and beef."
And anyway, celebrated all-beef hot dogs brands such as Nathan's and Hebrew International don't have the right credentials for the DBAP menu.
"They're good hot dogs, but they're not from North Carolina," Levey says. "If we can do something local, we'd rather do it local." If you want to take your ballpark hot dog experience to the next level, opt for Hog Heaven's 'Cue Dog, which is topped with pulled-pork barbecue and coleslaw.
There are strong signs that Bulls fans prefer local fare. National pizza giant Papa John's still sponsors the Bulls, but there wasn't quite enough business at the seasonal spot to justify keeping it open. Levey went looking for a solution that wasn't Domino's or another major chain and found an eager candidate in Pie Pushers.
The Bulls' 2018 season started at the beginning of April, but already, Pie Pushers is significantly outpacing Papa John's sales. Beyond that immediate payoff, Becky Cascio, who co-owns Pie Pushers with her husband, Mike Hacker, says that their relationship with DBAP carries the benefit of bringing the Pie Pushers name to a new audience.
"It's a nice challenge and addition to what we were already doing," Cascio says. "It's another place to be involved in Durham, and it brings a whole other crowd."
The Bulls' famous "Hit Bull, Win Steak" billboard looms over left field, billowing clouds of smoke out of its nose when the home team knocks one out of the park. But athletic excellence isn't necessary to find good food with the Bulls—in fact, you barely have to get in the door to do it.
Correction: Gonza Tacos y Tequila's DBAP location is its second in Durham, not its second overall.