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11/07/2008 10:00 AM ET
Beyond the hot dog: ballpark food gets healthy
Clubs increasingly cater to fans with vegetarian and heart-healthy options
MerchantsAuto.com Stadium, the Manchester home of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, was honored by PETA for the quality of its vegetarian offerings. (Jim Cole/AP)

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At Merchantsauto.com Stadium -- the home of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats -- discerning carnivores have a wide range of options at the concession stands.

In addition to the requisite hot dogs and hamburgers, there is an upscale carving station featuring prime rib, ham and turkey, and a Famous Dave's BBQ stand is located along the first-base side of the facility.

But here's the catch -- MerchantsAuto.com Stadium has been recognized by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as the Most Vegetarian-Friendly Ballpark in Minor League Baseball. For in addition to the meaty fare that connoisseurs of ballpark cuisine have come to expect, the club offers a staggering array of alternative menu options.

Sure, there are French fries, peanuts and nachos. No big deal, right? But how about cooked-to-order veggie dogs, veggie burgers and veggie sausages? Or stuffed baked potatoes, garden salads and vegetarian baked beans? Not to mention the wide variety of additional items that can be found in the luxury suites and the on-site Samuel Adams Bar and Grill, which includes everything from Green Apple Cole Slaw to Vegetable Crudites to Cinnamon Nachos.

Whether one is forgoing meat due to ethical concerns or health considerations, the Fisher Cats have got you covered. And that's exactly the point. Fisher Cats Director of Media Relations Mike Murphy and Centerplate Concessions General Manager Abby Tucker took the time to explain the rationale behind the club's wide array of non-traditional food options.

"Our organizational stance is simply that we realize that fans have varying appetites and dietary needs," said Murphy. "Sure, people are always going to love their burgers and their hot dogs, and those things are always going to be there. But we are always asking ourselves 'What else can we do?', and the answer is to keep adding these new items."

"There isn't a whole lot of extra effort involved," said Tucker. "All of our items are cooked to order, so it's just a matter of having the ingredients on hand."

In 2007, the Fisher Cats ranked seventh on PETA's inaugural list of Top 10 Vegetarian-Friendly Minor League Ballparks -- and the best in Double-A baseball. Tucker joined the staff prior to the 2008 campaign and immediately saw room for improvement.

"We have an All-You-Can-Eat buffet available for group outings, and there was nothing there that catered to vegetarians. Even the baked beans had pork in them," she said. "Now, we tell the group leaders to let us know if there will be any vegetarians, so we can put what they want on the grill as well."

Fisher Cats' vegetarian options
A sampling of the vegetarian items offered in different areas of Merchantsauto.com Stadium.

Concourse

  • Stuffed baked potato
  • Nachos with cheese
  • Garden salad
  • Cheese fries
  • Veggie burgers, hot dogs, sausages

Luxury Suites

  • North End pasta salad
  • Boston baked beans
  • Tortilla chips with artichoke and spinach dip
  • Cheese quesadillas
  • Veggie wrap

Samuel Adams Bar and Grill

  • Caesar salad
  • Grilled portabello burger
  • Grilled veggie burger
  • Extra Innings corn tortilla chips

This improvement, along with an expanded stadium menu that now includes a grilled vegetable wrap and a particularly well-received portobello mushroom sandwich, led to Merchantsauto.com topping PETA's list in 2008.

"We were honored to win, but that wasn't our motivation for doing this," said Murphy. "Our fans are choosing to spend their time with us, so there's no reason that we can't cater to them.

"Plus, doing this helps get people out to the ballpark earlier, because they know they don't have to go elsewhere in Manchester [N.H.] for dinner. There are plenty of different meals available here."

A Growing Trend

For PETA, compiling a list of vegetarian-friendly ballparks helps illustrate the increasing awareness and acceptance in American society of those who choose not to eat meat. After all, what could be more mainstream than the National Pastime?

"We do this in order to get past that attitude that people have had about ballpark food ... like 'I'm going to the game tonight, I guess I'll just be eating French fries,'" said PETA Assistant Director Dan Shannon. "There are a lot more options out there than people realize."

For the past seven years, the organization has compiled a Top 10 list of Vegetarian-Friendly Ballparks in Major League Baseball (Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park snagged the top spot this year on the strength of items such as crab-free crab cakes and Philly faux-steak sandwiches). The Minor League version debuted in 2007.

"We started to do this because we're based in Norfolk, Va., and they have great veggie dogs and burgers at Norfolk Tides games," said Shannon. "We wanted to recognize the Tides and what a great job they did, but they ended up not even making the Top 10. There are enough teams doing this now that those who make the list are really going above and beyond.

"But just because you're a vegetarian doesn't mean you have to be poking a salad with a fork while everyone around you is doing the wave. People want to go to a game, kick back and have a hot dog and a beer, whether they're vegetarian or not."

Shannon also stresses the fact that providing these options can be beneficial to everyone, not just those whose diet is strictly meat-free.

"Our perspective is that stadiums aren't just offering food for vegetarians, they are also providing options for those who may not be thrilled about eating a cholesterol-laden hot dog," he said. "This is something that appeals to a wide variety of people."

PETA advocates vegetarianism for ethical reasons, but Shannon realizes that the trend toward meat-free ballpark fare is not the result of deep-rooted moral concerns.

"Teams are not necessarily doing this out of the kindness of their hearts," he said. "It's just good business sense. There was recently a study that found that 25% of college students are vegetarians all or most of the time, which goes to show that there is going to be more and more demand for these items as time goes on.

"I mean, they have soy milk and vegetarian riblets at Wal-Mart. You used to have to travel to a co-op to find these sorts of things, and now they are available at any grocery store."

A Classic Combo, No Matter What

Indeed, a quick glance at PETA's Minor League Top 10 for 2008 illustrates just how prevalent meat-free dining options are becoming. From Tacoma to Memphis to West Virginia, nearly every region of the country is represented. The Durham Bulls may hail from an area known for its barbeque, but the club came in at number two on the strength of its veggie dogs, burritos and fresh chopped salads. Following close behind were the Portland Beavers, who offer Tofurky veggie kielbasa, vegetable skewers and a variety of salads.

"People expect these types of foods now and we pride ourselves on the variety that we offer," said Beavers Director of Communications Chris Metz. "The healthier options are a direct result of feedback from our fans."

Metz then made a point that was also emphasized by both Murphy and Shannon.

"If you're a season ticket holder, then that's 72 times you're coming to the ballpark," he said. "Having a hot dog every one of those nights isn't very healthy. Other choices are necessary."

Nonetheless, a hot dog at the ballpark is about as enduring a food tradition as there is in America, and it's safe to say that it will remain a popular concession-stand choice for a long time to come.

"It's great when teams provide more interesting stuff, but the hot dog is a traditional, recognizable food," said Shannon. "I'd love just for things to get to the point where a veggie dog is standard everywhere. Everyone should be able to enjoy that classic combination of a hot dog, beer and baseball."

Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.