Move over hot dogs, burgers and fries -- the ballpark meal of choice in 2014 is a bit more exotic.
Minor League fans and foodies alike spent two weeks voting on some of the most unusual and iconic concession items in the Minors, and it was Lakewood's Triple C crab cake sandwich that narrowly edged Round Rock's Grilled Cheese Hot Dog for the 2014 Food Fight crown when voting ended Thursday.
The Triple C, also known to BlueClaws fans as Clawd's Crab Cake, is a half-pound crab cake sandwich topped with mango and pineapple coleslaw and smothered in a chipotle ranch cream sauce. Perhaps borrowing from the popularity of the Baltimore Orioles' "Camden Giant" crab cake sandwich, the item lured fans away from the familiar beef and pork offerings of many of the 59 other Food Fight entrants.
The BlueClaws, a Class A Phillies affiliate located near the Jersey Shore, were pinching themselves about the win -- the Triple C took home the championship despite being introduced to the FirstEnergy Park menu just a few months ago.
"It's like a rookie being MVP of the World Series," said Greg Giombarrese, Lakewood's director of media relations. "For our Lakewood fans, it's a natural tie-in for us, being associated with the ocean and the beach and our branding and message. And for everyone else around the country -- hey, they like those crab cakes."
The crab cake sandwich faced stiff competition from the crispy, gooey and unusual Grilled Cheese Hot Dog in Round Rock, an item that basically is what it sounds like: a hot dog wrapped in a grilled cheese sandwich, served on a bed of crispy golden curly fries. The twist on a ballpark staple gave the BlueClaws' tasty treat a run for its money. The "sandwich" is also in its first year of existence, a concoction dreamed up by Ryan Sanders Sports Services (RS3), a Nolan Ryan-owned food and beverage company that serves the Express, Texas' Triple-A affiliate.
"I think the concept of the Grilled Cheese Hot Dog combines two things people are so familiar with," said Round Rock's Laura Fragoso. "Fans think, 'Oh, wow, how haven't I considered combining that before?' Combining those two comfort food items, which are both very American -- there's something about it that appeals to the general public."
Nonetheless, Lakewood's seafood sandwich, with fruity tropical notes and a creamy, spicy sauce, beat out Round Rock's entry along with other top contenders like Omaha's Champ Burger, Sacramento's Johnny Cash Burger and Lansing's Pulled Pork Parfait, an old-fashioned soda cup stuffed with layers of barbecue pork, seasoned mashed potatoes and warm gravy.
Fans voted for the items in randomized matchups on MiLB.com, and they had plenty of fun options from which to choose. Quad Cities offered chocolate-covered bacon, Indianapolis served up their ballpark's craft beer, Eugene came in with a bratwurst, San Jose brought the heat with jalapeños and Sriracha sauce over sausage and Lexington cranked up the calories with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a glazed doughnut for bread. Chattanooga, appealing to traditionalists, went with a more standard hot dog, while other teams went for size -- Hickory's CLAWlossal, a heaping pile of meat and fried appetizers, gave Lake County's Moby Dick sandwich a challenge for biggest Food Fight dish.
Both Lakewood and Round Rock campaigned heavily for their items and indicated that the buzz surrounding the contest only made fans salivate for the dishes at home games. Giombarrese said sales for the Triple C have risen, and Fragoso said the Express' hot dog has seen a 30 percent increase in sales since voting began.
"I'm sure it'll take off more now that we've won," Giombarrese said.
"When we didn't win last year, we knew we wanted to put a better foot forward this year and make a better effort to get the win," Giombarrese added. "We did a lot of stuff at the ballpark -- we made fliers and put them in the beer portables in the stadium and at concessions stands. Fans could vote in our ticket concourse, we had the fliers in all the picnic areas, PA announcements during the game. We spread the word with social media, in our newsletter, on the radio, too -- and it's paid off."
Round Rock, like most other clubs, took an aggressive social media approach to harness the power of their Triple-A fan base.
"We really pushed it heavily on social media," Fragoso said. "You have that picture of the Grilled Cheese Hot Dog -- people see that, and it's exploding there. The first time we posted it, the reach of that post was like 200,000."
Round Rock said the dog was created by Jay Kudla, the director of food and beverage for Ryan Sanders. It was a strong opponent for the Jersey crab cake, Giombarrese admitted.
"They've been right there with us from the get-go. We swooped into the top two and it's been us and them alternating spots," Giombarrese said. "They do a great job, they have a lot of great fans and they're a great team. I'm sure it's a great sandwich, but I guess the folks preferred the crab."
One of the contest's more unique, local delicacies didn't exactly win over fans nationwide -- Missoula's Bats and Balls, a plate of deep-fried bull calf testicles and french fries, finished at the bottom. Reading's Baseballtown Big Dipper -- reminiscent of Toledo's Fantastic Freeze Sundae, which earned the win in last year's inaugural Food Fight showdown -- didn't fare nearly as well as Fort Wayne's Big Apple, featuring five pounds of ice cream, four handmade apple dumplings, whipped cream, hot caramel and fresh apples, also delivered in a full-sized batting helmet.
2014 Food Fight Top 10
|1||Triple C||Lakewood BlueClaws||PHI||SAL|
|2||Grilled Cheese Hot Dog||Round Rock Express||TEX||PCL|
|3||Champ Burger||Omaha Storm Chasers||KC||PCL|
|4||Memphis Meets Mexico Juarez Dog||El Paso Chihuahuas||SD||PCL|
|5||Big Apple||Fort Wayne TinCaps||SD||MWL|
|6||Johnny Cash Burger||Sacramento RiverCats||OAK||PCL|
|7||Pulled Pork Parfait||Lansing Lugnuts||TOR||MWL|
|8||Philly Burger||Erie SeaWolves||DET||EL|
|9||Fried Oreo Sundae||Frisco RoughRiders||TEX||TL|
|10||Godfather Burger||Montgomery Biscuits||TB||SL|