FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina -- This community is the home of Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the world. Its residents are a diverse bunch, as many are active and retired armed forces personnel who hail from elsewhere in the United States. The culinary options at Segra Stadium, home of the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, reflect this reality.
"I've been able to incorporate different foods from different parts of the country," Woodpeckers food and beverage director Austin Punzel said. "Different regions, just as people living in Fayetteville are from all parts of the country."
Segra Stadium, located in downtown Fayetteville, is the home of the Woodpeckers
Punzel's peripatetic career path is one that many miltary members could relate to. An employee of Professional Sports Catering (PSC), he previously worked with the summer collegiate Madison Mallards before moving on to the world of Minor League Baseball with the Peoria Chiefs, Erie SeaWolves, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and, now, the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Houston Astros.
"[Segra Stadium] is unlike anything that the city's seen before, so we wanted to throw the best of all worlds at the stadium," Punzel said, "from the state-of-the-art Healy's Bar out in right field to different concession items that feature your ballpark basics. Hot dogs, for instance, but being able to gourmet it and make it fun by throwing mac and cheese and bacon on there. Anyone can go to a ballpark and get a beer, but we want to be a place where you can get a souvenir item like a Beer Bat. Basically trying to appeal to all ages, demographics, different interest levels. Really been a focus here. Trying to push the envelope, try new items, do different things and use this as a training ground for other PSC locations."
Austin Punzel, food and beverage director for the Fayetteville Woodpeckers
Four of Segra Stadium's concession areas have miltary tie-ins: Sgt. Stubby's Hot Dog's, Bowley's BBQ, the 82nd and Hay Grill and Sherwood's Steaks, while Bagwell's Burgers pays tribute to Astros great Jeff Bagwell.
There are a lot of items to sample, and during the Woodpeckers game on May that task fell to Designated Eater Jenny Bell. It was her job to consume the ballpark cuisine that this writer's gluten-free diet prohibits.
Jenny Bell, Fayetteville Woodpeckers Designated Eater
Bell, communications coordinator for the Fayetteville Area Convention and Business Bureau, is originally from central Texas. She said her path to Fayetteville is "such a common story;" her husband, now retired from the Army, was twice stationed at Fort Bragg twice and "it just became home for us."
Bell began with an order of pulled pork nachos, available from Bowley's BBQ on the third base side of the ballpark. The Bowley in question is Lt. Gen. Albert J. Bowley Sr., commander of Fort Bragg from 1921-28.
"Pulled pork is a North Carolina trademark, so the idea of pulled pork on nachos, it's just one of those comfort foods that everyone craves," Bell said. "Instead of hot sauce, drizzling on the barbecue sauce works really well."
Next up for Bell were carne asada fries, procured at the Home Plate Bar.
"Being from Texas, I know what carne asada should be and this is carne asada on crack," she said. "The meat's tender, the guac's on point, the fries are well-seasoned. I would pick this over the nachos any day. ... My only request is, I love spicy. So please give me a side of salsa with this bad boy."
Bell washed it all down with a beer from Dirtbag Ales, based in the nearby town of Hope Mills. Sometimes, a tweet says it all:
Closing things out was the mac and cheese dog, available from Sgt. Stubby's Hot Dogs. Sgt. Stubby, an actual dog, was a true American hero who took part in 17 battles on the Western Front during World War I.
"When you're in the South, the typical comfort foods combine bacon and anything else," Bell said. "So to take a hot dog and add mac and cheese to it is a genius concept. It's quite possibly the best hot dog you could have in this stadium. If I had to pick one, it'd be this."
While Bell was able to sample anything on the menu, this writer's options are quite a bit more limited. I am happy to report, however, that the Cheesesteak Nachos served at Sherwood's Steaks are gluten-free.
Meanwhile, Punzel plans to add to Segra Stadium's concession lineup as the season progresses.
"I'm still looking to find that signature-type item," he said. "Crazy spicy wings, for instance, or maybe a three-foot-long hot dog. The type of thing that, when you see someone walking around with that, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, where did you get that?'
"Whenever the ballpark's open, we're the largest restaurant in town. This is our chance to make a good impression on the city and the region."