Coneheads, a 1977 Saturday Night Live sketch turned 1993 feature film about pointy-headed aliens from the planet Remulak, lost its pop culture cache many years ago, but generations of beer-drinking Buffalo sports fans may beg to differ, thanks to legendary vendor Tom "Conehead" Girot.
Girot, 59, made his vending debut with the NBA's Buffalo Braves in 1972 and has gone on to become a four-sport star via his long associations with the Buffalo Sabres, Bills and Bisons. He's an instantly recognizable presence at whatever Buffalo sporting venue he may be working, wearing a pointy rubber "Conehead" hat while repeating his well-known catchphrase in a lilting cadence: "When you buy from me, you get the Conehead guarantee: Get a warm beer from me, you drink it for free."
I spoke with Girot on Aug. 25 at Coca-Cola Park following that evening's game between the Bisons and visiting Pawtucket Red Sox. Speaking in English as opposed to his native Remulakan, Girot reflected on the origin of the Conehead persona, the challenges facing today's vendors and why baseball is, quite simply, the best.
MiLB.com: This is my first time in Buffalo, but already several people have told me you're a legend here. Are you a legend?
Tom "Conehead" Girot: [laughs] Well, I started vending in 1972. The first game I ever worked was the Boston Braves against the Virginia Squires with "Dr. J" Julius Erving [in an exhibition game]. I actually sold O.J. Simpson a bag of peanuts that night, in my vending debut. That's when he was married to Marguerite [Whitley]. O.J. was playing for the Bills then.
I've worked for the Sabres, the Braves, the Bills. I am, to my knowledge, the only vendor still alive who worked Bills games at the Rockpile [the team's home from 1960-72, officially known as War Memorial Stadium]. And I hope that continues for a while, to be the only vendor alive who's worked those games at the Rockpile.
MiLB.com: At what point did you start wearing the Conehead?
Conehead: In '77 I got married, and for Halloween that year my wife got a Conehead [hat]. She wore it to work -- she's a hairdresser -- and got on Eyewitness News with it. I thought it was a waste of money; we were trying to save for a house. There was a Bills game that Sunday, so I thought, "Oh, what the heck. I'll wear the Conehead to the Bills game." One thing led to another… I always ice my beer, and I came up with the "Conehead Guarantee" -- Get a warm beer from me, you drink it for free.
It's a novelty. My job is to get noticed, to give good service. I always say that my job is to enhance the experience of the customer. If I can give them good service and something a little bit memorable, then I've done my job.
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MiLB.com: Does it bother you that, these days, a lot of fans might not even get the "Conehead" reference?
Conehead: I always tell the Bisons: When we have those movie nights, you know, where you get the kids on the field, Cubs Scouts or whatever, and the kids watch movies overnight? Play the Coneheads movie! So then they know who the Conehead is.
MiLB.com: Speaking of the Bisons, when did you start selling beer at Minor League Baseball games?
Conehead: In 1979 I was one of the original owners of the Bisons, when they were a Double-A team and community owned. And, of course, as a vendor I lent my expertise to the vending department and I started vending. I'm 59 now so I'm cutting back a little bit. I will be quitting the Sabres. I will be quitting the Bills. But I love baseball, I just adore baseball, and that is my goal in life: to die vending baseball. Everybody who comes to a game has such a great attitude, they have so much fun. It doesn't matter if the team wins or loses. If you came to the game with your grandson and he had cotton candy and Conehead said "Hi" to him and gave him a fist bump, you had a great night and something to talk about.
MiLB.com: It seems that vending is more difficult these days, as the fan experience is more geared toward roaming around the ballpark rather than getting food and drinks in the seats from vendors. Is that a challenge?
Conehead: The craft beer is hurting us. More beer carts are hurting us. But with me, the way that I service people and the personality that I try to present, it hasn't hurt me as bad. But it's hurt. It's definitely hurt. You're right about the changes. Hell, in Minnesota [at the Twins' home of Target Field], now they have beer vending machines.
When people ask me what's changed over the years, I tell them three things: The alcohol awareness over the years has really changed, [like] Mothers Against Drunk Driving. We have a societal responsibility to sell alcohol responsibly, and I understand that and follow it to the letter of the law.
Another thing is, if you had told me in 1972 that I could sell a bottle of water for $3.50, I would have thought you were stark raving crazy.
And the behavior of people in the ballpark. Cellphones. I tell people, "Watch the game, you're going to get hit by a line drive. Stop looking at the stupid cellphone."
MiLB.com: But despite the changes, it seems that you'll be selling beer at Bisons games for a long time to come.
Conehead: Baseball is the greatest game and all generations go to it. I always get that at the ballpark. "Oh, you used to serve my grandfather." Or, "I used to come here and sit on my dad's knee, and now I'm getting a beer from you." It's amazing how many people come to me for their first legal beer and get their picture with the Conehead getting that first beer. It's a rite of passage. I can't sell it cheap, but I can sell it cold.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.