Wind Surge looks to serve up some eye-catching food this year at Riverfront Stadium
Wind Surge's new food and beverage director has almost 30 years of experience from working in minor league baseball stadiums across the country.
He's adding some new menu items that might have you pulling out your camera.
So, what’s it like to invite a few thousand people over for dinner?
Jason Wilson and his staff at Riverfront Stadium will do that 69 times this season for Wind Surge home games, beginning with Friday night’s season opener.
Wilson is the team’s food and beverage director. Although he is new to Wichita, he has spent almost 30 years preparing food in minor league baseball stadiums across the country.
“I think I've always said it always takes a special kind of somebody to do what we do cause it’s very chaotic,” he said. “But if you have good composure and you don't get knocked off your game … from 5,000 people in the park and you have a million things going on, you got 150 employees you're managing and so forth.
“I've kind of learned how to stay composed and manage that.”
Ballpark food has changed a lot since 1996, when Wilson began his career as an executive chef for the Lansing (Michigan) Lugnuts. Before that, he managed a McDonald’s in his hometown of Lansing.
Today, Wilson said people want to take pictures of their food to share on social media. He said it’s part of the experience of attending an event.
“It's because the product on the field isn't as important as the experience,” he said. “You have to create food options that are Instagrammable moments now.”
The Wind Surge will oblige this season by offering loaded nachos with pulled pork, Frito chili pies, foot-long brats and other specialty items like the Wichita dog: a hot dog topped with pulled pork, barbecue sauce, coleslaw and pinto beans.
But Wilson said even though fans have more options …
“Seventy percent of your revenue is still going to come from those items that were selling 25 years ago,” he said. “It's a hot dog, a bottle of water, might be nachos and then beer, beer, beer kind of thing.”
Wilson has worked in about a dozen minor league cities, including Tulsa and El Paso. In addition to preparing food, he has helped design food service areas in more than 20 stadiums.
He said his philosophy on ballpark food is simple.
“I try to do normal food for normal people that most people will eat,” Wilson said. “I worry more about the presentation and what it looks like and the quality.”
During his career, Wilson has been honored several times by national groups for the vegan and vegetarian menus he offers. He said veggie dogs and plant-based burgers are available at Riverfront Stadium and cost the same as their meat-based counterparts.
“At the end of the day, they tell me, ‘We just want a hamburger, hot dog, beer; items that everybody else wants. They just want it in their manner.”
When the Wind Surge is at home, Wilson’s day begins at 8 a.m. Food prep begins in the afternoon.
Wilson, who oversees about 200 employees, said he takes care of the food in the stadium’s club, picnic areas and suites first. That allows him to concentrate on the concession areas when the gates open at 6 p.m., an hour before game time.
“So we try to provide a good presentation and good product for a fair price and get the fan back to the action, back to the experience,” Wilson said. “We don't want someone waiting in a concession stand line for 30 minutes to get something to eat.”
This season, a mobile app will let fans order food from their seat. They will scan a QR code to get the menu, order and then pay online. They’ll get a text when their order is ready.
Wilson grew up in Michigan and went to baseball games at Tiger Stadium. So what does he eat when he goes to the ballpark?
“I will usually grab a beer, and I'll look for those fun food items,” he said.
“I usually don't eat hot dogs cause I've been around 'em for so long. … If they’ve got a Philly cheesesteak, I always like those, or some cool sandwich options or nachos. I do like nachos … ”
When he’s not working, Wilson – who is single – said he keeps his cooking at home simple.
“So they make these little pasta meals in a bag … kind of cut the top and (it’s) ready in 10 minutes,” he said laughing. “Chicken carbonara is one of my favorites. So that's a nice, easy one
“I don't go home and try to mimic what I do here at the ballpark.”
Wilson said minor league baseball is all about the experience and food is an important part of that.
And at the ballpark, calories don’t count.
“At the end of the day,” Wilson said, “most people aren't worried about their diet when they're coming to the ballpark.”