All-you-can-eat sections sweep baseball

San Diego resident Elise Kindt gets her money's worth in Petco Park's all-you-can-eat section. Doug Williams

SAN DIEGO -- It’s only the middle of the fourth inning at Petco Park, but Elise Kindt already gets credit for a complete game.

She’s standing in front of the mustard, ketchup and relish table, ready to load up the two hot dogs she’s just plucked from the buffet line, and says these particular dogs are Nos. 4 and 5 for the day.

“Three other hot dogs and two bottles of soda,” she says, when asked what she has had so far. “And now two more.”

Five hot dogs in four innings would make Babe Ruth proud, but Kindt looks nothing at all like the Sultan of Snack. The slim young San Diegan, who’s spending the afternoon at the ballpark with three other friends, just happens to love ballpark food -- especially hot dogs -- and is enjoying her second trip to the Padres’ all-you-can-eat section.

“It’s just great,” she says. “Free food and a lot of it. It’s definitely worth it.”

“Free,” of course, isn’t accurate. Visitors to the section pay from $25 to $37 for a ticket to sit among the 750 seats of the field-level, all-you-can-eat area in the right-field corner. But once there, they can eat as much as they want for two hours after the first pitch.

Their tickets get them a wristband that allows them full grazing rights through two rows of tables set up behind the seats. They can consume as many hot dogs, boxes of popcorn, bags of peanuts, chips, sodas and bottles of water as they want.

Considering the Friar Franks alone would cost $4.50, by the fourth inning Kindt had more than gotten her money’s worth while also getting a field-level seat.

Given that she was still smiling and enjoying herself after the five dogs, the most likely cause of any indigestion on this day was probably the result of having to watch the Padres lose yet again, this time 6-2 to the Rockies.

• • •

The Padres opened their all-you-can-eat seats in 2009, two years after the Dodgers became major league trend-setters with their all-you-can-eat section in the right-field pavilion in Los Angeles.

Now, all-you-can-eat sections are common across the minors and majors in many forms. Eighteen major league teams have sections set aside for individuals to buy tickets that include standard ballpark fare, from the Picnic Perch in left field at Baltimore’s Camden Yards to Tampa Bay’s Party Deck at Tropicana Field.

Plus those teams – and many others -- have “all-inclusive” high-end club, group or season-ticket areas in which food is included, meaning almost every team now has some sort of all-you-can-eat area.

Minor league teams, too, have opted in as professional teams strive to find new lures for budget-conscious fans.

In just five seasons, all-you-can-eat areas have become a staple because they attract more fans, especially to previous low-attendance areas.

At Dodger Stadium, where the right-field pavilion was largely ignored by ticket buyers before 2007, average attendance is now about 85 percent for the 3,300 all-you-can-eat seats (the largest such section in the big leagues). The same holds true for the Picnic Perch in Baltimore, where the left-field club seats “were one of the last locations to sell in the park” before food was offered with tickets, says Greg Bader, director of communications for the Orioles. In San Diego, where the all-you-can-eat section was moved from the upper deck in right field to field level in 2010, attendance is more than 60 percent for weekend games now.

Of course fans like it because it seems like a deal.

Plus, this is America, where more is better when it comes to food and a sign that says “all you can eat” is like waving a green flag that says, “Gentlemen, start your eating.” In a land where more than 35 percent of the population is obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, baseball fans know how to chow.

“Last year, there was a young gentleman and his buddy and they basically came out as like a challenge to each other to see how much they could eat,” says Jarrod Dillon, the Padres’ vice president for ticket sales and service. “I think one young man had 12 hot dogs, which wasn’t setting any Kobayashi world records or anything, but. …

“That’s the most I’ve heard (at Petco), that one guy, him and his buddy having a contest. He had some drinks and popcorn and all that other stuff, but he was still able to eat 12 hot dogs.”

Those tales exist anywhere where the all-you-can-eat sign has been hung, and teams know that’s the draw for some. Those in charge of the sections say it’s just a small part of the attraction, however. While some fans gorge (and others smuggle out as many packages as they can), not everyone is seeking gastronomic immortality or an appointment with Overeaters Anonymous.

“For the first couple of years there was kind of that gluttonous factor as we were trying to educate people about the area, getting people to go in that area,” says David Siegel, the Dodgers’ senior director of ticket sales. “But now it’s a lot of families, a lot of groups. It’s not this wild and crazy, you know, food fights everywhere because you can eat a million Dodger Dogs. Definitely not anything like that.”

That’s one of the reasons the Orioles prefer to call their Picnic Perch section “all-inclusive” rather than “all you can eat.”

“It’s really not designed for that type of wild stories and actions,” says Greg Bader, Baltimore’s director of communications. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t refer to it as all you can eat. It’s really designed more for a budget-conscious family.”

To Steve Shiffman, senior director of sales and service for the Kansas City Royals -- who also helped launch the Dodgers’ all-you-can-eat pavilion in 2007 – the main attraction is that fans know up front what their day at the park will cost.

He says the idea first hit him when he was with the Dodgers and saw how much the Cardinals did with all-inclusive club and group areas in St. Louis.

As a parent, he thought an all-you-can-eat section would be a popular innovation.

“Because you know, I take my kids to the ballgame and all I do is reach into my pocket,” he says. “’Dad, can I get a hot dog?’ ‘Dad, can I get a soda? Dad, can I get an ice cream?’ As a parent, fans are always reaching into their pocket, for a beer, a soda, a hot dog. It’s nonstop.”

Once the Dodgers launched their section in 2007, Siegel says reps from other teams immediately came out to study it, and a trend was launched.

• • •

Ballparks these days have much to offer in terms of interesting, regional food, from barbecue ribs in Kansas City, to Hodad’s cheeseburgers at Petco, to Primanti Bros. sandwiches in Pittsburgh and crab sandwiches in San Francisco.

Just don’t expect to see them in all-you-can-eat sections.

Most major league areas feature classic ballpark food: hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn, soft drinks and maybe ice cream.

Merrick Lardizabal of Murrieta, in the Padres’ section, said he probably wouldn’t come back because there was little variety.

“I can’t eat hot dogs the whole game,” he says. So, he ventured out to buy some chicken tenders and fries to go with a hot dog and peanuts.

Dillon says the Padres may look at swapping out some items next year to keep things fresh. At Dodger Stadium, where tickets are about $34 for the first four rows and $30 for the rest, Siegel says the menu hasn’t changed since 2007 -- dogs, popcorn, nachos, drinks.

That could change, he says, if a new sponsor were to come forward -- say, an ice cream company -- that would want its name associated with the section. Then that product would be added. Otherwise, extra items -- like beer and ice cream -- can be purchased in the area.

At Camden Yards’ Picnic Perch in left field – where about 700 fans can sit at tables and bar stools at a counter, as well as in seats -- salad and ice cream are included, as well as kosher and veggie dogs by special advance request. At PNC Park in Pittsburgh, fans get a broader menu: burgers, salads, peanut butter-filled pretzels and ice cream.

In some minor league parks, you’ll find more variety.

The Portland Sea Dogs, a Class AA affiliate of the Red Sox in Maine, debuted their $24 all-you-can-eat section in their right-field U.S. Cellular Pavilion on Memorial Day weekend with hamburgers, pulled chicken sandwiches, “Sea Dog biscuits” (a chocolate chip ice cream sandwich) and baked beans. Plus, there's a chance to sit in Monster Seats similar to the ones on the top of the Green Monster at Fenway Park, that feature a table and enough room to stand up.

The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, a Class A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers in Appleton, Wis., add brats (of course, it’s Wisconsin), potato salad, baked beans and jumbo cookies for the three rows of seats (with tables) down the first-base line, for $25.

If you want a better all-you-can-eat menu at major league parks, most teams have a section for you -- but you’ll pay far more.

At Petco Park, for example, the Padres have experimented with an all-you-can-eat section on the roof of the Western Metal Supply Co. building in left field -- usually reserved for groups -- where a ticket would run about $51, but include burgers, pasta salad, fruit, beer and dessert. At Kansas City, tickets in the Crown Club, which range from $190 to $240, will also give you jumbo shrimp, premium beers and carving stations.

• • •

To Shiffman in Kansas City, all-you-can-eat sections are just the start. They’re popular and here to stay, but the future holds more than just a tray full of hot dogs.

He says the future is all-inclusive areas and “loaded” tickets.

With advances in technology, extra values can be loaded onto a ticket. The fan then uses that ticket as cash during a game, taking it to a concession and getting it scanned. The scanner sees the available money, deducts the cost and tells the customer how much he has left.

Theoretically, a fan could sit anywhere in the park but have an all-you-can-eat ticket that would just need to be scanned at the proper concession stand.

Already, says Shiffman, fans in the Royals’ Diamond Club box seats have $20 loaded automatically into their tickets they can use for food or merchandise. The team also does loaded-value tickets with many season seats and groups, and fans ordering tickets on the Royals website can choose to load extra value.

“What’s really becoming fundamental is doing loaded value on a ticket. You can do increments of $5, $15, $20, whatever you want to do,” says Shiffman. “We’re doing Guys Night at the stadium, so it’s a ticket with loaded value so you can get one beer (included with the ticket).”

Shiffman credits the Washington Nationals this season for taking loaded value a step ahead technologically with team ID cards this season that have a chip with radio frequency identification technology. The cards enable fans to enter the stadium and buy food and merchandise just by using the card.

Meanwhile, new converts are finding the all-you-can-eat sections every day.

Brandon Christenson -- who had a brief stint as a tight end for the Oakland Raiders -- and his wife, Kyla, seven months pregnant, were visiting San Diego from Oklahoma and bought $27 tickets to the all-you-can-eat section at the advice of a friend.

By the fifth inning, Christenson already had downed two hot dogs, two bags of peanuts, two bottles of water, a soft drink and was making another run.

“I feel like we’ve gotten our money’s worth,” he says. “It’s like I would’ve spent $20 easy (on the food).”

Added Kyla, laughing: “We chow down. But I’m feeding two.”

Geoff Iacuessa, the executive vice president and GM of Portland’s Sea Dogs, knows there are some fans who will try to single-handedly gobble up the team’s profit margin when the all-you-can-eat section opens May 25.

He just laughs. It all evens out.

“Hey, some people can eat a lot,” he says. “Good for them. It’s kind of what it’s there for.”