There's a certain magic to a summer afternoon baseball game that constant 24-hour cable coverage still hasn't managed to ruin for me. You get a ticket, find your seat, and enjoy a day of competitive sports, encased meats, and ice-cold beer without leaving your assigned plastic chair. Sometimes there are nachos. But three decades into my obsession with both baseball and hot dogs, I found myself wondering about those who make it possible to consume 4,000 calories while watching other people exercise—the humble stadium vendor. How many dogs do they sell in a day? How can they carry that metal box up and down the stairs for most of a game? And is there any money in it?
Selling hot dogs at a ballpark in America's most hot-dog-obsessed city seemed like a good way to find out, so I arranged to learn the art of vending and sell some dogs at a Chicago White Sox game in early June. A summer weekend in Chicago, nice weather, and the hated Detroit Tigers in town? It was the perfect time and place to see firsthand what it takes to sell hot dogs at a baseball game. Would I be able to keep up with the seasoned veterans? Would I perform competently enough to get tipped? Most importantly, would I be able to keep from clocking someone on the side of the head with a big metal hot dog box? I was legitimately worried about the last one. Those boxes are all sharp metal corners.
The Pre-Game Ritual
The day starts in the bowels of U.S. Cellular Field about an hour before first pitch. I find the guys I'll be working with congregated around a folding table where Mike La Papa, Jr. is seated. They're a mix of men and women in their late 30s to early 50s, though there are a few younger guys and one veteran outlier who I'm told has been vending for nearly 50 years. They're all tanned from working outdoors under well-worn White Sox hats, and despite being a wide mix of body types, all have the lean legs and efficient gait you get from walking up and down concrete stairs for a living. After I introduce myself, they're both friendly and incredibly amused by the fact that I'm interested enough in vending hot dogs to write about it.
La Papa coordinates the vendor assignments; it's his role as the shop steward for Service Employees International Union Local 1, a branch of the massive North American labor union (I'm talking 1.9 million members). They represent vendors not just here, but at Wrigley Field, the United Center, Toyota Park, and the Allstate Arena. For La Papa, this is the family business—his father, Mike senior, held the position for over 50 years, and his uncle, Nick LaPapa, started organizing the Local 1 all the way back in 1949.
According to vending supervisor Lora Green, just over half the vendors are union members for whom this is their primary job. Most of them also vend at the other major stadiums and arenas around town, and some will go as far as St. Louis and Green Bay to work additional games. Given the recent track records of the White Sox, Cubs, and Bears, I imagine that happens right around the time the playoffs start.
You don't need to join the union to vend, but it does confer some benefits, the most obvious of which is seniority—membership guarantees your place in line when it's time to pick what you'll be selling on a given day. Beer is almost always the first choice, with hot dogs the reliable second. After that, it really depends on the weather. If it's warm, Dippin' Dots (the ice cream of the future!) is the next pick; when it's cold, coffee and hot chocolate do well.
Once the longer-tenured vendors have chosen, the remaining assignments are handed out via lottery to the rotating cast of seasonal employees—usually high school and college students or part-timers. I've arranged this trip behind the scenes through the team's front office, so my place behind a stainless-steel hot dog box is safe. If there's a Super Rope vendor somewhere vowing revenge, I don't run into him.
With first pitch sluggishly approaching, the vendors go through routines oddly similar to the team they work for. Some of them pace, others crack the same inside jokes they've been telling for years, and a few just go quiet and still. Sunglasses are wiped clean, checked, and re-wiped. There are more than a few knee-brace adjustments. The atmosphere has a modicum of tension, and only part of that is because I don't know what I'm doing. I don my highlighter-yellow Delaware North Companies shirt and prepare for battle.
Setting the Lineup
Once I have my vending assignment, I go to one of the eight commissary rooms in the park. This is where I'll get the food, prepped and ready, from the kitchen staff.
Vendors supply their own change (mine is $75 in a mixture of ones, fives, and tens), and sign for the first load of product with a unique vendor ID number. My hot dogs come 25 at a time in a 16.2-pound metal box packed with ketchup, mustard, and napkins, a Sterno tucked underneath to provide heat. It's strapped to my person with a "vending belt"—seatbelt material with metal hooks on either end—and bright yellow Vienna Beef graphics advertise the price at $5.75.
The first load of food is provided to me on credit. When I've sold everything, Green tells me, I can come back and use the proceeds to purchase a new load at the price of $143.75, or the $5.75 per dog that the fans pay. I'll make a 64-cent commission on each hot dog sold, so after ten dogs, I'll be up $6.40. And that's in addition to any tips I get from customers—a major bonus of bringing a fan's food directly to them. A vendor's compensation is entirely commission- and tip-based, so those two sources of income are all I'll be taking home (or, in this case, donating to White Sox Charities). Vendors do their best to monetize their sparkling personality while working to achieve a decent sales volume.
The night before, while I'm researching my new role by watching the Cubs bullpen do their best impression of a stuntman on fire, my wife asks me about how I'll manage the numbers in my head while making change. More specifically, she says, "How are you going to make change fast? You're terrible with numbers." 12 hours later, this astute observation is the last thought in my head as I head out of the commissary and into the waiting maw of a stadium hungry for victory and encased meats.
The important thing is to get the yelling down. Everything about the architecture of a baseball game—umpires, managers, and vendors included—is built on a foundation of good yelling. You want to BOOM like you hear in the movies, but you also want to pace yourself. No one's going to buy from a guy who sounds like a Swordfishtrombones-era Tom Waits by the third inning.
I'm assigned the first base line in the lower deck, between home plate and the right field foul pole. These are my people, from the corporate types behind the plate to the diehards in the corners, and they will have their hot dogs.
I adjust the vending belt, stare down the concourse, and think back to LaPapa's advice: "You're selling your dogs and you're selling yourself, too," he said. "The guys who can be loud and friendly and interact with the customers, they're the ones who do this successfully for years." Something informative with a personal touch; I try it out.
Not bad. Close.
"HOT DOGS HEAAAAH!"
Too East Coast.
"HOT DOGS! VIIIIIIIIENNA BEEF HOT DOGS!"
It sounds adorably hucksterish—I could sell monorails with this schtick. Someone nearby smiles and chuckles. Bingo. A couple of slams of the metal door on my vending box to punctuate the point and I'm off.
The first couple of innings go by in a blur. Despite the fact that I'm within spitting distance of the field, I couldn't tell you the count, the score, or even what team is up to bat. People keep handing me twenties and my brain starts melting while I add up the price of three hot dogs (it's $17.25). Twice, preoccupied with making correct change, I start to walk away without actually giving the customer a hot dog. I make a joke about unforced errors, and it's only funny the first time. Maybe.
But eventually I get comfortable, and soon it's like I'm born for this. I'm quickly making change, swapping out the bills in my roll for maximum efficiency—ones and fives on either end, twenties and tens packed safely in the middle. Someone gestures for my sodium-rich service and I'm pointing at them, swooping in, and repeating their order while asking "ketchup, mustard?" There's banter (a lot of it on the topic of ketchup...Detroit fans are worried I'm going to yell at them)—here's your dog, here's your change, oh thank you very much for the tip—and I'm in the wind like a beef ninja.
I've honed my perception to where I'm following the score, count, and every play of the game. This helps me time my runs up and down the aisles for the moments I know people will be looking for a vendor. Alexei Ramirez doubles in Emilio Bonifacio, so I wait until the fans are done celebrating. Miguel Cabrera hits a homer, so I make haste because someone's gonna need to eat those feelings. I'm commiserating with the Sox fans about the tough luck and diplomatically telling the Detroit fans that they're lucky to see Cabrera swinging the bat so well tonight. Then the Tigers pretty rapidly hang five runs on starter John Danks and suddenly I'm out of hot dogs and heading to the commissary for a refill.
People tip in what I feel is a pretty generous manner, especially given my early-inning shakiness. And I find I can really never tell who's going to be especially generous. The expense account guys near the front ask for their quarters back and the cheap seats fan with the nylon wallet gives me two bucks extra while buying his kid a dog. Two maybe-inebriated millennials receive their change and laugh their asses off when they see I haven't taken the initiative to tip myself. A lot of kids give me a huge smile and an adorable "thank you" when I hand over the food, and that feels the best of anything all day, because I'm not made of stone.
Capacity: 69.8% full
Game Time: 2 hrs, 54 mins
Final Score: 7-1, Tigers
Innings Worked: 7
Distance Walked: 6.51 miles
Flights of Stairs: 66
Overall Vendor Hot Dog Sales: 300
My Hot Dogs Sold: 80
Tips Received: $47.60 ($0.59/dog)
Time Working: 3 hrs, 14 mins
Total: $98.80 ($30.40/hour)
There were five other hot dog vendors working that night, and 300 hot dogs sold overall. So I actually accounted for 26.6 percent of the sales. Pulling my weight as a hot dog vendor is my proudest achievement since...well, this. Nearly a hundred bucks for an hour of standing around and just over two hours of walking around, chatting with people, and taking in a ballgame. Not a bad take, and all of it was donated to White Sox Charities.
I return my vendor belt, thank everyone for being incredibly nice about me horning in on their jobs for an evening, and start to think about heading home. Before I leave, I stop to talk with La Papa one more time. Once I share my numbers it becomes clear that I've done better than he expected. "It looks like you're cut out for this," he says, which is not what I'm used to hearing from authority figures while doing baseball-related activities. "We could probably use you here."
I'm the kind of tired where the beer I open when I get home is automatically the greatest of my life. Vendors work hard, and even the ones who don't carry a tray full of beers or a metal hot dog box have to cover a lot of ground. Aches and pains are a certainty at some point, as are rainy days and entire low-attendance bad years.
But if you can put up with the lows, following a career path as a vendor can be attractive. You spend the summer outdoors, get caught up in the crowd's excitement and disappointment, and chat with people who are relaxed and in a good mood. No one's emailing you 2,000 word think pieces about how sitting too much is killing you, and your boss isn't going to pop up over your shoulder and catch you on Twitter. You're a tiny part of something people love, and almost every single customer is pretty happy to see you. Most customer service jobs don't offer nearly that much job satisfaction.
Of course, come Monday, I'm back to my regular life and regular job. But one day, maybe I'll decide to drop everything and dedicate my life to the cause of the hungry sports fan. I've already got the yelling thing down.