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When Miguel Colan opened Hartford-based Rockin' Chicken 13 months ago, he knew it would have its challenges.
“The restaurant business is a tough business,” he said.
But Colan, whose Franklin Avenue restaurant specializes in rotisserie chicken cooked over charcoal, has grown his customer base in an unlikely place: the ballpark.
Colan's restaurant was one of eight selected by the Hartford Yard Goats to participate in the stadium's Neighborhood Flavors Cart, an initiative designed to create exposure for Hartford-based restaurants and food trucks, while diversifying the ballpark's fare beyond the traditional staples of hotdogs, peanuts and Cracker Jacks. Through mid-season, the program has largely been a homerun for both fans and participating restaurateurs.
“We wanted to have the best ballpark in the [Double-A Eastern] league and having different types of food at every game was part of that,” said Steve Given, Yard Goats' director of business development, who noted this year's inaugural group of participating restaurants ranges from soul food and Puerto Rican dishes to gourmet grilled cheese and fruit smoothies and mixed drinks. “We want our fans to have a good sampling [of food] throughout the season.”
As part of the program, each restaurant gets nearly 10 games during the team's 70 home games at Dunkin' Donuts Park. Clover Marsh, owner of Quick Bites, which serves Jamaican-style cuisine normally prepared on her food truck, has had an opportunity to work seven games so far. She says the best part of the experience has been the exposure to new customers — and their feedback.
“I get a lot of compliments on my food,” Marsh said. “It's just nice to know that people like it.”
While Marsh says her customer base at games can vary depending on the night of the week, on average she estimates she serves nearly 130 people per game at the stadium. She has flyers to promote her food truck's usual location at Hartford's Bushnell Park and has seen some carry over business — and increased recognition from her nights at the ballpark.
While participating restaurants, according to the Yard Goats' Given, can earn between $200-$1,500 on a game night, Marsh says she tries to be economical in her offerings because a portion of profits for the night is shared with the Yard Goats as a condition of the program. “I try to keep what I prepare — like jerk chicken or jerk pork — simple and cost-effective,” she says, in part because of the revenue sharing and partly because the food cart made available to restaurants does not allow for more advanced food preparation.
“On my truck, I have my oven and fryolator for fried dumplings or French fries,” Marsh explained. “I can't do that from the food cart, so I pre-make my food [on game nights] and keep it hot and serve it with rice and peas.”
The exposure for participants is more than just in-park foot traffic; it's digital too. “We have a page on our website that lists the different food vendors and the games they're scheduled for,” said Given. “We also have each game's featured restaurant up on the [ballpark's] video board.”
For Luis Rodriguez, owner of Comerio on Park Street, the Dunkin' Donuts Park crowd is another opportunity to expand his customer base. His restaurant has been in his family — and Hartford — for 40 years, but Rodriguez jumped at the chance to participate in the program. On an average night in the stadium, he draws about 250 customers for his kabobs and Cuban sandwiches. Even if his profit margins may be smaller than a night at the restaurant, he sees the lower overhead costs and people he meets as the true value of the Yard Goats opportunity. “We try to keep our prices family friendly on game nights and since it's just me working the cart, it does work out financially.”
While Given says he likes the rotation of eight participating restaurants, he has received inquiries from additional restaurants looking to become involved. “Perhaps next year, we'll get up to 10 [restaurants],” he said, noting one of the goals of the program is to get ballpark customers into the actual restaurants of the Neighborhood Flavors Cart participants.
“Through our Launch-a-Ball contest at the end of our games [where fans throw tennis balls at targets on the field], fans can win prizes, including gift certificates to [flavor cart] restaurants,” Given said. “That helps fund our community programs but also, hopefully, helps put some feet in the door for our restaurant partners outside of the game.”
Rockin' Chicken's Colan has seen that customer conversion already. “What we sell at the stadium the fans like, but is limited,” he said. “If they want to try other things — like our rotisserie chicken over charcoal — they need to come to our restaurant, so [the exposure] it's definitely helped our business.”
But as a relatively new business, Colon says, the Neighborhood Flavors Cart helped provide something more important than exposure for his restaurant — credibility. “When people see you as a new restaurant in the new stadium in Hartford, it says we're doing something right,” Colon said. “Our involvement with the Yard Goats has been instrumental in a lot of good things happening for us.”
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