This Is Summer Food? 

A dispiriting tour through ballpark concession stands and new Cool Springs restaurants

A dispiriting tour through ballpark concession stands and new Cool Springs restaurants

Several people recently asked me if I had "eaten anywhere really good and interesting lately." My answer was, unfortunately, no. Nine months out of the year, when someone asks me that question, I'm ready to respond with exciting tidbits about new restaurants, new chefs or new menus. But during Little League baseball season—particularly when my son's team, the WNSL Nashville Heat, is in tournament contention—my dining options are pretty much confined to ballpark concession stands and restaurants in the small towns or suburbs that host Little League tournaments.

Concession stands at Little League ballparks run the gamut from health-department passable to just barely nonlethal. They all pretty much carry the same menu: soft drinks, sports drinks, bottled water, peanuts, oversalted popcorn, overcooked hamburgers, undercooked hot dogs, bags of chips and an astounding assortment of weird candy. The item that won the moms' vote this year as Most Likely to Finance the Dentist's New Boat (and thus was the children's favorite) was the Juicy Drop Pop, a concoction that consisted of a tubular lollipop onto which one squeezed sickly sweet syrup for that much-desired sugar rush.

When my son the pitcher/second baseman doesn't have a game, and whenever the Sounds are playing at home, he and my daughter and I can usually be found in Section T of Greer Stadium. Situated between third base and the bullpen, Section T affords us a good view of infield play and relief pitchers warming up to enter the game.

While the personality-driven vendors in the stands and the friendly, hardworking people behind the counters are a great asset to the Sounds' operations, I can't say the same for the concessions. In a word, ick. Three more words: budget-busting expensive. Greer tries to fool us into thinking its popcorn is freshly popped by emptying the hefty-sized bags of pre-popped corn into a receptacle that looks like a popper, but is only equipped with heat lamps. And who knew it cost so much to make stale, tasteless popcorn? My son used to like the basket of chicken fingers with fries, a comparative bargain at $5, but the fries are different this year and in no way resemble anything that came from the earth, so he no longer eats them. My daughter likes the soft pretzels, except when she gets one that is still frozen in the middle, as happens to her on a regular basis.

If you're going to eat at a Sounds game, best bets are probably the ice cream, the Papa John's Pizza (if you like that brand) and the grill shack outside of sections B & C. I rarely eat at Greer, but I do like a beer with my baseball, and the hefty $4.75 for a 16-ounce draft ensures responsible drinking. However, dieters and healthy eaters might as well leave their resolve in the car; there are virtually no options for healthy, low-fat or low-cal dining.

Truth be told, professional sports organizations who make their money on concessions benefit from a captive audience and have little incentive to do better or offer more. Food prices at the Coliseum and the GEC are even higher, with a barely discernible raising of the taste bar. But if any of them could find room in their hearts, and on their busy concourses, to offer their loyal fans more options, here are some suggestions:

♦ At Memphis Grizzlies games, Neely's Bar-B-Que pork sandwiches and barbecue nachos are the top-selling concession. Surely, Tony Neely, who owns the family's Nashville store, could offer the same at Nashville sporting events. Call him at 251-8895.

♦ Instead of a hot dog or burger, how about a turkey, Applewood bacon, smoked Gouda, lettuce and tomato on whole wheat? That's the Titan sandwich, sold at 12th South Market and Deli. A small kiosk at Greer or the Coliseum offering premade sandwiches with fresh ingredients would score some points for variety; call Will Shuff at 463-7552. Other local options with delicious sandwich boards (not to mention catering experience) are Bread & Company, Provence, Noshville, Goldie's Deli, Grins and Zoe's Kitchen. Bagels and baseball? Not so farfetched; Alpine Bagels has an all-star roster of bagel-based sandwiches.

♦ Southerners love their biscuits, and what Nashville institution says home more than the Loveless Motel? How about a Loveless stand selling their legendary country ham and biscuit sandwiches?

♦ Satisfying a sweet tooth with a bag of pre-spun cotton candy at Greer Stadium is likely to send one's child into sugar shock, and the deep-fried funnel cakes are soaked with fat and blanketed with powdered sugar. Sweetie Pie Concessions' Key Lime Pie Bars are a familiar sight at some of Nashville's biggest outdoor parties, including CMA Fan Fair, River Stages, Dancin' in the District, the American Artisan Festival and the TACA Fall Festival. The frozen slices of key lime pie on a stick are a pleasing combo of tart and sweet, and refreshingly cool on a hot summer day. Call Angela Sherbine at 516-4072.

♦ Simply Brownies bakes a winning lineup of eight different scrumptious brownies, among them White Chocolate Macadamia Nut, White Chocolate Mocha, Toffee Crunch and S'Mores. Doug Bethel can be reached at 400-9713, or partner Brett Leinard at 400-1155.

♦ Finally, Irma and Norma Paz of Las Paletas introduced Nashville to freshly made Mexican popsicles a couple of years ago out of their tiny store on 12th Avenue South (386-2101). Savvy businesswomen and marketers, they might be receptive to the notion of selling their frozen fruit and ice cream bars at Greer. Lichita, a new paleta store on Nolensville Road (834-7488), already has a mobile cart it might be willing to park on the left-field concourse.

Uncool

On July 15, the Nashville Heat began defending (and ultimately winning) their Cal Ripken Tennessee State Championship crown at the Little League State Tournament, hosted this year by the Franklin League at its beautiful new facility, Liberty Park. The park is on a winding country road behind a huge office park in Cool Springs, that commercial compound big enough to be claimed by both Brentwood and Franklin.

Being averse to recreational shopping and allergic to fast food, navigating through the area tends to make me hyperventilate, but I decided I could kill two birds with one stone and take the opportunity to report on the newest national restaurants launching their entry into the Middle Tennessee market. In a Tennessean business story on April 10, reporter Naomi Snyder breathlessly reported on the "flurry of national restaurant chains" coming to Cool Springs. According to Scott Portis, franchise owner of Moe's Southwest Grill, "Cool Springs was a real no-brainer for me." Aside from Williamson County's apparently insatiable appetite for chain restaurants and dining out, there is also the fact that Cool Springs has available property in a youthful, well-heeled, rapidly growing suburb; rental costs are slightly cheaper than in Nashville.

Most importantly, said Portis, local developers want the chains and will rarely even entertain queries from independents. "Landlords want something new and trendy, but they want someone with good credit who is going to pay them," he explained.

New and trendy, to be sure, but at the same time, these restaurants are defined by a profound lack of imagination on the part of the owner/franchisees, who find success by taking advantage of American consumers' yearning for a familiar and unchallenging comfort zone. As long as the "concept" is wrapped in a colorful package, described in a fun style, delivered by perky staff and on the table fast, everybody's happy. Food is fuel, bigger is better and quantity beats quality time and again.

Driving through the four "quadrants" of Cool Springs, I found several new additions to the long list of national chains that already included Logan's, Chili's, Friday's, Red Lobster, Carrabba's Grill, P.F. Chang's, Outback Steakhouse, Famous Dave's, Stoney River, Macaroni Grill, Joe's Crab Shack and Copeland's.

The paint is barely dry on Wild Noodles, Moe's Southwest Grill, McAlister's Deli, Jason's Deli, Genghis Grill, Philly Connection, Cold Stone Creamery and Smokey Bones BBQ, and customers are literally lined up outside their doors for soup in a bread bowl, loaded baked potatoes, spinach-artichoke dip, fried mozzarella cheese sticks, fried onion rings, chicken Caesar salad, spaghetti, ultimate nachos and cheese quesadillas. Can someone explain to me the difference between Baja Fresh and Moe's Southwest Grill, between Smokey Bones and Famous Dave's, between Jason's Deli and McAlister's Deli? Based on all the evidence I've been able to gather, the only obvious distinction is that they're owned by different corporations.

With very few exceptions, Cool Springs—and places like it all over America—is little more than a glorified, prettied up, Major League concession stand. By exclusively pursuing safe, corporate-owned national chains, the developers are holding consumers as captive to limited choices as the operators of Greer Stadium, The Coliseum and Gaylord Entertainment Center. And that's a shame.

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