June 21, 2024

The concept is curious. Turn 347 International House of Pancakes locations nationwide into ghost kitchens that produce ballpark-themed fast food for delivery and pickup.

Ballpark Bites outlets have sprung up seemingly overnight, 44 in California alone, second only to the 76 in Texas. Maybe that’s how ghost kitchens roll.

Major League Baseball is sponsoring the venture, which mirrors the NASCAR Refuel Tenders & Burgers initiative that also utilizes IHOP kitchens — although regrettably neither menu offers the Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity. Already, 524 NASCAR Refuel are in place, and the company motto is (of course) “We’re growing FAST!!!”

Attaching hugely popular, deeply American professional sports to a fast-food venture is the brainchild of Virtual Dining Concepts, owned by Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl. The company website boasts of 3,000 virtual restaurants, 2,000 restaurants, 6 million orders, and — apparently — counting.

The recipe is simple. Offer what folks typically eat at a ballgame or an auto race for less than the exorbitant prices charged at those venues, slather menu descriptions with a heaping helping of cringe-worthy puns and plays on words, and utilize delivery services to get the grub to couch potatoes glued to their favorite televised ballgame or race.

Like most fast-food chains, the menu at every MLB ghost kitchen is identical, right down to sandwiches served on the same soft pretzel bun. The “starting lineup” offers chicken strip sandwiches, hot dogs, a sirloin tips sandwich and a cheesesteak. A combo plate is called “the triple play” and “the closer” is a ball bucket of doughnut holes tossed in cinnamon sugar.

“We understand that not everyone has the opportunity to visit an MLB or [minor league] ballpark, so we wanted to create Ballpark Bites for fans to enjoy a part of that experience from the comfort of their own home, a local park or even at work,” said Karin Timpone, MLB executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

Reaction on social media and traditional media dings MLB for the sameness of the menus. “You’d think a national organization like MLB would lean into the regional specialties of its ballparks, but nope,” SFGate wrote.

Blowback would be inevitable, however, if attempts to replicate favorites unique to specific ballparks failed — if San Francisco garlic fries or L.A. Dodger Dogs or whatever didn’t taste authentic. Furthermore, most regional ballpark offerings are inferior versions of what is available outside the ballpark, like crab cakes in Baltimore, cheesesteak in Philadelphia, barbecue in Kansas City or deep dish in Chicago.

Who is going to seek out a city’s signature culinary offering from MLB prepared in an IHOP presented by Mastercard?

NASCAR Refuel Tenders & Burgers follows the same script with menu descriptions in overdrive. Choose between Talladega, Hot Lap or Full Throttle tenders, the Daytona Firecracker burger or the Checkered Flag chicken sandwich.

Or, as IHOP views them, revenue fuel.

“Our work with [Virtual Dining Concepts] and the three brands we’re implementing will be a growth driver for our restaurants, specifically as we look at non-peak hours during lunch, dinner and late night,” IHOP president Jay Johns said in a statement. “These new brands are relevant for today’s consumer and perfect for our existing equipment and capabilities in our restaurants nationwide.”

Whether ballpark and racetrack food remains appealing enough off site to support hundreds of locations remains to be seen. If it does, plenty of kitchens are available. As of April 3, 1,699 IHOP restaurants operate in the United States.

The state with the most? California, with 225 locations.


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