“Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks.”
Food and baseball have a unique relationship. A meal at a ballpark is vastly different than a meal anywhere else, including other sporting events. During the course of the season, a team will create special concession items to correlate with themed promotions. Tom Ando concotted perhaps the most infamous such concession item, the cotton candy hot dog, but the “mad genius,” as Darren Rovelle once referred to him, has made an impact on the relationship between food and baseball that reaches far beyond just one viral product.
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Tom was more of a football fan than a baseball fan. He took to sportswriting as a teenager, covering the NFL, CFL, and Arena Football. He even interned for a professional lacrosse team for a season. It wasn’t until 2013, when he took a job as Concessions Supervisor at Progressive Field in Cleveland, that Tom found his love for ballpark food.
“Once I started working baseball, it just became a different love of mine. Every sport’s a lot different as far as atmosphere goes, and baseball is families. I love it. America’s pastime. It’s just awesome to be in the ballpark everyday.”
Within months of starting at Progressive Field, Tom realized that this was no longer just a job. He wanted to make ballpark concessions his career. Realizing the benefits of hard work and impressing the right people, Tom started pulling double duty, working Cleveland Browns games in addition to the baseball games at Progressive Field. In 2014, he took a job back home in Buffalo, working concessions for the Buffalo Sabres NHL team. During Cleveland homestands, Tom would sleep on a coworker’s couch and work at Progressive Field. The following year, Tom moved to Detroit to work at Comerica Park, one of Tom’s favorite ballparks to this day. As you might expect, Tom added Ford Field and Detroit Lions football games to his workload. Mornings were spent at Ford Field, prepping for the upcoming football season, while evenings were spent working Tigers games at Comerica. Tom’s focus was continuing his diligent work in order to build a resume that would attract a more lucrative, salaried management position.
That opportunity came in the form of the South Bend Cubs, a class-A Cubs affiliate in the Midwest League. In 2016, Tom became South Bend’s Concession Manager. During the offseason, Tom worked for Notre Dame University. In his second season with South Bend in 2017, Tom was promoted to Assistant Director of Food and Beverage. While in South Bend, Ando began his pursuit of a viral concession item. Tom remembers watching hours of food related commercials from the 1980’s on YouTube in preparation for an 80’s themed night at the ballpark. For a 90’s night, Tom created a Gushers sundae that got retweeted on Twitter by the Gushers brand. Pretty cool, but not quite the pinnacle of viral food just yet. Tom thought he had found the ticket to viral, so to speak, in the form of a Daredevil burger, made with flaming hot Cheetos, for a superhero promotion. He names that item as one he felt deserved more attention than it received.
In 2017, Tom continued to chase down his goal of a viral item when he took the position of Director of Food and Beverage for the Erie Seawolves of the Eastern League. It was in Erie that Tom achieved his goal. Tom thought he had it when Tim Tebow was in town as a member of the visiting team, and he made Gator burgers. He got closer for Christmas in July by making a dish inspired by Buddy the Elf, Will Ferrel’s famous character in the film Elf. Sitting at his desk, brainstorming for Sugar Rush Night, Tom made the connection between two foods that seemingly don’t belong together that would lead to the most viral concession item to date. Tom layed a hot dog inside a cotton candy bun, sprinkled Nerds candy on top, and took a bite. The cotton candy hot dog was born. Tom sent one down to the clubhouse for two players to try. The video made its way to MLB Network. The photo of the strange concoction started to make its rounds on Twitter. By the next morning, the cotton candy hot dog was a hit. Tom finally had his viral concession food.
Tom was surprised that it was the cotton candy hot dog that became the item talked about on Jimmy Fallon. He thought his cotton candy ball, a scoop of ice cream with sprinkles wrapped in cotton candy, would be more popular in Erie on Sugar Rush Night. He had created a simple yet unique dish, the mac and cheesesteak, that he imagined could have the success that the cotton candy dog achieved. He also mentioned the Gator burger and Daredevil burger when prompted for items he thought deserved viral status. Through the many special items Tom has created in concession stands, it is easy to see his passion for and understanding of the correlation between baseball and food.
“It’s important because you’re sitting down, casually, for a longer time. It’s summer, nice day out. It’s almost like a picnic every game.”
Since creating the cotton candy hot dog, Tom has returned home to Buffalo, once again working for the Buffalo Sabres hockey team.
“I miss baseball more than I thought I would.”
Yearning for a way to stay involved in the game, Tom began writing again. He covers Minor League Baseball promotions for Our Sports Central. Tom and his wife enjoy traveling to see different ballparks. Together, they have visited 20 Major League and 11 Minor League parks. Tom likes to do research on each park’s food selections so he knows what he wants to try once he arrives. He notes PNC Park in Pittsburgh is his favorite ballpark to date. He also puts Wrigley and Fenway in class by themselves.
“I’m a Yankees fan, and I still couldn’t wait to get to Fenway.”
Tom and his wife had planned a trip to see 6 ballparks on the West coast this season, but obviously, that trip has been cancelled. They are also Buffalo Bisons season ticket holders and are looking forward, like we all are, to returning to the ballpark for a unique meal on a warm Summer day.
You can follow Tom on Twitter @concessionsguy. Be sure to follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as well.