It has been a disappointing year for the sausage and kettle corn vendors outside Safeco Field on Occidental Street South. After several years of...
It has been a disappointing year for the sausage and kettle corn vendors outside Safeco Field on Occidental Street South. After several years of declining attendance, Mariners fans started returning this season as the team vied for a playoff berth. But vendors’ chance for growing sales faded with the team’s postseason hopes.
The vendors stake their income on how the Mariners play. A bad game, a losing streak, a “rebuilding” season all mean smaller paychecks.
Those paychecks have been shrinking for several years. Income from Mariners games has fallen 30 percent since 2002, several vendors reported. That year the team set the franchise record for attendance with 3.54 million. By 2006, attendance had dropped to 2.48 million.
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“[Success] has got nothing to do with prices,” Joe Bernstein, 39, said from behind his hot-dog cart. “Lowering my prices isn’t going to get people to come down here if the Mariners are losing.”
Bernstein began as a vendor outside the Kingdome 15 years ago.
In April, the vendors figured on another year of falling attendance and sliding sales. But by June, the Mariners were in contention for the postseason. Attendance rose. When they played the Angels at Safeco for the American League West lead in August, more than 44,000 people were at each of three games. However, it was the closest the Mariners would get to the playoffs. They folded against the Angels, then fell apart on the road.
At the next homestand, the team’s attendance dropped by nearly 20,000 per game. The vendors felt it.
“They jumped on the bandwagon, and now look,” said Bernstein. “They’ve jumped off.”
Al Griffin, owner of Al’s Gourmet Sausages, agreed.
“Before this losing spurt, we saw the numbers coming back,” he said.
Since then, the fans’ mood has changed.
“The gate, that’s how I could tell,” said Griffin, another Kingdome veteran. “That’s my indicator — looking at the gate. [Last month] by 4:30, there was a line of people to get in to watch batting practice.”
Farshid Varamini, 27, said his two stands lost money during the last homestand. Like most vendors, he pays around $120 in permits and rent for each stand outside Safeco. To break even, each stand needs to sell 50 hot dogs, but they managed just around 30 at several weekday games. His stands average $300 in sales per baseball game.
Regardless, he sets up for every game “because our customers expect us here,” Varamini said.
Vending is a marathon profession: 81 baseball home games, plus pro and college football games, soccer games, trade shows, concerts and catering. For the owners, it is full-time work. Some own restaurants as well, such as Bernstein (Pizza Time on 12th Avenue and East Yesler Way) and Varamini (Zeitoon at 4th Avenue and Wall Street).
Every vendor swears by consistency as a key to success. Both a vendor’s personality and product must be good every day. Most of them buy from local suppliers, which they selected for taste and quality.
“I even watched them make it,” Varamini said. “If I’m going to be eating these hot dogs — and I’ve been eating them for seven years — I want to make sure they’re good hot dogs.”
Each vendor tries to build up repeat business with good products and service, but know it’s largely out of their hands in the end. If the Mariners do well, fans come early and stay late. If the team is losing, they hardly come at all. Of course, some vendors fail from the outset, such as one who tried selling organic carrots one year.
Giveaways draw fans regardless of how the team is doing.
“The better the giveaway, people come even if they’re losing,” Bernstein said. “We can be in last place and if it’s bobblehead night, people are there. They had a Sexson giveaway night this year. The only reason it was good was because it was a bobblehead.”
Bernstein names his hot dogs and sausages after the Mariners’ players. He plans to have an end-of-the-season sale on Sexson Dogs. The price? Sexson’s batting average.
The vendors follow offseason moves as businessmen.
“You kind of have to watch it, because it will tell what your season’s going to be like,” Varamini said. “Some people are going to come out to see new players. … Hopefully, they can put up a winning season next year, bring out more people.”
The vendors don’t expect much turnout for the Mariners’ final homestand of 2007, which begins tonight against the Cleveland Indians.
“They’re going to have about 15,000 to 18,000 people during the week, and then the last [weekend] — Fan Appreciation, Kid Appreciation [nights] — will be good,” Bernstein said.
The economic impact of vendors on Seattle is negligible, said Levis Kochin, an associate professor of economics at the University of Washington. Money not spent at a Mariners game is mostly spent elsewhere in the city.
“The big loss to the city isn’t from the vendors,” said Kochin. “Somebody who isn’t buying a hot dog from a vendor is buying a hamburger from Kidd Valley or Dick’s instead.
“Everybody’s losing a level of satisfaction. Say you’re at lunch with your new boss, and you might have talked about Ichiro, but the team’s doing poorly so you don’t bring it up.”
In that sense, Seattle loses a shared cultural — and eating — experience.