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Selling the part

A day in the life of a hot dog vendor at Fenway

Your correspondent got into action, yelling “Hot dogs!” Note that Jose Magrass, the pro, was close behind, and handling the cash part of the transaction. Serving the hot dogs is complicated enough for a rookie. ( Photo / David Ropeik)  <a href='' onclick='openWindow('','','width=775,height=585,resizable=yes,scrollbars=yes,toolbar=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no'); return false;'> Photo gallery
Your correspondent got into action, yelling “Hot dogs!” Note that Jose Magrass, the pro, was close behind, and handling the cash part of the transaction. Serving the hot dogs is complicated enough for a rookie. ( Photo / David Ropeik)

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“Hot Dogs! Hey, Hot Dogs here!”

“Peanuts! Who wants peanuts?”

“Ice cold Coke! Ice cold Coke!”

Sounds of the game, as much as the crack of the bat or the roar of the crowd. But did you ever pay any attention, real attention, to what those vendors do? How much they work and sweat and hustle? All to make a few bucks, and make it possible for you to stay in your seat and eat and drink your way through a ballgame.

Lord, do they work! Your correspondent, in the never-ending quest to bring you every aspect of the Fenway experience, recently spent a grueling stint serving hot dogs in the right field stands. Let’s put it this way. Keep your day job.

But then, Jose Magrass, like many of the vendors, doesn’t have a day job. He’s 27, and he’s been a vendor for years. “It’s a ton of work, but it’s a ton of fun. Most guys like it,” he says. Then he adds “I don’t have to go to the gym all summer. It’s the only job where you get paid to work out.”

Jose is selling hot dogs in right on this night. Good for his wallet, bad for his back. Hot dogs sell better than anything else, except drinks and ice cream on the really hot days. That’s the good part. The bad part is, Jose has to carry a 40 pound “hot box” loaded at the start with 36 hot dogs sitting in a tub of boiling water, and buns and mustard and ketchup and paper to wrap around the hot dog. And every time he has to serve a customer he has to bend to put the hot box down, and stay bent over while he works to keep from blocking fans’ view of the game, then he has to pick the box back up, boost it up to rest on the top of his head, and dash on up the aisle yelling “Hot Dogs!”. And when he sells out, he sprints back down to the commissary under the stands to refill, hurries back out, and does it again.

And he runs. Up and down the busy aisles, from field level to the back of the grandstand. Amazingly, without knocking anybody over. Remember getting in shape by running up the bleachers or stairs of your stadium when you were on a high school or college team? It’s like that, only Jose’s got 40 pounds and boiling water on his head and people in the way. It’s hard to keep up with him, and all I’m carrying is a notebook and a camera. That is, until it becomes my turn and he hands me the box in the fifth inning with 30 dogs left, practically full. More on that in a moment.

There are an average of 85 in-seat vendors per game. They start 30 minutes before game time, and stop serving food in the sixth, drinks and ice cream in the seventh, sometimes earlier if the first few innings have been long. They put in about an hour and 45 minutes per game. And in that time, the average vendor will sell 320 hot dogs, or 180 bags of peanuts, 160 bags of Cracker Jacks, 144 bottles of soda, 240 ice cream bars, or 240 bottles of water. And they get paid on commission. The more they sell, the more they make. So they run. Four-to-5 miles per game.

But how much you make, and it ranges between $50 and $200 a game, is determined by more than hustle and hard work. A lot depends on what you get to sell. About and hour and a half before the game the vendors show up in a room under the stands in right field and check the assignment sheet to see where they are assigned -- bleachers, right, home, or left -- and how many vendors will be selling various products in those sections. (It’s usually 3 hot dog vendors in the bleachers, 6 in right, 6 behind the plate, and 3 in left.) The swells in the high priced box seats from first around to third -- the home plate section -- spend more. So that’s good territory.

But though their territory is assigned, they get to pick what they want to sell, from a list of 15 products. Hot dogs is the best money -- some fans order two and three, while the other products, like popcorn, pretzels, pizza, etc., sell one unit at a time. So the hot dog vendors can sell out their whole load faster than most other vendors, race back to commissary and reload sooner, and over a game sell more product. Hot dogs aren’t always the best, though. When it’s hot out, you want to sell water.

The pick of product is by seniority. And making it to the head of the list takes a while. There’s a vendor (he actually works in the cash room) who has been doing this for 63 years. Several vendors have been at it at least 30 years, another 30 or so have been doing it for more than 20.

And they’re not all kids in school or just out of college. There are IT guys, lawyers by day-vendors by night, and teachers, and corrections officers, postal workers, fire fighters, even a hostage negotiator for local law enforcement.

Neal Elliott is selling Cracker Jacks behind home tonight, and unlike most other vendors, he occasionally slows down to watch the game. He’s the special education director at a charter school in Framingham. He started in 1964, worked for four years, stopped to have a family, and helped his sons get jobs as vendors.

“They’d come home from a game. I got jealous,” Neal says. “So they told me ‘Either go back or stop whining.’”

This is his ninth year back.

Michael Wells sells raw fish. Not in the stands. During the day he wholesales sushi for the John Nagle Company in South Boston. He’s been a vendor for 23 years. Tonight he’s selling hot dogs behind home plate. “A lot of it is droll and boring, but there are good parts. I got to go to the World Series and the All-Star Game, Opening Days. You see famous people. That’s a perk.”

And then there’s the cool factor.

“A lot of people think it’s a big deal,” says Wells. “Friends. Colleagues. Customers. When they hear I do this, there’s a mystique. They’ll say ‘Can you get me a signed ball’ or ‘Get me a ticket’. And when they’re here and I give them a free hot dog or Coke they think I’m giving them the greatest thing in the world.”

It may be cool with their pals, and a part time job where you can earn up to a couple hundred bucks in less than two hours. But it is definitely NOT a good way to see a ballgame. Yeah, you’re in the park. But there’s no time to watch as you race around. Plus, it’s easier to sell walking up the aisles, which puts the game at your back. Chris Plunkett, an eight-year veteran who tends bar and cooks in a restaurant in real life, says, “It used to be when I started it was more being at the ballpark, the ballgame, all that. But now, during the game, I’m focused on making money.”

Jose is complaining as he heads back to restock. “That was the slowest first load I’ve had all year.” It’s a Friday night, usually a good night, but the Sox are playing Kansas City. And they’re pretty much out of contention. There are a lot of empty seats as the game starts.

Aramark runs all the food prep, delivery, and clean up at Fenway. (They oversee the 800-1,000 people working on food each game.) Richard Roper, Aramark’s top executive in the Northeast, says that how the team is doing definitely matters for food sales. In an office deep beneath the bleachers, Roper says “As the team goes so do we. There is a direct correlation. When the Red Sox are out of contention, you get fewer businessmen, more kids. The spending and the kinds of products we sell changes as the demographics change.”

But up in the stands, Jose hits his stride as the second inning begins. “Hey hot dogs,” he yells, and a fan to his right waves and wants two. Jose sets the box down and, while he’s serving the first fan, another orders three, and then another fan a few seats further in orders four. Jose is a blur. He takes out the wrapping paper, grabs a bun and pries it open. Holds it in his left hand while with his right he flips opens the lid on the pot of hot dogs, grabs one and stuffs it in the bun, grabs a packet of mustard and one of ketchup, then moves all that to one side of his hand and makes up another one, and serves the two hot dogs to the fan. IN 12 SECONDS!

“It’s like running around with your head cut off,” he says. “All you see is hands. It’s fast. You got people yelling at you from all over, people who want to watch the game yelling ‘Hey, get out of the way!’ When you start it’s overwhelming.“

But hot dogs is where the money is. No one-bag-at-a-time peanuts tonight, even if the peanut vendors do get to make spectacular long distance tosses to customers, to the applause of hundreds of people. No, it’s hot dogs, and in the fifth, I’m up.

I’m already in the bright yellow Aramark vendor shirt, with a vendor’s button on (Number 91. The numbers aren’t assigned. Jose tries to wear No. 9 most times. “I’m a big Teddy Ballgame fan,” he says.) Down below the stands, Jose gives me his hat, so I can carry the hot box on my head, as he does. We do a dry run on a couple of hot dogs. Why does Fenway have to be one of the few parks left that doesn’t pre-wrap their hot dogs?

“It’s all part of ‘The Package’, the total experience of coming to the game,” Roper said earlier. “You’re putting on a show.” A woman once asked a vendor for his autograph because he was so entertaining and nice to her 4-year-old son.

Jose gives me some last minute pointers. “Be friendly. You’ll get repeat customers. Be careful with your language about hot dogs. No joking around about weiners and stuff.” And he tells me about “Vendor Etiquette”. “Don’t go down a row where another vendor is already selling the same product.” He offers to trail me and be the cashier, so at least I don’t have that to worry about.

I’m nervous as we head out into the lights. “Hot Dogs! Hey, Hot Dogs!” I yell. At least I have that part down. As Michael Wells, the sushi salesman, put it: “You do have to make a spectacle of yourself.”

I hold the hot box in front of me and head up the crowded aisle into the grandstands. The box is heavy. It’s hard to see the steps. I fight not to stumble. I’ve been told about the hot dog vendor who tripped in the bleachers and spilled everything, and they caught it on tape and he made ESPN. People are in the way and I don’t want to knock into them. But I’m supposed to try to do this the right way. Fast. So I barge right past them with a commanding “Comin’ through!”

At first, nobody’s buying. No waves. No “Hey, I’ll take two.” “Hot dogs!?” I sort of plead. There’s a hand, a buyer. Now my heart speeds up. Now I’ve got to remember all those steps, the paper, the bun, the dog and the condiments. Somehow I manage, hand it down the row, collect the cash. Awesome! I’ve sold my first hot dog. Proudly I raise the hot box and rest it on my head, a la Jose, and start up the aisle. Behind me Jose has to remind to yell ‘Hot dogs.”

I sell a couple more here and there. And then it happens. I get my first tip, a buck. Now, vendors are officially not supposed to accept gratuities, and the peanut vendors aren’t supposed to throw bags of peanuts, but... I offer the buck to Jose. He says “No man, it’s yours.”

Five minutes later I’ve gone up one row, down another, and head up a third. I’m sweaty, breathing hard. My shirt is wet. My thighs hurt from hustling up and down the aisles. My arms ache from lifting the box and putting it down. My head hurts from where the box has been resting on it. My back aches from bending down to serve the dogs and lifting the box back up when I move on. FIVE MINUTES!

I hit a sweet spot, several customers waving all in one area. Kind of like hitting a school of hungry fish. HOT DOG, I think. I can just put the box down once and get rid of lots of these damned heavy hot dogs. I get cocky and serve up two at a time. Like a pro. Jose grins his approval. I serve them to customers on one side of the aisle, then the other, kneeling so I don’t block the fans’ view of the game. Now my knees hurt. I ask one fan “What’s the score?” I have no clue.

In about 15 minutes I’m down to five dogs left. “Hot dogs! Please buy my last five hot dogs!” I yell. People stare. A few hands go up, in the same area. Hot dog! I open the pot and sell four, but the last one of the dogs is broken into two pieces. I do something no real vendor would even think about. I offer it to a kid at half price, two bucks. He hesitates and scopes me out like I’m a used car salesman, but thankfully buys my last hot dog. PHEW!”

Sore, sweaty, but proud, and relieved, I carry the empty box down to the commissary. I get a few pats on the back from Jose and some other vendors who have come in to cash out for the night. I didn’t turn two dogs in 12 seconds like Jose. But hey, I didn’t drop any, or bash somebody in the head with the hot box, or say anything people aren’t supposed to say about weiners. And they tell me 30 dogs in 15 minutes isn’t bad. Plus, I scored four bucks in tips!

They let me keep my vendor button. Number 91. RETIRED! I head out with a new respect for the vendors and all the work they put in so we fans don’t have to leave our seats. I find my mind returning to two thoughts as I walk out of Fenway into the warm night. Keep the day job, and there’s a bottle of aspirin waiting for me in my car.

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