A few feet of snow may cover the Wiffleball field ("the world's only Astroturf Wiffleball field") outside Rookies sports bar in Black Earth late Monday afternoon, but inside, the Madison Mallards' brain trust is thinking about July.
"Can we vend apples in the stands, do you think?" Mallards general manager Vern Stenman asks the assembled front-office staff.
"Do you really want to deal with apple cores in the stands, getting all smelly and stuff?" new marketing manager Mike Then asks back.
"Would you really buy an apple at a baseball game?" wonders group sales manager John Schmeltzer.
"I've never had the choice!" says Stenman.
Around and around goes the discussion. Points are made ("Apple cores can't be any messier than nacho cheese." "What if people start throwing them around?") until the decision is finally made to consider selling apples at Warner Park this summer for a buck each.
It will be the most healthy offering on the menu. By far.
Each year, Stenman gathers his staff for a morning of strategic planning at his house followed by an afternoon of sampling potential ballpark fare out at Rookies. Plates of food, nearly all of it dipped in batter and deep fried, are brought out, sampled, critiqued, debated and either rejected or added to one of the menus offered to Mallards fans.
In addition to the main concession stand, the Mallards sell food to fans out of the Maynard's burger stand behind the third-base stands, specializing in local ingredients, in the Duck Blind party deck in right field, and in a few other specialty stands located around the park. Vendors hawk other food items and beverages in the stands and a special menu is offered to groups that rent a suite or the tailgate tent before games.
And according to Stenman, these people are not coming to the park to eat health food.
"A few years ago, we offered a healthy menu and we made kind of a big deal out of it," he says. "But the response was horrible. Nobody bought any of it. They say they want healthy food in surveys, but they lie."
Stenman and Dave Boyer, the Mallards concessions manager, have also learned that fans enjoy straying from the traditional ballpark foods like hot dogs, brats and nachos. That's where the organization's impressive slate of revolving specials comes in, like the "White Trash Special," which consists of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Or the Glazer Burger, a bacon cheeseburger with two glazed donuts used in place of a bun.
"It's almost a dare thing," says Boyer. "People want to go to work the day after coming out to the ballpark and be able to say they tried the Glazer Burger."
Boyer says they sold 4 dozen of the hideous concoctions, rumored to be the invention of Luther Vandross, each time they were offered at the park last season. The discussion on Monday included wondering if they should add it to the regular menu, but it was decided that more buzz would be created by making it a special offering.
A lot of the discussion on Monday involves the menus offered in the suites, which includes a Mexican buffet, Smokehouse sampler and Appetizer sampler. The assembled staffers, snacking on the bite-sized, fried food, freely inject their personal opinions.
"So we're subbing in chips with queso dip, but for what?" asks Liz Kern, the Mallards' ticket manager. "People will eat rice before beans, but you can't put rice on chips."
"I put rice on chips," offers Schmeltzer. "But I'm weird like that."
"You know what's good? Queso dip with bacon," says Boyer, revisiting one of his favorite subjects. He explains that he makes his own bacon for Rookies, which he also manages, and has even experimented with bacon-infused vodka.
That spirit for experimentation makes Boyer the ideal partner in crime with Stenman, whose motto for trying anything to create a buzz at the ballpark has been adopted by the rest of the Mallards staff. Today, Boyer's big task is to try and make deep-fried candy bars work, at Stenman's insistence.
He brings out a deep-fried Twix bar, offering pieces around ("Try one! You can tell your friends!") and the consensus is that Rookies' beer batter might not have been the best choice ("It tastes like fried fish with chocolate in it."). The group resolves to work out the kinks, even after Boyer reports that the Reese's peanut butter cup has all but disintegrated in the fryer.
The discussion then turns to bratwursts, but with a distinctly Mallards flavor. "We work with Stoddard's in Cottage Grove to make all of our brats. We haven't done a duck bratwurst," says Boyer. "But we had a frog leg bratwurst.
"And I think the frog leg brat had some gator in it."