Mariners' famed park food: Grasshoppers?

January 14th, 2021

SEATTLE -- When it comes to ballpark cuisine, hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jack are so last generation. Dried insects have become the frontrunner in culinary-savvy Seattle.

Yes, since 2017, one of the best-selling concession items at T-Mobile Park has been the chapulines, toasted grasshoppers served in four-ounce cups with savory chili-lime salt seasoning.

What started as a quirky pitch from the ballpark’s hospitality partner, Centerplate, quickly turned into an unprecedented demand. Steve Dominguez was entering his seventh year as Centerplate general manager and wanted to create a stronger local food presence at the ballpark, so he pitched the Mariners on broadening concession space for a few Seattle-area restaurants.

Dominguez was looking for menu items at the newly-opened Edgar’s Cantina on the left-field mezzanine after space had been created when the Mariners moved the left-field fences in ahead of the 2017 season. Edgar's is an homage to Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez that serves Latin-based food.

That’s where Oaxacan Mexican restaurant Poquitos on Capitol Hill came in. Among Poquitos’ most popular appetizers were the chapulines, which were inexpensive and easily storable. There was also a cultural significance in play, as chapulines have long been served at Latin sporting events.

After receiving the green light from the Mariners, Centerplate ordered 20 pounds of chapulines, thinking that would fulfill needs through the All-Star break. But it proved to be a massive shortfall, as they sold out during the Mariners’ home opener, and from there, it became a mad dash to resupply.

“It turned into one of these Tweetable, Instagram-type moments,” said Dominguez, who is now known in Mariners circles as the Grasshopper Godfather. “We were on SportsCenter, and from that point, it just kind of caught fire.”

To maintain demand and establish urgency, Centerplate began limiting the number of available chapuline orders to 312 per game in recognition of Martinez’s career .312 batting average. It was a McRib strategy of sorts, and fans began lining up well before first pitch to get their fix.

Eventually, Centerplate took over the process from Poquitos and sourced the grasshoppers directly from Mexico once the demand became more significant for the restaurant. But Centerplate still cut a portion of the sales to Poquitos as an effort to help support the local business. And once things simmered down midway through the 2017 season and into ’18, Centerplate could more accurately project quantities. It’s down to clockwork now.

Centerplate typically places three chapuline orders per year -- in February, June and August, depending on the Mariners' standing late in the season, since they are attendance-driven. Chapulines are bought by the kilogram, shipped in massive vacuum-sealed bags and stored in refrigeration. With almost no moisture content, the chapulines retain a shelf life of about a year in their packaging.

And the nutrition factor? High protein content, no fat, no carbs, a low carbon footprint and gluten free.

“It hits all of the buzz words,” Dominguez said.

The chapulines are also an embodiment to what Centerplate and Dominguez are trying to accomplish at T-Mobile Park -- creating diverse culinary options to fulfill the desires of a fan base whose demographic seeks a unique ballpark experience that retains the fabric of Seattle’s ambitious local food scene.

When Dominguez first came over after nearly two decades at Coors Field and Angel Stadium, it was a learning curve to transition from a nachos- and hot dog-driven demand.

“I've been in the Majors, this is my 28th season, and you used to have coffee on the menu just because there is always an 80-year-old season ticket holder that wants a cup of decaf in the eighth inning,” Dominguez said. “Here, the lines are out the door for coffee.”

Ding Tai Fung’s world-famous soup dumplings can be had in section 132. Li’l Woody’s mini burgers have been shipped from Capitol Hill to The ‘Pen, along with Ballard Pizza and Central District’s well-known Fat’s Chicken. There is also an assortment of vegetarian and vegan options throughout the ballpark.

“The Seattle fan is a very particular demographic. … It's such a competitive market for that disposable dollar that we want them to come and have the restaurant experience here, versus stopping and eating before they get here,” Dominguez said. “And at the end of the day, we're a for-profit business, but our approach has been, 'Let's get them the quality that is around the city inside the ballpark, so they can experience it here.' Then, if they try something they like here and want to try their full menu, then they now can go to those places of business. It's a good complementing relationship.”

But the crickets are still the show-stealer. The stakes are low and the reward can be high. T-Mobile Park chapulines cost just $5, and depending on one’s palette, they can offer a tasty crunch and zest. Their affordability widens their consumer base, and their novelty makes them the most unique dish in baseball.