Episode 700: Peanuts and Cracker Jack : Planet Money Beer. Water. Pretzels. It takes effort, strategy, and some serious lungs to sell expensive junk food at a baseball game. Meet the hot dog vending legend of Fenway Park.
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Episode 700: Peanuts and Cracker Jack

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Episode 700: Peanuts and Cracker Jack

Episode 700: Peanuts and Cracker Jack

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/477082513/477090176" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) For the land of the free and the home of the brave.




First pitch, Robert. Welcome to Fenway Park.


It is a beautiful, freezing cold evening in April in Boston.

FOUNTAIN: So the reason we're here today is not to do the Tampa Bay Rays-Red Sox play-by-play.

SMITH: Which we certainly could do. No, we are here because our beloved producer Nick Fountain used to work here in this stadium. It was one of his first jobs ever. And what'd you do?

FOUNTAIN: (Yelling, affected voice) Hey, water here, water.

SMITH: Oh, you're showing off now. Everyone turned around. Everyone was like I want that water.


FOUNTAIN: It was one of the hardest jobs because I was running up and down the stairs selling hot dogs, selling Cracker Jack, selling peanuts, selling popcorn.

SMITH: Which, if you've been to a ball game, you've bought something from these guys. And Nick was saying, like, listen, there is an entire world going on underneath the bleachers that you have no idea it's there - this entire system whereby they figure out who sells what, how much they're going to sell it for and how much money they are going to make at an average night like this.

FOUNTAIN: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Nick Fountain.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Today on the show, we take you inside the secret game that is played every night underneath this ballpark.

FOUNTAIN: You think that baseball players want to win? Wait till you see the fastest hot dog vendor in the world.

SMITH: And the teenage rookie who wants to take his place.


MODERN ENGLISH: (Singing) Making love to you was never second best.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey, hot dogs.

SMITH: For hot dog and popcorn vendors, the most important moment of the night happens a few hours before the first pitch. While you are still looking for parking, they are meeting deep underneath the bleachers - past the kettle corn, past the kosher hot dog vending machine...

FOUNTAIN: It's really a thing (laughter).

SMITH: (Laughter) It is a thing - in a basement parking lot.

FOUNTAIN: It's beautiful, right? This is where I used to work.

SMITH: It is not beautiful (laughter). It is dark. It is damp. It is filled with empty kegs and use pallets.

FOUNTAIN: But in the middle of the lot, there is this stainless steel table. And crowding around it, there's a bunch of guys dressed for work - you know, sports shorts, yellow baseball hats.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We got chowder today? They say anything?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We do. We are selling chowder, yeah.

SMITH: What's about to happen is called the pick. Nick has been talking about this for a long time, the pick. This is where the vendors get to pick what they are going to sell tonight up in the stands. They work on commissions, so the more they sell, the more money they make. And so picking the right item is essential.

MIKE WALSH: So right now we've noticed that we have 57 guys working tonight. So we're going to make this list available for 57 available products.

FOUNTAIN: The products - Coke, Cracker Jacks, peanuts, hot dogs.

SMITH: The product is provided by multinational food conglomerate Aramark. In fact, all these guys work for Aramark. But Aramark does not micromanage who sells what. The company lets the vendors fight it out every night.

FOUNTAIN: Think of the pick like a sports draft.

SMITH: Like the NBA draft or the NFL draft.

FOUNTAIN: All the guys have this idea in their head of what product they want to pick tonight. They all gather around Mike Walsh. He's one of the vendors. He actually runs the pick. And they're going to decide, one by one, what product they're going to sell in what section.

WALSH: We're going to start up.

BILLY KERN: Billy, home.

WALSH: Billy Kern will take Bud Light out of home. Sully will take Bud Light out of home. Rob Barry (ph) will take Gantz out of home...

LYNCHY: Lynchy, C1, B10.

WALSH: Lynchy will take Bud Light - Broph.

SMITH: Broph - love that guy.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, Sully, Lynchy, Broph - some serious Boston Irish names.

SMITH: So the vendors get to pick based on seniority. The top guys who have been here the longest, I mean - what? - some have been there 30 years.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. The guys who have been there for really long get to pick first. They get to pick the best products.

SMITH: And it's not a coincidence. They're in a stadium. The product they all want to sell is beer.

WALSH: Arsenault (ph), Bud Light out of right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Coors out of home, Broph. Thank you.

WALSH: Hurley (ph).

HURLEY: Blue Moon. That's the last beer, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yeah, that's the last beer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Yeah. So he'll take that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: All right, beer's gone.

SMITH: Hey, there's only so many beers lot. So after they're gone, vendors have to start thinking about it - have to start using strategy because every night at the ballpark is different.

FOUNTAIN: You see guys checking their weather apps. They want to know - what's the temperature at the start of the game. What's the temperature at the end of the game? What's the relative humidity (laughter).

SMITH: I love it.

FOUNTAIN: On a hot day, you can make a killing selling lemonade or water or frozen lemonade.

SMITH: But this is not a hot night. I checked my fancy weather app. Thanks, Yahoo. It's 49 degrees out there. By the time the pick gets to No. 20, the 20th person on the list Jose Magrass, he's in a tough spot.

JOSE MAGRASS: Today is going to be the worst night of the year - most likely.

FOUNTAIN: The worst night of the year?

MAGRASS: So far. It's cold. It's a Wednesday. There's no giveaway. Like, last night it was cold, but there was a Mookie Betz bobblehead giveaway.

SMITH: What's your strategy tonight?

MAGRASS: Something warm. It'll either be hot dogs or you could take pretzels or maybe a hot chocolate.

FOUNTAIN: I'm going to follow Jose around tonight because he is a legend. He was even a legend six years ago when I was working there. He was so cool, I didn't even get to talk to him. So that's why tonight I am stoked to figure out what he's going to pick and his strategy in deciding what he's going to pick.

SMITH: Jose is No. 20, the 20th pick. He never gets to sell beer at home plate. And yet, he consistently sells more product than anyone else at the park, which means more commission.

FOUNTAIN: What's your rank in commission last year?

MAGRASS: I was first.

FOUNTAIN: Year before?


FOUNTAIN: Year before?

MAGRASS: It was first. It's been first for a bit (laughter).

FOUNTAIN: If I were a betting man, I would bet that Jose is going to have the highest commission tonight. You can tell, just by looking at him, he's a good salesman.

SMITH: He's got this deep tan, which he told us he got spending a few weeks at a spring training selling items down there. And we keep pestering him until we get him to admit...

MAGRASS: I consider myself - the best.

FOUNTAIN: The reason Jose is the best is because he doesn't just guess what he's going to pick. He is meticulous about the pick. He even has a spreadsheet at home where he analyzes what picks work the best.

SMITH: Jose doesn't just look at the temperature when he makes his pick. He evaluates who else is selling his product.

MAGRASS: How many guys are selling it? Who's the possible guys you're up against? So there's a big difference of - Mikey's (ph) really good. Me and Mikey try not to sell with each other.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, 'cause it's competition?


FOUNTAIN: Jose looks at the list, has that all in his head and makes his pick.

MAGRASS: I'll take dogs in the bleachers.

SMITH: You just took hot dogs out of the bleachers.

MAGRASS: Yes. Stepping the bleachers.

WALSH: Dogs are gone.

SMITH: After Jose picks, the next tier, they go with the cold-weather play.

WALSH: Cocoa's gone.

FOUNTAIN: They're hoping no one brought their heavy jacket to the game.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Ch- ch- ch- ch- chowder.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I'm going to take a pizza in the bleachers.

WALSH: Za - pizza's gone.

FOUNTAIN: Notice, Robert, they're not just picking what they're selling tonight. They're picking the territory. So like, hot dogs out of home, pizza in the bleachers - because they're sizing up their customers by how much they paid for their baseball tickets. When I was working there, Diet Coke sold really well around home plate because, you know, that's where the vain people sit. Coke - regular Coke sold much better in the bleachers.

SMITH: Now. I know, Nick, that you are rooting for your idol, Jose. He is the best. He's the - he's the Derek Jeter...

FOUNTAIN: Oh, cheap shot - he's the Pedro Martinez.

SMITH: He is the Pedro Martinez of vendors at Fenway. But I have a good feeling about some of the younger talent tonight. While those old guys - they've been here forever, they're getting their sweet picks, their beer at home - there are some lean and hungry teenagers standing in the back of the garage just waiting for their chance.

MITCHELL LYON: Hi. My name is Mitchell Lyon. I'm a vendor at Fenway Park.

SMITH: And you have been working how long here?

LYON: About two weeks.

SMITH: (Laughter) Five games.

LYON: Yes, roughly.

SMITH: Mitch is a senior in high school. He's a tall kid, sort of a goofy smile. And as the new guy, he will choose almost near the end of the list.

FOUNTAIN: He doesn't even think about picking hot dogs or beer. They're out of his league.

SMITH: What's the dream? Like, maybe if people didn't show up - maybe - is there a dream for today?

LYON: Well, peanuts I could probably get. I've heard people getting peanuts on their first year, and they make very good money off of that.

SMITH: So if for some reason there's peanuts there tonight?

LYON: Oh, I would take those immediately, yes. That'd be a...

SMITH: Have you ever thrown them before?

LYON: No. But I could figure that one out pretty easily.

FOUNTAIN: There is no way he's going to get peanuts tonight (laughter). I had to work for three years before I could sell peanuts at Fenway.

SMITH: But you can see that Mitch is ambitious. He's younger. He's the new Jose if he can just get a good pick. Mitch goes second to last, and he has two choices. He can sell this season's newest product Cheetos popcorn.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, that's a loser.

SMITH: Apparently, you will get heckled by the Boston fans if you run up and down the stands screaming Cheetos popcorn. Or his other choice is water - in the cheap seats.

LYON: I'll take water out of bleachers then.

FOUNTAIN: Mitch is in for a really long night. Some of my worst memories from this job were selling cold drinks on a really cold night. It was terrible.

SMITH: No, no, no. Mitch has a plan.

LYON: You basically just have to yell water. (Yelling, affected voice) Get your water here, ice cold water.

FOUNTAIN: I'm going to give you a tip that I learned working here.

LYON: Sure thing.

FOUNTAIN: It's a cold night. Don't say ice cold.

LYON: Sure thing. I can do that.

FOUNTAIN: (In affected voice) Warm water.

LYON: Get your lukewarm water here (laughter).

FOUNTAIN: Hold it in your hands.

LYON: It's going to be warm. That will solve all (laughter).

SMITH: See, the kid learns fast. He is smart. Mitch is the underdog. I'm going to root for him.

FOUNTAIN: Good luck with that one.

SMITH: The pick is officially over. Everyone grabs their stuff. They put on their uniform which is basically this bright, yellow T-shirt. Each T-shirt has a specific number on the back.

FOUNTAIN: Jose, the legend - he's No. 1.

SMITH: And Mitch, the rookie selling water, 101.

FOUNTAIN: They head to some kitchens to pick up their product.

SMITH: And we head up to the stands to watch the game - and the vendors.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: He's out of there.

SMITH: Next time you are at a ballgame, I recommend that you look away from the game for just a moment and just watch the vendors. They are amazing. Every second counts because every second they can save running up the stairs or running down the stairs or doing a quicker, more efficient transaction is another second they can use to find another customer, to make another sale.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, it was really hard work. The first year I worked there, I had to switch from glasses to contacts because I was sweating so much.

SMITH: I have to say, watching it, they have a superefficient system here.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, but it wasn't always like this. When I worked here, there was a manager in the corporate office who decided at the beginning of the night what mix of products were being sold where - three guys selling Coke out of right field, two cotton candy guys in the bleachers, top-down decision-making.

SMITH: But what do the suits know at Aramark? The vendors are the ones who can feel the temperature drop five degrees, can suddenly read the mood of the crowd when there's no bobblehead giveaway.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. By letting them run the pick, by having their paychecks dependent on how much they sell, they figure out the best allocation of the products.

SMITH: It makes way more sense to have the vendors make the decisions 'cause they have all the information.

FOUNTAIN: All right, enough theory, I want to go see how our guys are doing.

MAGRASS: Hey, dogs.

FOUNTAIN: OK. It's been really hard to chase down Jose, the No. 1 performer, the self-proclaimed best vendor in the ballpark, perhaps in the United States because...

SMITH: He moves really fast.

FOUNTAIN: He moves really fast. But we've finally sat up here in the bleachers so we can watch him work.

MAGRASS: Hey, hot dogs.

FOUNTAIN: He scans back and forth. He sees somebody. He puts down his box of hot dogs. Boom, wax paper.

MAGRASS: Yellow stuff, red stuff?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Ketchup, please.

FOUNTAIN: Bun - there goes the dog.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: All you. Thank you.

MAGRASS: Appreciate, thank you so much.

FOUNTAIN: He's passing it down.

SMITH: He's already passing it. It's done.

MAGRASS: Hey, dogs.

FOUNTAIN: So that was, like, three seconds.

MAGRASS: [LB] Yeah, I'm going slower today, though.


FOUNTAIN: Hands a little cold?

MAGRASS: It's a little cold - a little frigid, sales a little slow. That's for one? You give me a 20?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah (unintelligible).

SMITH: He's the master. Look at how quick he gives the change. He's looking around - nope, no sales. He runs down. Boom, boom, boom, boom down the stairs - look, he's, like, hauling ass down the stairs.

FOUNTAIN: It takes a very spry man to run down stairs. And look.

SMITH: And somebody grabbed him. So there we go - wax paper, bun - there goes the dog - in his hand.

MAGRASS: Thank you, guys.

FOUNTAIN: You'll notice that he has the money in his other hand while he's making the hot dog.

MAGRASS: Hey, hot dogs.

SMITH: This cannot be hygienic.

MAGRASS: Hey, hot dogs.

SMITH: Guy's handling a lot of money and a lot of hot dogs.

FOUNTAIN: He tries his best.

MAGRASS: Thank you so much. Thank you. Three-dollar tip, not bad, not bad, no. They're nice, see that?

FOUNTAIN: It's amazing watching a master at work.

MAGRASS: Hey, dogs.

SMITH: I notice something about Jose. As soon as he makes a sale, he is scanning the crowd. And he's looking not just for other sales, but for his competitors. You can see him run up to an aisle, spot another hot dog vendor in the aisle and immediately pivot and pick another section.

FOUNTAIN: You don't run to where the hot dog is. You run to where the hot dog is going to be.

SMITH: (Laughter) You are a vending guru, Nick Fountain. Let's see how my pick Mitch, the underdog, the rookie - let's see how he's doing.

FOUNTAIN: All right. Head up the stairs.

SMITH: To the top.

FOUNTAIN: Robert, it's pretty exhausting, right?

SMITH: That is terrible. Hey, that's my hotel right there.

FOUNTAIN: Look at that. Welcome to the cheap seats, high up in the bleachers.

SMITH: So this is the section that Mitch has chosen to sell his water in. Like, this is his territory tonight, and we're watching him down there. He's got his water. He just is about to make a sale, it looks like. He went out of view.


SMITH: How's your night going?

LYON: It's going pretty good. I sold a case so far.

SMITH: Yeah?

LYON: Yeah. Water.


FOUNTAIN: He's actually having a good night.

SMITH: He is. But look at how slow he is with the money. He's just, like...

FOUNTAIN: He doesn't have the technique down.

SMITH: He hands the water over.

LYON: Here is two. Ten-fifty is going to be your change. Oh, my God.

FOUNTAIN: You're struggling with that money there.

LYON: Oh, yeah, the ten just wouldn't come out. That's all.

LYON: Hope you enjoy, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: Thank you.

SMITH: OK. It is a little bit of a rough night for Mitch, I will admit. But I see a lot of potential here. And his whole, like, struggling with the water, struggling with the change thing - it's getting a lot of sympathy from the crowd. I saw one gentleman give him a nice 50 cent tip.

SMITH: So you just gave him a little tip?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: Yeah. You know, it's a lot of stairs up here (laughter).

SMITH: I will say the vendors are not eager to talk about their tips, but clearly, this has to be a major perk of the job.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, the summers I was working there, I had no shortage of cash money in my wallet (laughter).

SMITH: There's a reason why, if you notice at the park, the price of water is $4.75. A hot dog is $5.50. And so when you were there, did you really, like, slow roll the change?

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, when I was working there, I was selling Coke and Diet Coke a lot. And it was $4.25. So I would give the person $5 back. And then I would hold up the quarters and I would say - hey, guy, you want your quarters? Like, you want me to pass these three dirty metal objects down this row of people?

SMITH: (Laughter) So obviously, most people were like keep the quarters.


SMITH: Now, Nick, there is a real economic lesson here at the ballpark about the fundamental nature of competition...

FOUNTAIN: Third out - hold up, we're going to interrupt the podcast. We're going to sing "Sweet Caroline". Boston tradition.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Sweet Caroline - bomp, bomp, bomp - good times never seemed so good - so good, so good, so good. I've been inclined - bomp, bomp, bomp - to believe they never would, but now I look at the night...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #13: Attention please, now pitching for the Rays...

FOUNTAIN: What was that you were saying, Robert?

SMITH: (Laughter) I was actually going to make a serious point about productivity gains and distributed decision-making and ruthless efficiency of process. But as we were singing, I did notice something. It's past 9 p.m. The Red Sox are up 7-3 against the Rays. The crowd is sort of starting to go home.

FOUNTAIN: Most of the vendors are done for the night. They're down below, counting their money, eating leftover hot dogs and chicken nuggets. Mitch, the rookie, the underdog, he's nowhere to be seen.

SMITH: But you know who is still around? Jose. Jose is still hustling. In fact, he is the last vendor in the park. And because he has no competition, he has left the bleachers. It is a sight to see. He's doing this whole loop of the stadium. First base, home, third base - everyone's territory - running up and down the stairs, selling the last hot dogs to the last fans. In some ways, like, this is why Jose is the best. He just stays out longer. He works harder than everyone else. This is what I came here looking for.

FOUNTAIN: You thought it was the spreadsheet or the strategy. No, it's really just hustling harder.

SMITH: Jose is the last vendor to return from the stands. He's the last one to cash out. He is the last one to hang up his number one yellow shirt. At any point today, did you watch any of the game? Did you look out on the Stadium? Or...

MAGRASS: I looked twice. I'll check the inning to see where I'm at and how much time I have left to sell. And I'll check the time as well. There was one play that something happened. I looked up, but it was - it was a home run for whoever we're playing today, which (laughter)...

SMITH: You don't know who - who you're playing today?

MAGRASS: No. I don't know who we're playing today.

FOUNTAIN: You spent 3 hours in a ballpark.

MAGRASS: I know. And I'm a huge baseball fan. Yeah, I'm not sure who's in today.

FOUNTAIN: It's the Tampa Bay Rays.

MAGRASS: Is it Tamp (ph) Bay? Oh, it felt like Tampa Bay. I tell you what, that feels about right (laughter).

SMITH: I think he was deeply embarrassed by this. But he had nothing to be embarrassed about. We got his final numbers. He sold 270 hot dogs - 270 hot dogs. That works out to $1,500 worth of hot dogs.

FOUNTAIN: We did the math. He probably made a commission of around $200, $250 dollars. Maybe, we're guessing here, he got $150 dollars in tips. Bottom line, somewhere in the ballpark of $400 - not bad for a cold Wednesday.

SMITH: What Jose called the worst night of the year. Mitch, our rookie water kid, our underdog - he left early. I mean, he's a high school student. He has a long train ride back to the suburbs where he lives. His parents don't like him staying out too late. But we called him up to see how his night went.

FOUNTAIN: Hey, Mitch.

SMITH: Hello?

LYON: Hello. How's it going?

SMITH: Mitch says he had a much better night than he thought he was going to.

FOUNTAIN: How many waters did you end up selling?

LYON: Ninety six.

FOUNTAIN: Ninety six - not bad for a newbie. He told us he probably made $60 in commission. And we're guessing here, but maybe $20 or $30 in tips, so $80 or $90 for a couple hours' work.

SMITH: That's great. But Jose made, we're thinking, around $400 dollars. Mitch made around $100.

FOUNTAIN: No contest.

SMITH: On the numbers. But you know what? Mitch did remember who the Sox were playing that night. And he told us there was this one other thing.

LYON: I was just standing in the back of the stadium. And all of a sudden I looked out, and I saw the whole stadium. I saw all the players, all the fans and it was just - wows me.

FOUNTAIN: And how long did that feeling last?

LYON: It lasted about two or three seconds. And then I got back to work (laughter). But I still remember it.


SMITH: Nick, who really had the better night?


SMITH: Yeah (laughter), he sold a lot of hot dogs.


TAIO CRUZ: (Singing) I want to celebrate and live my life, saying hey, oh. Baby, let's go.

SMITH: We'd love to hear what you think of the show, especially Boston Red Sox fans. Come on. Come on, we want to hear from you - planetmoney@npr.org. Or you can tweet us @planetmoney.

FOUNTAIN: Special thanks to Ms. Rosalie Esteve (ph) who was the career counselor at my high school and helped me get the job at Fenway. Also to Jake Graham-Felsen, Sean Ryan (ph) and Devin Garrity (ph) for teaching me everything I know about vending.

SMITH: You had a real future in vending. How did you get into radio?

FOUNTAIN: The reason I have a job at NPR is 'cause I had an internship at NPR. And we want you to know that we are soliciting intern applications right now. If you're smart, if you can hustle, if you're in college or if you've graduated in the last year, go to our website npr.org/money.

SMITH: And if you're looking for another show to listen to, may I suggest Ask Me Another. Ask Me another is like a trivia night at a bar, but funnier. I've been to their live shows. They are hilarious. You can listen at npr.org/podcasts or, of course, as always, on our beloved NPR One app. I'm Robert Smith.

FOUNTAIN: I'm Nick Fountain. Thanks for listening.


CRUZ: (Singing) I throw my hands up in the air sometimes saying ay, oh...

SMITH: You know, while we were in the park, you did show me your secret weapon for selling drinks on a cold night.

FOUNTAIN: (Singing, to the tune of "Sweet Caroline") Sweet Diet Coke, $4.25, soda never tasted so good - so good, so good, so good.

SMITH: And would people respond well to that?

FOUNTAIN: No, it was pretty much boos and throwing of trash at me.

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