Nolan Ryan Beef wins major league battle over hot dogs

Posted Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Hot dogs are serious business at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Last year, the Rangers sold more than 1.5 million hot dogs during the baseball season, which the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council said was the most sold at any major league stadium.

All those frankfurters add up. One variety weighs as much as a pound, stretches 2 feet long and can set you back $26. Most start at $5, and a 2.6-ounce version is sold on $1 hot dog nights.

So when the contract expired on Fort Worth-based Classic Foods and its Sheriff Blaylock hot dogs, which replaced Hebrew National as the ballpark's supplier in 2009, the Rangers ignited something of a bidding war over who would be the club's "official" hot dog purveyor with braggin' rights and a contract to supply more than five varieties around the stadium.

The competition pitted two prominent major league figures against each other: Classic's chief, Drayton McLane Jr., the former owner of the Houston Astros; and Nolan Ryan, the Rangers' CEO and president who also is an investor in Nolan Ryan Beef and is its public face.

As he did many times on the mound, Ryan prevailed. Last week, the Rangers announced that Nolan Ryan Beef, which had sold a small quantity of hot dogs along with sausages and other beef items at concession stands in the past, had won the hot dog contract.

But the team insists that the company was given no breaks during negotiations because of the boss's role.

In fact, it outbid Classic "by more than 10 percent," said Jay Miller, executive vice president of Rangers enterprises and customer relations, who was directly involved in the negotiations.

Miller, 53, previously worked for Ryan's minor league team in Round Rock.

Classic, located just north of downtown, agreed to pay more than it had in the past but refused to go as high, or higher, than Ryan's offer, Miller told the Star-Telegram. Classic did not return calls seeking its side of the story.

The likely reason that Charlie Bradbury, CEO of Nolan Ryan Beef, was willing to outbid Classic is that the Rangers tie-in gives it a marketing halo effect for its retail supermarket sales, Miller went on. (The hot dogs are available at Kroger and Sprouts.)

Classic is food-service oriented with scant brand recognition and little or no supermarket sales, he added.

Neither side would say how much was the winning bid, but Bradbury said it was "six figures."

"We think it's possible we can hit 2 million hot dogs in a 12-month period," he said. "It's a new business for us, so I can be wrong about this."

In 1999, Ryan joined the venture formed with fellow ranchers who bred Beefmaster cattle. Sales outstripped supply of Beefmaster steers, so it buys various types as long as they meet the company's criteria, Bradbury said.

And sales have done well -- rising to $35 million last year from $19 million in 2010, he said. He declined to disclose profits for the privately held company.

Its steaks and briskets are packed in the Panhandle town of Cactus by Brazilian-owned JBS Swift & Co., and its German-Czech-style sausages and hot dogs, which were introduced two years ago, are made with trimmings (beef scraps from other processors) by Slovacek's, an ethnic sausage maker in Snook, a traditionally Czech community just outside College Station.

Asked why his company didn't use a major producer, Bradbury said, "Nolan wouldn't have gone for that."

And the living baseball legend is picky about his frankfurters. "Nolan wasn't really happy with the quality of hot dogs being sold at the stadium," Bradbury said.

There was much taste-testing and rejecting, he said.

"We had a lot of experimenting, a lot of really bad hot dogs until we got it right."

Slovacek's controller, Laura Doskocil, said Nolan Ryan Beef sent samples of high-end hot dogs and told the sausage maker the company wanted something of comparable quality to Hebrew National and Nathan's.

In the end, right meant a hickory-smoked beef hot dog that's about 20 percent fat -- relatively lean for a stadium wiener -- and made with seasoning, garlic, coriander, salt, pepper and paprika, and sodium nitrate to give it a 90-day shelf life, Bradbury said.

The company is thinking of creating an all-natural dog without chemical preservatives, possibly using celery juice or vinegar, but that could reduce shelf life to 35 days, he said.

Slovacek has ramped up to handle Rangers orders expected to reach 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of hot dogs, Doskocil said.

When Nolan Ryan Beef got the contract, Bradbury said, he told Slovacek's, "We got good news and bad news."

The bad news was the numerous variations in size, including $1 hot dogs, a small hot dog sold by roving vendors in the stands, regular-size 3.2-ounce hot dogs, the "Nolan Ryan All-American Dog," which is bigger and on a special bun, foot-long dogs and 2-foot-long Boomsticks.

In all, it would mean a 10 percent boost in production for Slovacek's, Doskocil added.

If there's a hero in this story for Nolan Ryan Beef, it might be an Oklahoma-reared concessions executive named Casey Rapp.

"We presented the idea originally to the Rangers that it would be a good match. It was our idea," said Rapp, 33, operations manager for Delaware North's Metroplex Sportservice, which handles the stadium catering.

"The Rangers had the ultimate decision on who is the official hot dog of the Texas Rangers."

And Rapp said he had urged Ryan to bring in his beef products -- hamburgers, brisket, sausages and prime rib -- when he took over as president in 2011 and later to compete for the overall hot dog contract.

The Ryan hot dogs will cost fans about 50 cents more, the cheapest rising from $4.50 to $5 this year, he said, adding that Classic could also have charged more this year.

"We feel for the product we're giving fans, it's negligible," Rapp said of the price increase.

"You can get a hot dog and a beer for $10," he said. "There aren't many other major league stadiums where you can say that."

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

Twitter: @bshlachter10

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