Stadium beer sales are a costly microcosm of the beer industry itself.
Kevin Zelko is a sales manager for Alpha Distributing in Kent, Wash., and makes his living sending beer brands including AleSmith, Epic, Boulder Beer, De Garde and Trinity to market. However, for more than a decade, he’s also been selling beers during Seattle Mariners baseball games at Safeco Field and Seattle Seahawks football games at CenturyLink Field.
During the dozen years since he started vending at Safeco, Zelko’s seen exactly four winning Mariners seasons and watched attendance drop from an average of nearly 36,000 a game in 2004 to a low of 21,200 a game in 2012. This year, the Mariners have brought in roughly 25,000 fans a game thus far — well below Safeco’s nearly 48,000 capacity. To get even that many people to stay, the Mariners’ concessions partners at Centerplate have turned Safeco into a giant food court of sushi, “Ivar Dog” fish sandwiches, bubble tea and Belgian liege waffles. Meanwhile, the beer stand in Section 129 has become a favorite among beer bloggers, with two taps for cask-conditioned beers and ample tap space for local brewers like Schooner Exact, Georgetown and Black Raven.
In that same 12-year stretch, however, Zelko has watched the Seahawks’ average attendance drift well above CenturyLink’s 67,000 capacity as the team’s made three Super Bowl appearances, winning one in 2014 and failing to make the playoffs just three times. Though CenturyLink is covered by concessionaire Centerplate as well, Seahawks beer sponsor Bud Light and parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev get a much bigger push than Mariners sponsor MillerCoors and its Coors Light brand.
“At football, I don’t put any variety in my bin because I don’t want to yell out the names of seven different kinds of beers that aren’t going to move.”
That effect isn’t lost on Zelko. During his time as a vendor, he learned to vary his approach to each ballpark and change the mix in his bin accordingly. That variety (or lack thereof at Seahawks games) became just as important to his business as presentation and the speed of his transactions. That skill served him well during his transition from a career math and special-education teacher to his current position within the beer industry.
We spoke with Zelko about slinging stadium beers, transitioning into the greater beer industry and taking lessons from the fans of vastly different sports franchises:
MarketWatch: How did you get into vending?
Zelko: I started beer vending just about 12 years ago. I was a teacher, and one of my instructor’s assistants said ‘Hey man, need a summer gig? This is what I do. I sell beer at the stadium and it’s pretty good money.’ I said yes. I had nothing better to do, it was a good workout, it was good money and I was at a baseball stadium for most of the season.
When they start you out, you’re in the upper deck. You don’t have a ton of repeat customers, it’s really fun and you make a little bit of cash — like $125 a game most nights. The Mariners haven’t really filled that stadium in a long time. It was more of a fun extra gig to do, but five years into it a co-worker said ‘You’re killing it here, you’ve moved up and you’re beating the other vendors: You should try football. That’s where the real money is.’ After the first time, I made $400 and found that football was a better fit for scheduling. Baseball is 80 nights a year, football is about nine.
MarketWatch: You’ve sold beer for two Seattle franchises that have gone in very different directions in the last decade or so. How did that affect you as a beer vendor?
Zelko: The nature of the fan and of the experience is very different. With baseball, I have a much more social and interactive experience. Fans will want more flavors, and that includes beer, food and everything else. We have sushi at Mariners games.
The fans will want a more craft-beer experience at a baseball game vs. a football crowd, which is very much a Bud Light crowd. I found that, at baseball games, you’re more interactive and bring out more types of beer. Also, Safeco is the No. 1 ballpark for beer choices. It’s amazing to find cask-conditioned beer at stands and even bourbon-barrel-aged beers at stands. I’m very active in the local Seattle beer scene, and on our beer groups on Facebook, people will show a picture of what’s on tap that night.
At football, I don’t put any variety in my bin because I don’t want to yell out the names of seven different kinds of beers that aren’t going to move. At a football stadium, I carry Bud Light and Rainier. If you’re a Bud Light drinker, I’ll take care of you, but if you hate Bud Light — as many Seattleites do — I’ll carry Rainier. It’s kind of the “craft” choice.
MarketWatch: For Mariners games, how did the makeup of your bin change from the time you started vending to the year you finished?
Zelko: When I first started at Safeco, the variety wasn’t what it is today. We had a lot of Miller products. Along with the Miller variants, you’d have Bud Light, one or two craft and some Redhook [Ale Brewery] varieties that you could fill your bin with. I’d bring that out, and baseball fans would be willing to take a chance on beers they’d never heard of.
But the more variables you put in your bin means the more transactions you’re going to have to make while filling your bin, which slows you down a lot. As a vendor, I’ve learned that the less variables that I give to my customers and to the back end [at the ballpark], the less time I’ll spend loading and more I’ll sell as a vendor.
MarketWatch: So without knowing exactly what will be available or your customers’ preferences, do you have to approach beer vending at baseball games as a long season and make adjustments along the way?
Zelko: Yes, you have to key in and learn who the customers are. Also, every year your area in the stadium might change. Once you establish your area within the stadium, you’ll develop regulars. You’ll learn 132, Row R, Seat 5 really loves one beer, and you learn to carry specific choices based on the regulars you develop.
MarketWatch: Did vending inspire you to work in the beer industry?
Zelko: If you look at the steps to where I am as a beer distributor, teaching really built into that. I worked with very stressful caseloads with emotionally and behaviorally disabled students. I’d come home at the end of a tough day and I would end up in bars and restaurants having beers with friends. It helped me learn about beer, helped me know bar staff and kind of put me into the community. When I decided to end my career as a teacher, I found the craft beer community to be a good fit for me.
Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.