Popcorn, Pizza, and Pretzels
by Tamlin Bason
TSL Extra, Issue #12

On Saturday mornings, Bobbi Hinkle can’t afford to sleep in late. She, her two sisters and daughter wake up at 5 a.m. and start preparing food for the day ahead. In a sense, what Hinkle and her family does is no different from what any other southern family does on a Saturday. They spend time together, and enjoy the outdoors. They uphold the southern tradition by cooking some old fashioned barbecue and, of course, they watch college football.

Well there is one small difference: Hinkle and family cater to some 56,000 Virginia Tech football fans every time the Hokies play at home.

The three sisters, dubbed "The Three Little Pigs," hail from West Virginia but can be seen every Saturday under the West Virginia school flag on the alumni side of Lane Stadium. They began their business 17 years ago, selling beef-bbq sandwiches at the West Virginia State fair but have since moved into different venues.

"We had a recipe for a beef sauce that we knew was really good," said Hinkle. "Back then everyone was doing pork, so we wanted to be different."

So, why the swine connotations when the sisters sell beef?

Hinkle said that her and her sisters, Linda Powell and Ernestine Atkinson, used to dine every Sunday with their parents.

"One Sunday, we were all sitting around eating and somebody said that we all ate like pigs… We just started laughing. Since we had been looking off a name, we just kind of used it," Hinkle said.

Recently the trio has been joined by Hinkle’s daughter, Amber Hinkle, but they opted to keep the name despite the four members of the group. Bobbi Hinkle prides her business on being health conscious.

"We pull all our own beef by hand and we make sure there is no fat in it," Hinkle said.

Hinkle also said that being from West Virginia, division among the Big East Rivals runs strong.

"We have family that went to both schools. My daughter went to West Virginia, so did Ernestine…Ernestine’s husband went to Tech and it was his idea for us to come sell here," said Hinkle.

The Three Little Pigs make up one of the many independently-run concession stands seen at every Tech football game. There are approximately 40 concession stands in the entire stadium. Of those, 30 are owned and operated by Virginia Tech. The other 10 stands are operated by independent companies, such as Hinkle’s. They are given the space for free and then are asked to share their profits with the university.

According to Doug Dodson, the food service director at Virginia Tech, the independent operators are usually asked to share anywhere between 25-and-50% of their take home profits with the university.

This marks the first year that "The Three Little Pigs" have sold concessions at games.

Other newcomers this year include Burkley Roberts and Joe Lambert. You may have seen their merchandise in the stands and mistaken it for a weapon. Their stand, which is also located on the West side of the stadium, sells turkey legs. The 1½ to 2-pound leg serves as a competent adversary to hunger, and with a flip of the wrist, the thick bone is a great deterrent for anyone who tries to smuggle a taste from the owner.

The unusual product is in a sense a byproduct of a tandem of unusual partners. Roberts also teaches martial arts and sells tropical ice at state fairs, and Lambert bounces around the tent doing numerous things at once. When Tech played Boston College, Lambert had his left hand bandaged but continued to hold a tong in his right hand so he could still tend to the grill.

Lambert jokes that the turkey leg is only a weapon "if you keep it frozen."

The two sell their poultry under a large white banner, reading "Turkey Legs". Lambert said that despite the fact that Tech’s mascot is itself a turkey, business has been booming.

"We are all huge VT supporters and we are not scared to eat our own!" Lambert said with the conviction of a high school football coach rallying his players at halftime.

However, the independents are not the only ones making money. Virginia Tech’s 30 stands sell a tremendous amount of food, much of it more traditional than mammoth turkey legs.

Dodson went on to say that every Saturday, 6,000 hot dogs, 15,000-30,000 sodas, 2,500 pretzels and a few thousand bags of peanuts are consumed by fans. The school concession stands employ anywhere from 300 to 350 people and are often run by local community groups, including the Humane Society, and local fraternities and sororities. The groups operate the stands and share the profits. The rest of the money goes back to the school in forms of scholarships and other improvements, according to Dodson.

Pi Sigma Epsilon, the business fraternity on campus, runs a concession stand on the East side of the stadium. The organization panders popcorn, peanuts, candy, soda and bottled water. The fraternity usually fields eight people for each game, with four working the first half and a different four taking over after halftime.

According to Pippy Kravchonok, Football Concessions Project Manager for Pi Sigma Epsilon, the fraternity takes home 10% of the profits made each game. Since the stand typically sells between $1,500 and $2,100 a game, the fraternity will rake in a few hundred bucks a game, and close to a thousand dollars a year.

"Concessions involves a lot of work and long hours, but it's a great way to make a significant amount of money for our organization," said Kravchonok.

In the previous years, Dominoes Pizza and Taco Bell have been the only two large corporations allowed to sell their products in the stands. However, after last year, the contracts ran out and Tech out bid Dominoes. Not to fear, pizza lovers still have choices.

"We not have Top Hat Pizza," said Dodson. "People have been going more and more, and it has been getting better with each home game."

Something that fans won’t have a choice in is soft drink selection. The university recently signed a contract with Coca-Cola, limiting sales of any competitor’s products on the entire campus. Pepsi had sold its products at the stadium for the last 10 years but lost the bid to Coke this year.

Dodson, who himself graduated from Tech in 1982, says that it takes almost two weeks to get everything set up for games. Fortunately, every home game this season save two have been separated by two or more weeks.

"It takes a few days just to get the stadium cleaned up and everything organized," Dodson said.

One thing fans are sure to groan about is the price of concessions. At Lane Stadium, sodas are sold for anywhere from $2.75-$3.00, depending on the size. Hotdogs sell for $2.50-3.50, depending on condiment preference. Even the price of a candy bar can cost up to two bucks. Cracker Jacks sell for $2.50, and just a pretzel can put a good divot in a hungry fan's pocketbook. However, inflated prices at public events are hardly anything new, nor are they confined to Blacksburg.

Dodson said that he called school across the nation prior to the season to see if Tech’s prices were in line with other stadiums.

"On average our prices are still lower than a lot of places," said Dodson. "Before I make any changes in our prices, I call to see what everybody else is charging for the same products."

The prices are so high, because the school takes a cut out of every sale. Dodson said that since the school was making an investment by purchasing the goods, it had to charge extra to make a profit.

Dodson would not comment on the amount of money that Tech makes of concessions every year, but simple math can give an idea of how much it is. If 6,000 hot dogs are sold every game, at an average of $3.00 a sale multiplied by six home games, the total comes to $108,000. That is just for hot dogs, and keep in mind that many sell for more than $3.00. Assuming 20,000 sodas are sold, again at an average of $3.00 a pop, then the total for soda is $360,000.

Marketing ploys, such as selling sodas in collector editions cups (featuring, among others, Lee Suggs, Ben Taylor and Frank Beamer), have been used to try to increase sales.

"People come up and ask about the cups a lot, but I don’t know if it has improved sales," said Dodson. "Sometimes you see people walking through the stands after games picking them up, so if nothing else it helps our cleanup crew."

With the new stadium expansion, the concessions department will also grow. Dodson says that he plans to put another six to eight stands in the South end of the stadium once renovations are complete.

Clearly the concessions at football games is a lucrative market for Virginia Tech, but Dodson is also responsible for selling at basketball games.

He says that basketball season is easier, because there is less preparation for the games. There is no grilling involved and there are fewer fans. Despite the success of the women’s basketball team, Dodson says that men’s games are better for sales.

However, basketball games are far off on the horizon. For at least a few more weekends, Hinkle and her sisters will be getting up early and traveling down 460. Roberts and Lambert will be grilling their gargantuan products, serving them with a smile and a quip. Dodson will be on the phone for hours at a time ordering more food and organizing the huge pantry located in the stadium. Kravchonok and her compatriots will be missing half of each home game as they try to raise funds for their fraternity.

Concessions at sporting events date back as far as anyone remembers. Just look at the famous song. Ever wonder why "root, root, root for the home team," comes in the second verse, whereas "buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks," is in the first verse?

Bon appetit!



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