You cannot probe very far into the workings of Harry M. Stevens Inc. without hearing the hot dog story.
The hot dog as we know it today was invented by the original Harry M. Stevens himself, the company claims in ignoring other pretenders to the weiner story, one very cold spring day in 1901.
Stevens, a British steelworker turned American sports concessionaire, sent his vendors out to buy German sausages and rolls when the crowd at the old New York Polo Grounds turned their frosty thumbs down at the traditional ice cream and peanuts.
The hawkers returned to the stands yelling: “Get them while they’re hot!” A New York Post cartoonist asked Stevens what his new item was called.
“Dachshund sandwiches,” Stevens said.
“But he couldn’t spell dachshund, so when he drew the cartoon, he called them hot dogs,” recounted Sandy Rose, a Stevens senior vice president and direct descendent of Harry M.
Harry M. Stevens Inc. is a company that cares a great deal about both tradition and hot dogs. The first company ever formed to cater to the sporting world, it has never strayed far from its original business of selling the fans food, drink and souvenirs. It has had some of its clients, like the now-San Francisco Giants, for nearly a century.
Still privately owned, Harry M. Stevens has begun to choose some of its top officers from outside the family. But all its stock is held by Stevenses, and there are at least a dozen descendents of the original Harry working for the company now.
“My elder lad just came in,” said Homer Rose in a recent interview. A senior vice president, Rose is also one of the four family elders who handle the clan’s business affairs.
The company will be 100 years old in 1987. It was born in Columbus, Ohio, where Harry Stevens decided to print and sell scorecards for the local baseball games. Legend has it Stevens invented a special slogan for the hawkers: “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.”
The Giants baseball team, for whom Stevens served the dachshund sausage, lured him from the family homestead in Niles, Ohio, in 1894. The company still services the Giants, now at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Stevens also has long-time clients in Churchill Downs in Louisville, Fenway Park in Boston and Madison Square Garden in New York. It caters to the fans at the Houston Astrodome, the New Jersey Meadowlands Sports Complex that is home to the football Giants and Jets, Shea Stadium in New York and Hialeah Race Track in Florida.
Hot dogs are still their biggest seller. But weiner tastes vary from region to region, according to Sandy Rose. The South prefers its hot dogs bland and cherry-red, the Midwest likes them smoky and the West favors a dog with a softer bite. New Englanders like bland hot dogs with natural casings, he said, and New Yorkers demand spicier hot dogs with more beef.
In his youth, Sandy Rose once ate 18 hot dogs in a single work day. They were, he said grimly, the New York version. “I call them three-day dogs because they stay with you three days.”
The old days are never very far away from the spirit of Harry M. Stevens Inc.'s corporate headquarters, where the walls are covered with sepia photographs of bygone heroes like Babe Ruth, who called Harry M. “my second Dad.”
“It was granddad who insisted Babe turn over some of his money for investment,” Homer Rose said. “That kept Mrs. Ruth comfortable throughout her life.”
The company has good reason to recall its old days with nostalgia. Still a successful business, Harry M. Stevens has had to scrap harder for its profits. Margins are tighter, competition keener and work hours longer.
With 7,000 full-time employees and about 20,000 part-time workers, the firm ranks about in the middle of the dozen or so firms that cater to most of the nation’s stadiums and race tracks.
Most of its competitors are chips in large conglomerates, and get most of their profit from related businesses, like catering schools and other large institutions.
“We talk about diversification all the time--especially the younger people,” said Homer Rose without enthusiasm. The company has begun making some minor forays into other businesses, including a corporate cleaning service and a special functions caterer for outdoor concerts.
Harry M. Stevens Inc. prides itself on having high-level company personnel on hand whenever a game or race is in operation, the better to provide for quick decision-making in a pinch. It is a tradition that clients praise, but it is bone-breaking for the personnel involved.
Homer Rose speaks fondly of the times when one sporting season came to a halt weeks before the next one began. The mention of night games brings a look of pain to his face.
“To me, the greatest burden of the concessions business is the night work,” he said.
Pamela Stevens says her father, another of the family elders, was perpetually on the job throughout his career. “I never knew my father when I was growing up. He was always at work.”
All this effort is aimed at squeezing out profits in a business where margins are extremely thin--as thin, one Stevens executive claimed, as those in the supermarket industry.
The white-tablecloth restaurants that are the newest catering wrinkle in most stadiums do not produce any profits, according to Sandy Rose.
“The restaurants are an accommodation to our patrons. We pay very high rent. We have no turnover,” he said. “If we can break even, we’re very happy with it.”
The stadiums and race tracks are also demanding a higher proportion of the take than in the old days, when 20% was considered a fair share for the owners. “Now it’s 40% or maybe more,” Homer Rose said.
Souvenirs provide the best margins in the concessions business, but they are vulnerable to the swings in a team’s fortunes. Beverages account for about half the sales in the stadiums, but worries about drunken driving and rowdiness have cut into beer distribution.
In the Meadowlands, for instance, Stevens has stopped selling beer during the final quarter of football games, and no longer hawks alcoholic beverages in the stands themselves.
It is a different world than the one Homer Rose was first introduced to as a boy, when he left the family home in Ohio each summer to visit the Saratoga race track in New York.
There, he sold orange juice while his grandfather handled the concessions at the race track--a contract he won thanks to Mr. Whitney’s horse.
“In 1901, William C. Whitney’s horse won the English Derby,” Rose said. “Mr. Whitney ordered champagne for everyone in the clubhouse. When it came time for the bill, the concessionaire charged Mr. Whitney at the top price.
“Mr. Whitney paid the bill, but then he told the secretary of the Jockey Club: ‘Find me another concessionaire.’ ”
Summer also was the time for baseball. At the turn of the century, Harry M. Stevens’ office served as an unofficial press club for reporters who had not yet come to be treated as something special by team owners.
While the Stevens’ employees counted the money after a game, the press and favored players were treated to a drink from a bottle kept locked away in the safe.
“This is the only place I’ve ever seen where they keep the money out in the open and the whiskey in the safe,” said a baseball columnist.