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The doors open at Miller Park on a hot June afternoon, fans filtering in first in single file to get their ticket scanned, and then taking off scattershot through the ballpark. Children pull their parents to the gift shop, reaching for stuffed Chorizos and mini bats. The beer line forms quickly, brats ordered by the pair.
One line that forms quickly and remains constant throughout the innings of a long Milwaukee Brewers game is for nachos, where fans grab a plate, bowl or souvenir Brewers batting helmet and fill it with chips, toppings and cheese – lots of cheese.
"That's a lot of cheese," Sportservice operations manager John Clope said simply.
Not unlike the front office and coaches on the field, Clope and commissary manager Michael Ruiz use statistics to predict how much cheese will be consumed on any given day, and any given season. With the Brewers' attendance topping the 3 million mark for the last several years, and with additional home games being played in the 2008 and 2011 postseasons, they can't afford to be wrong.
After all – the cheese is king.
"We keep track of what we sell, so Mike just goes and looks at if we have a six-game home stand coming up and they anticipate 30,000 to 40,000 per game, he has the history of what we sold at a comparable home stand," Clope said.
Problems invariably arise in the day-to-day operations of feeding tens of thousands of fans at each game, but Clope says they've never run out of cheese. Nothing catches the group by surprise, even as the Brewers extended their season last year with a deep run into the National League Championship Series.
"It's all in the historical data," Ruiz said. "We knew the games were going to happen, we knew it was going to be crowded and (distributor Sysco) had enough product in house with anticipation that we would play every game here at home. The cheese companies were pretty hospitable with us. They definitely understood we had a playoff and upped their production and had the product in house."
At most ballparks, nachos are popular fare, but Sportservice introduced a more Wisconsin-centric product in the form of fried cheese curds in 2008.
Sportservice ordered over 20,000 pounds of cheese curds last season from another local dairy – the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery – to keep up with demand.
"We just took a shot a few years ago to see how they would go and they just took off," Clope said. "We filled over 50,000 orders last year."
Added Ruiz: "The fried cheese curds are probably one of the biggest hits we've had."
A new addition to the park last year was a stand called "Hot Cheese" on the Loge Level in the right field stands which sells just grilled cheese sandwiches, and it has quickly become a go-to item for fans. It sold enough to bring it back in 2012 and total sales are up nearly 70 percent over last year.
"Some of its trial and error," Clope said of trying out new dairy products. "The reps will bring the new, hot items that are out there in to us and if it's something we can do, we give it a shot. If it works it works, if it doesn't we try something else."
Because the park is dealing with such mass quantities and Sportservice is a national company that serves other professional venues, there is a bidding process for the nacho cheese that Gehl's happened to win.
"They've got good machines, they've got good customer relations, too," Ruiz said.
Even though Sportservice is a national company that works at other sports venues, it makes sure to take advantage of Wisconsin's extensive dairy options. It is open to local representatives introducing new ideas, and loves working "in house," so to speak.
"We prefer to buy Wisconsin whenever we can," Clope said.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.